Recipe: Penne with Pancetta, Rosemary, Pine Nuts, and a Splash of Cream
I’m not a cream person. I don’t even like ice cream all that much. A few spoonfuls are wonderful, but after that it kind of lumps up in the back of my throat and triggers a gag response. What can I say? For me cream is strange, and I don’t find many uses for it in my kitchen, possibly because my Southern Italian soul runs deep, and there’s no cream at the bottom of the Mediterranean, only volcanic ash, which somehow seems more interesting to me.
A cream-based dish that in my opinion is the worst Italianish creation of all, and I’m not sure if it’s originally Italian or U.S.-born, is pasta with cream and smoked salmon. I find the smell of that utterly repulsive. I can’t even be at the same table with someone who has ordered it. I think it had its heyday in the 1990s. Luckily, you only find it at shopping mall restaurants these days. (Gee, can I be any more of a snoot?)
But there is one pasta-with-cream dish that I adore. It’s pink sauce, a simple tomato sauce with a splash of cream, the sauce of Italian-American restaurants alla the 1960s. At Ricky’s restaurant in Roslyn, Long Island, I ordered giant cheese ravioli bathed in a sauce the color of the vibrant pink roses my father grew along the walkway in front of our house. Sometimes I’d order cannelloni with that same sauce. It had a soft, voluptuous flavor, with only a hint of acidity. Pink sauce wasn’t anything we made at home. There we made red sauce, heavy with oregano and garlic, and usually the color of dried blood. I loved it. But then sometime in the 1970s, penne alla vodka became the craze. Every mom on our block made that quick mix of vodka, tomatoes, cream, and a pinch of hot pepper. They considered it elegant and so did I.
In the winter I crave pink sauce. I think of it in the winter, since it works best when you give it the body that canned tomatoes provide. My approach to creating one of these cream-kissed sauces is pretty rudimentary, but I do have some rules. First off, no garlic shall ever enter my pink sauce. In my opinion, what you want is a base of sweet cooked-down onions or shallots, especially when reduced in a little butter. Then a splash of booze, vodka, or cognac, or, what I prefer, the gentle warmth of Marsala or vermouth. Then the tomatoes go in. You’ll want to cook them quickly over high heat to retain their bright color and taste. Then a drizzle of cream or crème fraîche. I sometimes add pancetta or sausage, or mushrooms. A mild grating cheese like Parmigiano or grana Padano is essential to pull the flavors together in this lush mix. I love adding rosemary or a few fresh sage leaves, too. For this version I’ve also included toasted pine nuts. The gorgeous color and velvety texture of the dish makes me very happy. I don’t usually like that hackneyed description “comfort food,” but I must tell you, pink sauce is truly comforting.
Penne with Pancetta, Rosemary, Pine Nuts, and a Splash of Cream
(Serves 5 as a first course)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
1 ¼-inch chunk pancetta, cut into small dice
1 pound penne
1 large shallot, minced
1 large sprig rosemary, leaves chopped
A splash of sweet vermouth
1 35-ounce can plum tomatoes, well chopped, with the juice
A good pinch of piment d’Espelette (a Basque dried red chili), or another medium hot chile, such as Aleppo
¼ cup heavy cream
A handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
A chunk of grana Padano cheese
Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil.
In a large skillet, heat the butter and olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta, and let it get crisp.
Add a generous amount of salt to the water, and when it comes back to a boil, add the penne.
Add the shallot and rosemary to the skillet, and sauté until softened and fragrant. Add the vermouth, and let it boil away. Add the tomatoes with their juice, season with salt, and cook at a lively bubble for about 5 minutes. Now season with the Espelette, and add the cream and the pine nuts, giving the sauce a good stir. Simmer for about 2 minutes or so, and then turn off the heat. Taste for salt.
When the penne is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a warmed serving bowl. Add the sauce, the parsley, and a generous grating of grana Padano (about a heaping tablespoon or so). Toss well, and serve, bringing the rest of the cheese to the table.