When the plate of pasta landed at the table, it was so plain that if I were anywhere else, I would have been skeptical if not outright disappointed. But I was in Florence, having my first meal of my first trip to Italy, so I never strayed from optimism.
But I have heard for years and years how the magic of Italian food is in the simplicity. And I wanted to believe it. So I set aside my inborn inclination for bells and whistles and complication and stuck my fork into the tangle of tagliatelle. Then I speared a chunk of the porcini mushroom, and I tasted it.
I think culinary hyperbole is the most annoying thing in the world, but everything kind of stopped in that moment. Yes, it was the best pasta I’d ever had in my life — of this I was immediately certain — and I was left trying to decide if I even wanted to have better pasta than this … ever.
Yes, it was simple. After the shock of the first bite, I spent each subsequent taste trying to break down precisely what it was I was eating. I do this all the time with dishes I’d like to re-create at home. But this one felt like a riddle, because it was all hidden in sublime simplicity.
The menu at Trattoria Cammillo, a block south of the Arno River near the Ponte Santa Trinita, listed the dish as “tagliatelle fatte in casa ai funghi porcini freschi.” I didn’t need a translation app to glean that the pasta was made in house and that the mushrooms were fresh.
That dish had fewer ingredients than its menu description had words, I’m confident. The pasta was certainly just flour and eggs. The sliced porcini on top were probably cooked in butter — maybe mixed with olive oil? — at a low temperature so as to add no color whatsoever; they looked braised more than sauteed. The sauce holding the pasta together was nothing more than butter and probably some of the pasta cooking water. That water probably held all the salt that went into the dish. There was nothing green garnishing the plate, and there was no hit of acid to brighten anything up. Didn’t need it. Our waiter asked us if we wanted some Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, which of course we did, but my first bite came before he offered, and let me assure you, that pasta didn’t need cheese to make it memorable.
That was it. I couldn’t discern one more building block. It was maddening. It all sounded nearly mundane. Why was it so good?
When I got home, I went to work.
I love to make fresh pasta, but that’s a weekend endeavor. On a random weeknight, I generally fall back on dried pasta, but a dish like this calls for something a little more delicate and supple, so I grabbed a package of fresh fettuccine from the refrigerated case at the grocery store. And I felt confident in my ability to forge a butter-and-pasta-water sauce that would evoke Cammillo.
The hurdle would be the mushroom. Porcini are kind of the Lamborghini of mushrooms, a singular statement of meatiness and earthiness virtually immune from substitution. They share some luxurious qualities with truffles, which makes sense because they grow wild in the same places. They’re hard to find fresh in the States. When you can, they’re usually small, in rough shape and cost about the same as that Lamborghini.
I wasn’t going to use fresh porcini. But I needed something to stand in for that “funghi freschi” from the menu. For my first try, I was adamant about matching the minimalism. I got cremini — a.k.a. Italian brown mushrooms — and delicately cooked them in a bath of warm butter and olive oil just enough to soften them without searing. I tossed the cooked pasta in and mixed in some of the pasta water.
It was fine. It was like a song with a similar melody, just severely muted. I wanted it loud.
The simplicity was my favorite part of the dish, but I realized that to emulate a porcini dish without fresh porcini, it would need something else. I wanted to add the most flavor with the least extra effort.
The obvious answer was dried porcini. We often use that concentrated umami powerhouse as a secret weapon by soaking them, then chopping them up and adding them to a soup, sauce or braise along with the steeping liquid. But the texture of reconstituted mushrooms wouldn’t work in this dish. To keep the texture, I stuck with the cremini but seared them harder to develop some caramelization. To get the right flavor, I ground the dry mushrooms into a powder and let it steep quickly, right in the pan, in a little of the reserved pasta water that emulsified with some butter.
I tossed the pasta in the pan, then plated. It was objectively more attractive than its inspiration piece, but aesthetics were never the goal here. I tasted, and it popped me in the mouth with a shot of earthy umami. I wasn’t on vacation, but I was happy.
It wasn’t the same as the dish I had in Florence. It never had a chance. The best part of eating pasta in Italy is that you’re eating pasta … in Italy. But my version will serve as a souvenir until I get to go back.