My boyfriend and I are long-distance, so we get to see each other about once every three months. When we are together, we like to cook, explore whichever city we’re in (usually Berkeley or New York City, where we each live respectively), and spend a healthy amount of time vegging out on the couch watching Netflix (Chef’s Table, Parks & Rec, you know, the modern classics). While we try not to schedule out our time too strictly, there’s one tradition we’ve yet to break: date night.
We take this quarterly date night very seriously, and spend weeks picking out a restaurant with the right balance of menu options (he's a vegetarian, so there’s got to be at least a few different choices for him), ambience (romantic, not stuffy), and budget (sometimes we splurge, sometimes we keep it low-key). For some reason, we always gravitate towards Italian food, and that helps narrow down our choices.
Past winners have included Acquerello in San Francisco (a very worth-it splurge) and Lilia in Brooklyn (excellent and wonderfully priced), but there’s one dish I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since one date night from about a year ago: the mushroom ragu with garganelli at L’Artusi in New York City’s West Village.
Tubular little bites of fresh garganelli pasta wrapped in a creamy, luxurious sauce of nothing-but-mushroom flavor. At the same time, it was meaty and hearty, filling enough to make me ignore the buttery cacio e pepe sitting across the table—and my boyfriend. The cherry on top of the ragu: a generous layer of shaved ricotta salata, a dried, salted ricotta cheese.
It was love at first bite. I immediately wanted to know the secrets behind its silky texture, mushroomy goodness, and—whoa—completely vegetarian ingredients list. Surely, there must be some complicated technique or sneaky component hiding within the recipe. After 379 or so odd days (but who’s counting?) after tasting, and subsequently dreaming, about this ragu, I finally tracked down L’Artusi’s executive chef, Joe Vigorito, to lift the curtain.
The formula behind this decades-old recipe, he revealed, is shockingly simple—and will probably never, ever change. It’s been on the menu from the beginning, and if it ever leaves, “there would probably be an uprising,” he said. But because “there are no bells and whistles, you’ve got to get everything right.”
Here are a few of his tips for recreating L’Artusi’s famous mushroom ragu at home:
- Clean the mushrooms with a paper towel. Instead of rinsing the mushrooms in water, simply brush them off with a paper towel to get rid of any dirt. “With this recipe, you’re trying to concentrate all that flavor and evaporate any water possible,” Chef Vigorito said, and dousing the mushrooms in water doesn’t help that process.
- Don’t burn the tomato paste. The tomato paste is essential to bringing depth and complexity to the flavors in this dish, but it can be tricky to work with. “Tomato paste has a tendency to burn really, really easily, so you have to continually stir it to make sure that you’re still developing that flavor, but that it’s not just scorching at the bottom,” he explains.
- Make sure the heavy cream is at room temperature. You’ve probably done this before (I sure have): You pull the heavy cream straight out of the fridge and toss it right into the pan only to have it curdle. When prepping the recipe, like when you’re making the fresh pasta, pull the cream out of the fridge and let it sit on the counter. According to Chef, “You want it to kind of be up to room temperature, so that you’re not shocking it” when you add it.
- Fresh garganelli is great, but dried pasta works, too. I get it, making fresh pasta from scratch isn’t always in the cards, so don’t feel bad about using dried pasta in this recipe. Chef Vigorito recommends penne or orecchiette, but added that any kind of short pasta would work.
- Add a splash of mushroom stock at the end. At L’Artusi, they always finish this pasta with a splash of mushroom stock just before serving. You don’t have to do this, but it does add a nice touch. Making the stock is simple: Take the ends of the cremini mushroom stems and cook them down with a little bit of water. Tossing in a little bit of this stock is also a great way to reconstitute the ragu if you want to serve it the next day. —Erin Alexander
- Prep time 45 minutes
- Cook time 1 hour
- Serves 4 to 6
- For the garganelli:
extra-virgin olive oil
- For the mushroom ragu:
2 1/2 pounds
cremini mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
extra-virgin olive oil
large Spanish onion, diced
salt, plus more if needed
red chili flakes, plus 1 pinch, divided
dry white cooking wine
butter, cut into small pieces
Shaved ricotta salata, for serving
- For the garganelli:
- Place flour, eggs, and extra-virgin olive oil in a food processor. Process until a dough forms. Wrap in plastic wrap and rest in fridge for 30 minutes.
- Remove dough. Divide into 4 pieces. Dust each piece with flour. Roll through pasta machine at the thickest setting. Repeat this process gradually decreasing the number setting. Stop when the dough has finished the second to last setting.
- Cut the dough into 1 1/2 x 1 1/2-inch squares. Roll each square diagonally over a dowel, chopstick, or finger. Press to seal at the end of the square. Lay out on a baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper or wax paper dusted with semolina flour. Continue until all the pasta has been formed into little "quills.”
- Set aside pasta in a fridge, or freeze if being cooked on another day.
- For the mushroom ragu:
- In a food processor, chop a few mushrooms at a time until they are all finely chopped (almost pureed; they will look like mush). Periodically scrape down the sides of the food processor.
- In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and season generously with salt. Once onions are soft and slightly caramelized, add tomato paste and pinch red chili flakes. Cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, stirring constantly. The paste should caramelize slightly but not burn.
- Add chopped mushrooms. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. (This will look like a wet mess at first. Over time, the liquid will cook off, and the mushrooms will take on a dark, caramelized color.)
- Add wine to deglaze. Scrape bottom of pot to remove any stuck-on mushroom bits. Stir constantly and cook until mixture is dry and wine has completely evaporated.
- Add heavy cream. Simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season generously with salt. The water should taste like the sea. If using fresh garganelli, cook in the boiling salted water for 3 to 5 min. If using dried pasta, cook according to the package instructions.
- While the pastas cooks, keep the ragu over low heat. When al dente, remove the pasta and add it to the sauce.
- Add pinch red chili flakes, butter, and the Parmesan. Stir to combine. Add 1⁄4 cup pasta water to help emulsify sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Serve in warm bowls; sprinkle shaved ricotta salata on top.