In early June, my partner and I were walking along Lake Como in northern Italy when it started to pour. We bolted for the nearest shelter, a canopied terrazza at a bistro on the water, and figured we might as well stop there for lunch while waiting for the rain to subside. To the rhythmic drumming of rainfall, I ate the best plate of pasta al pomodoro I’ve ever had in my life. The spaghetti was thinner than usual, with an airy bounciness that caught the tomato sauce beautifully. The sauce tasted of little more than tomatoes at their purest, though my partner wondered if there might be a hint of garlic, maybe a pat of butter.
Unlike marinara, which is often chunky with aromatics and can be used to sauce all manner of dishes, a good pomodoro is smooth from the perfect emulsion of tomatoes and olive oil — and almost always dresses pasta. Especially in August and September, a well-executed spaghetti al pomodoro is the apotheosis of the fruit, the purest distillation of summer umami.
That rainy lunch in Como was my “Eat Pray Love” moment. You may know of the pivotal scene from the Ryan Murphy film (adapted from Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir) in which Julia Roberts eats a plate of perfectly tousled spaghetti with tomato sauce, the moment soundtracked with Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria. In those 60 operatic seconds, the character’s perspective shifts; you see her grow into herself after her divorce. I felt a shift in myself as well: That pomodoro made me realize how many bad pomodoros I’ve had in my life. As the Italian food journalist Barbara Giglioli said, “Spaghetti al pomodoro is a simple dish, but it’s also difficult to make a great one.” So why was this one so perfect?
There are few things better than a perfectly executed dish in which you can taste the three or four ingredients. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It followed me like a mirage, a Julia Roberts-size phantom of tomato essence in noodle form. When the waiter came back to ask if I wanted cheese on my spaghetti, I said no. It didn’t need it. Basil might have enhanced the pasta, but I wouldn’t know; I plucked the single-leaf garnish off before digging in. The nakedness let the distilled pomodoro flavor expand. My spaghetti was all tomato, and nothing more.
The food stylist Susan Spungen, who cooked Roberts’s spaghetti on that set, shared the recipe for it recently, crediting the cooks at the original Coco Pazzo, an Upper East Side restaurant where she was a pastry chef in the early ’90s. The alchemy of pomodoro is truly realized as the sauce marries with pasta, she told me, emphasizing that the key to a good plate of spaghetti lies in the technique of those final one to two minutes in the pan. “A pasta is almost like a salad,” she said. “You’re not trying to drown it.” A cadenza at the end of a long concerto, the saucing stage is what makes a pomodoro sing. You can make a great sauce, but if you don’t know how to fuse it with the starchy spaghetti just right — so it stains the noodles rather than gloopily draping them — then are you even Eat-Pray-Loving?
Spungen’s Julia Roberts recipe is restaurant-quick, relying on high heat and just eight to 10 minutes of vociferous bubbling on the stove, which is easy to do with single portions and à la minute cooking for paying customers. “It is important to not overcook the sauce,” the Milan-based chef Diego Rossi added, so the freshness of the tomatoes can shine. But when I returned to the States to try to recreate the pomodoro I had in Como, I found that I preferred a longer cook time when working with fresh tomatoes (and all their liquid), around 40 to 45 minutes, a range I noticed in older recipes, like Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato-onion-butter sauce, or the Italian-born British food writer Anna Del Conte’s tomato-garlic-olive oil sugo from her “Gastronomy of Italy.” Tomatoes need time to cook down, as Samin Nosrat writes in her own recipe, “until sauce tastes savory and all raw tomato flavor is gone.”
After bushels of tomatoes, I’ve arrived at a sauce that leans heavily into three ingredients: fresh summer tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and a little garlic. I like to crush whole garlic cloves gently with the flat of my knife and toast them, just barely, in the oil before fishing them out and noshing on them. It’s a good aperitif. As for the tomatoes, any combination of low-water, high-flavor varieties like plum, grape, cherry and Campari — plus evaporation — makes for the most concentrated result. Thin spaghetti tastes best here, as it twirls around the fork effortlessly, but regular spaghetti would work, too; avoid bucatini in this case, as it will shroud the fresh tomato flavor with its thickness.
Remember that the greatest lure of this sauce is that you can’t get it in stores. This recipe, more than anything, requires fresh August and September pomodori, and nothing more.
Recipe: Pasta al Pomodoro