Italian

Savory Chocolate Pasta, the Dinner Party Dish You’ve Been Waiting For

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September 17, 2018

It's Italy Week! All week long, we're celebrating all things Italian with our partner Lagostina. Stay tuned for more great recipes, stories, and travel tips.

A few years before we got engaged, my husband’s parents had planned a ten-day trip to Italy. They rented a villa perched high on the rolling hills of Umbria, and invited us along. “Yes!” we practically shouted, rushing to book our tickets.

This was my first trip to Italy and it exceeded all of my (wildly high) expectations. The scenery was spectacular. The tiny towns were like something out of a postcard—all cobblestones and curving narrow streets and old Italian men playing cards in the village centers. The coffee was perfect and strong. Even the air felt different, as if each breath I took was suffused with some potent combination of rosemary and history.

Add cocoa powder to pasta dough to give it a rich, complex flavor profile that pairs nicely with earthy ingredients like wild mushrooms and rosemary. Photo by Julia Gartland

But the food, oh, the food. I knew things were going to be good when we arrived at the villa to find a cake, dimpled with chunks of fresh apple and showered with powdered sugar, hiding under a tea towel on a corner of the wooden countertop.

Each meal was a memory worthy of storytelling. We ate pasta at the villa’s restaurant: rustic rags of fresh dough underneath a spiced lamb ragu. We picnicked with fresh-bought meat and cheese on the sun-warmed stones of a nearby village square. We had too much gelato, an endless stream of flawless cappuccinos, and pizza topped with roasted zucchini blossoms and gooey mozzarella. Even the gas station food in Italy is good! A prosciutto sandwich from the omnipresent Autogrills, a highway rest-stop chain, along the highways in Italy would top most sandwiches in Manhattan.

I remember nearly every bite with a vividness that I rarely can summon years after a vacation, but one of the most exceptional meals was the most surprising one: chocolate pasta.

Toss your homemade chocolate pasta into a Lagostina pot filled with boiling water—it'll be perfectly al dente in two minutes or less. Photo by Julia Gartland

We were in Orvieto—a little city high on a rock cliff in Umbria—and we’d been wandering the crooked streets in search of dinner. Our hotel concierge had directed us to a spot that locals love, so we found our way and happily sat down to peruse the menu. Speaking no Italian, we did our best to navigate, but ended up ordering through a combination of hand-waving and inviting the waiter to bring us a few dishes to share.

Between the other dishes, he placed a shallow bowl of fettuccine al cioccolato: chocolate pasta. I balked at first, confused. Was it dessert? It had to be. It wasn’t—it’s actually a brilliant method of giving fresh pasta a rich, complex flavor profile. Chocolate isn’t an odd or unusual component of savory dishes (think of Mexican mole sauces or chilis with dark chocolate); in the US, we’re just so conditioned into thinking of it as dessert.

For this traditional Italian dish, some cocoa powder is added to the flour mixture to make the fresh pasta, but no sugar. The resulting pasta has hints of a bitter, intense chocolate flavor, which is a superlative complement to creamy sauces. It’s often served with earthy ingredients like mushrooms or sage. It’s no trickier to make at home than any other type of fresh pasta. I serve it with a thick, luscious white wine and cream sauce combined with wild mushrooms and fresh rosemary—the perfect dish for sharing with dinner party guests, who (unless they've recently been to the Umbrian countryside) will probably be as surprised and delighted as I was.

For your first foray into making this Italian recipe, I recommend trying my mushroom sauce or using a similarly simple cream-based sauce. You want to be able to taste that hint of chocolate in the pasta, and too many ingredients will hide it. The easiest and most basic approach? Reserve some of your pasta cooking water and cook it in a pan with cream, a little olive oil, and salt and pepper until it thickens slightly, then toss with your pasta to coat briefly before serving with a shower of grated Parmesan.

And if you’re lucky enough to travel to some of the smaller towns in Italy and eat your way through little local restaurants, you’ll appreciate how the simplicity of this sort of rustic cooking can yield such memorable results. This chocolate pasta is the perfect example: minimal ingredients, very little in the way of technique, but with a payoff that still has me thinking about that first bite, years later.

In partnership with Lagostina, the premium Italian cookware brand that values high-quality materials and time-honored craftsmanship, we're bringing you seven days of stories and recipes all about Italy.

To cap off the week, we're highlighting the #LagostinaSundayDinner with a new series all about the Italian tradition of Sunday suppers—casual, all-day affairs with friends, family, and delicious food—that features go-to recipes from some of our favorite chefs and cookbook authors.

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