Pasta dishes that wow? As something that most of us cook at home regularly, and such an easy dish – is it even really possible to get pasta wrong?! Well yes, yes it is. I spoke to Chef Vincenzo Guarino on his recent visit to Abu Dhabi along with Andrea Falcone, Head Chef at Roberto’s Abu Dhabi to find out the answers to the pasta questions we’ve all been wondering.
Visiting Roberto’s Abu Dhabi for a special event, Chef Vincenzo Gaurino hails from Naples and is currently Executive Chef at Pievano, a Michelin starred restaurant in Tuscany. And Head chef at Roberto’s Abu Dhabi since 2017, Andrea Falcone has recently been nominated for the coveted Head Chef of the Year award in the standalone restaurant category in the Caterer Middle East Awards.
Not all Italian food is er, Italian
The conversation starts out with the chefs explaining to me that Italian cuisine is based on the roots of their ancestors, history is an important part of Italian food – everyone remembers their grandma’s cooking. But simplicity is important. I ask about the biggest misconceptions of Italian food and the response is “Americanised food”. Al Fredo and creamy sauces are NOT Italian, Chef Guarino firmly states, shaking his head vigorously and rolling his eyes.
Use high quality ingredients
The most important thing to remember about pasta is to choose good quality products the chefs tell me, everything from the herbs, the oil, the tomatoes and the pasta should be good quality. But how do we guarantee good quality at home? It can be difficult for the home cook to really know how good quality the items we have access to in the supermarkets really are. Andrea Falcone and his team visit the Mina Port markets for much of their produce, and he explains that the tomatoes that can be found at the market are of similar quality and flavour to those you’d find in Italy, which is encouraging to know. Other regular purchases form the Mina Port include fish of course, and cucumber and herbs – parsley and dill are all fresh products that are good enough for many of the best chefs around town to use.
Simplicity is key
Guarino (with Falcone translating) also explains that in Italian cuisine it’s important not to cover the natural flavours of a dish, presentation is important and flavour is king. With one main ingredient in a dish, that ingredient should be allowed to shine, and never covered. But overall simplicity is the key, work with one main ingredient, don’t over complicate things.
In terms of a pasta dish, there are three very simple ingredients that are key to making a great pasta dish, a wonderful flavourful pasta dish: chilli, oil and garlic (Aglio et Olio). And look at spaghetti pomodoro the chefs explain, it’s so simple, but so delicious with just these three ingredients and the freshest tomatoes used. It doesn’t get much easier or more satisfying than that if you’re looking for a simple dish at home.
What to look out for
But even choosing the pasta itself can be a bit of a minefield, with supermarket shelves filled with rows upon rows of different dried pasta brands, where should we start?! The chefs tell me not to worry about the brand so much, though to certainly avoid the supermarket own brands (the ingredients aren’t high quality meaning the pasta lacks flavour and texture). And try to ignore the marketing speak – a brand that claims to be Italy’s favourite is almost certainly not the case. So what should we look for? Genuine Italian brands, with the best brands always being wrapped inside the box, not left loosely in the box, to protect it from the air and elements. Mancini and De Cecco brands are two of several that are mentioned as being worthy, and freely available in the shops here (though more prevalent in Dubai than in Abu Dhabi).
I know some Italians can be purists about pasta so I ask whether using wholewheat pasta makes a difference. They respond that it’s a personal choice, though of course it’s better for you, and there’s more fibre. Wholewheat pasta is something they have implemented in Roberto’s, with an eye on keeping things healthy.
Common mistakes to avoid
The biggest mistake people make with pasta Chef Guarino tells me is in the cooking. A big pot is imperative, with lots of water, and it must be salted and fully boiling before adding the pasta. The big pot is strongly emphasised, never use a pot that doesn’t allow the pasta enough room to move and breathe, and throughout the cooking, the water must remain fully boiling continuously as to turn the heat down will ruin the pasta. But beyond this, the advice is just to follow the timings on the packet, though if you like your pasta the true Italian way, cook it two minutes less than the packet advises for al dente.
I have seen some chefs on tv recommend rinsing the pasta before serving, but when I ask the question both Guarino and Falcone are horrified. “No. No, don’t rinse. Who does this?!” Chef Andrea demands to know. NEVER rinse the pasta, just drain and serve immediately. Rinsing the pasta only serves to wash away the clinginess and texture, but also the flavour.
Watch portion sizes
I ask the chefs about portion size as the information we receive can be confusing in the age of diets that restrict or avoid pasta altogether. Pasta is a healthy dish to eat, there’s no need to fear it, but to eat it wisely and mindfully is the advice. 100g is a standard restaurant portion size, though depending on your appetite you might prefer to prepare smaller portions at home.
Andrea acts as translator again for Vincenzo and explains that as we all know, it’s important to eat a varied diet. The mediterranean diet is a good example, varying dishes throughout the week to include fish, eggs, meat and cheese, but all in moderation and on rotation. Don’t eat rice or carbs in the evening – no pasta or bread, those things are better to eat during the day at lunchtime he believes.
Keep it simple
In terms of cooking pasta at home, the Chefs reiterate that keeping it simple is especially important. And though there is much that can go wrong with such a seemingly easy dish – stick strictly to the rules they’ve recounted and you’ll be surprised the depth of flavour you can create.
The Chefs emphasise that Italian food is simple, but with a complexity of flavours that comes from the heritage and individual’s experiences. Inspiration also comes from heritage – your Italian Grandma’s cooking for example, and from travels. Chef Guarino explains that the food he cooks is, simply put – his heart on a plate. From his own experiences growing up in Italy and his travels throughout Europe, he’s learned new techniques along the way, and these experiences and techniques change your style, you combine them to become a better chef he says.
When I ask out of curiosity about which UAE restaurants the Chefs visit or would like to visit on their own time, Chef Guarino takes the opportunity to comment on Roberto’s eight course degustation menu that he enjoyed during his visit to Abu Dhabi: “In my honest opinion, that’s a Michelin starred meal. If Michelin were in the UAE, they would see that’s a menu that meets their standard.” Andrea Falcone becomes quiet, lowers his head and shrugs: “I can’t comment. I’m the one who cooked it” he says modestly.
Decide for yourself – taste the eight course (or twelve course if you really want to go for it!) ‘Chef’s Table’ degustation menu prepared by Executive Chef Francesco Guarracino and Head Chef of the Year nominated Andrea Falcone on an ongoing basis at Roberto’s Abu Dhabi, available every day.