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Dirty Dishes And Perfect Pasta

When chef Pino Luongo moved here to the United States from Italy almost 30 years ago, he spoke no English and had no job.

But within a few years, he became one of the hottest restaurateurs in New York, introducing people to true Tuscan cuisine.

He's co-authored a book about his experiences called "Dirty Dishes: A Restaurateur's Story of Passion, Pain and Pasta."

On The Early Show Friday, Luongo shared tips on how to REALLY make pasta, along with the unusual (for the U.S.!) recipe for one of his favorite pasta dishes.

He also gave a glimpse at his life.

When Luongo lived in Italy, he was pursuing an acting career.

When he came to the United States, he had no money and spoke no English. He landed a job as a busboy in an Italian restaurant that reminded him of home.

Three years later, he opened his first restaurant, Il Cantinori, in Greenwich Village. From there, he opened a slew of hot, celebrity-laden eateries, including Coco Pazzo, Le Madri, and Sapore di Mare in the Hamptons.

The New York Post says Luongo was "synonymous with the high-powered New York dining scene of the '80s and '90s, his hot temper and even hotter restaurants providing endless grist for the city's gossip mill."

But then an ambitious national expansion went sour, and 9/11 hurt his New York restaurant business.

When one of his four remaining restaurants, Centolire, started to suffer, Luongo decided to take over the kitchen himself. He had been so busy with the business side of things for so long that he hadn't spent much time cooking.

Today, Centolire is the only restaurant Luongo has left. But in the book, he writes that's he's happier than ever. He has a wife and three children, and gets to spend his days doing what he loves most -- cooking.

On The Early Show, Luongo demonstrated one of his favorite pasta dishes, and told everything we need to know about making perfect pasta.

Apparently Americans are very confused on the details -- we often mess up this simple dish, according to Luongo).

First, he gave a look at the ingredients:

Rigatoni Alla Buttera (Peasant-Style Pasta)

Sweet and hot Italian sausages
Black pepper from a mill
Unsalted butter
Green peas, parboiled and shocked in ice water
Canned tomatoes, crushed in their own juice
Heavy cream
Parmesan cheese, grated
Dry rigatoni
Coarse salt

Notice anything missing?

There are no measurements, no indication of how much cream to add, how much meat! Ever seen a recipe written like that before?!

Essentially, Luongo says, he wants to teach people to cook the way Italians cook, which is not by following recipes to the letter. He wants to inspire home cooks to make recipes their own.

He writes, "Here are some recipes for some of the dishes that have most informed my palate, and my life. I'm sharing them in the same way I presented recipes in my first cookbook, without quantities and with only a few cooking times for guidance. I know that you have the common sense to buy the right amount of ingredients to serve the number of people you'll have at your table, and that if you're a little off, you'll find something to do with an extra carrot, or a few slices of left-over pot roast. Moreover, I have always believed that cooking should be an instinctual act and that food should express the taste, experience and even the mood of the cook."

At one point in the book Pino remarks, "If there's one accomplishment I'd like to be remembered for, it's popularizing Tuscan food in America. If there's a second, it would be improving the quality of the pasta served in American restaurants."

He goes on to say that Americans basically need to forget everything we know about pasta making. For starters, it's essential to cook the pasta al dente ("to the tooth"). The pasta is supposed to finish cooking in its own sauce. Luongo says that, in his first years as a chef, this led to many arguments with customers who would try to send back their "raw" pasta!

It's important to choose the correct type of pasta for your sauce. Luongo writes, "It's like choosing a suit. The right suit will show off the beauty of a man's body and also the elegance of the suit."

Also, pasta isn't noodles topped with sauce; the two are supposed to blend together. When you finish your plate of pasta, there should be just enough sauce to mop up with a single piece of bread.

Some notes on the recipe:

  • Use both sweet and hot Italian sausages, or just sweet.
  • It's fine to use frozen peas.
  • You can use rigatoni, tagliatelle or papperadelle. Never use a thinner pasta such as spaghetti; the rich sauce needs a substantial pasta.

    Rigatoni Alla Buttera is, Luongo says, one of the dishes that put him on the map at Il Cantinori.

    You can learn a lot about pasta making from preparing this dish a few times. The desired result is a pleasingly thick, creamy sauce but one that doesn't overwhelm the texture or flavor of the peas.

    Repeating the ingredients:

    Sweet and hot Italian sausages
    Black pepper from a mill
    Unsalted butter
    Green peas, parboiled and shocked in ice water
    Canned tomatoes, crushed in their own juice
    Heavy cream
    Parmesan cheese, grated
    Dry rigatoni
    Coarse salt

    Method:

    Peel the casings off the sausages and crumble the meat. Cook over medium-low heat in a heavy pan. (Don't use any oil; the natural fat in the sausages renders enough grease to keep them from sticking). The sausages will crumble even more once the fat is released. When the meat is cooked through, drain the excess fat from the pan, season with black pepper, and set aside.

    In a large, heavy pan over medium heat, melt a generous spoonful of butter and add the cooked sausage, the peas, and the tomatoes. Mix well and raise the heat. Cook until the sauce thickens and the peas are tender. Stir in the cream and reduce again. Stir in just enough parmesan cheese to thicken the sauce; it should be uniformly thick but moist.

    Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve some of the cooking liquid in a heatproof container, then drain the pasta and add it to the pan with the sauce. Toss. If the dish seems dry or the sauce isn't quite bound, add a tablespoon or so of cooking liquid and toss again. Add more parmesan, toss again, and serve with more parmesan cheese on the side.

    To read an excerpt of "Dirty Dishes," click here.