Meat just is: Grilled, braised or boiled; ground, flattened or eaten whole, it remains itself. Seafood may be forced into many guises, but in the end, too, it is just fish, an animal to be consumed. Vegetables are vegetables; fruits, fruits.
But pasta is something else entirely, totally mutable, different every time you stick your fork into it. It is less a foodstuff than a canvas that presents the essences of other foods in the boldest possible relief, from the most elaborately layered lasagna, to a bowl of spaghetti seasoned with a grind or two of pepper; from the intricately woven noodle mats they served at a famous San Francisco restaurant in the ’80s, to the simple, undying pleasure of a plate of homemade fettuccine tossed for a moment with a lump of good butter and a handful of freshly grated cheese. No more delectable on its own than a puff of hickory smoke or a pinch of sea salt, pasta exists only to give substance to the most ephemeral of culinary whims, to make solid that which is not solid, to give substance and life to what is otherwise just a sauce.
It is no wonder that Marco Polo laid claim to having brought the stuff back from China, even if he just borrowed the idea from some passing Turks.
I’m sure you have your own personal pantheon ã of noodles, and I do too, from the stunning simplicity of a plate of lemon linguine at some anonymous Roman side-street restaurant that was the first meal I ever ate in Italy, to the truffled spaghetti, coiled into the shape of turbans around banana-size poached langoustines, that I had at Joel Robuchon in Paris; from a quick dish of green-tea noodles at Narita Airport that somehow sticks in memory a decade later, to the dense, gorgeous char kuay teow with fresh cockles I once ate at 3 in the morning at a hawker stall in Singapore’s Maxwell Road.
I adore the fresh fettuccine I buy at a century-old ravioli store near my apartment in Manhattan, cut to order with a chattering 19th-century pasta guillotine that sounds like your grandmother’s old Singer sewing machine times 10 — they make even my daughter’s favorite bottled sauce come alive. At Lespinasse, my favorite French restaurant in New York at the moment, the roasted veal shank was garnished with thick, broad homey noodles, dusted with herbs and moistened with mushroom-enhanced broth; it may have been the least-fancy dish anybody has ever eaten in a four-star restaurant, but it was also unimaginably good.
Los Angeles itself is one of the great pasta cities of the world, a sea of noodles, each better than the next, crowding each other in the brimming soup bowl of memory: the pungent Taiwanese-style dan dan mein at the short-lived Monterey Park restaurant Deli World Café; the thin, firm General’s Noodles at Sanamluang whose intense, take-no-prisoners garlicki- ã ness comes as a shock every time I order the dish; the gossamer banh cuon at San Gabriel’s Vietnamese restaurant Tay Ho, rolled rice noodles finer than any silk; the crunchy sautéed penne at Campanile, saturated with the reduced essence of squab. There may be no better pasta con sarde, the classic Sicilian pasta with sardines, fennel fronds, pine nuts and raisins, than the slightly wild, gamy version at l’Arancino; no Chinese-Korean noodle better than the oil-black, hand-thrown chachiangmein at Mandarin House in Koreatown; no North Korean noodle better than the jellied mung-bean pasta with seaweed at the Vermont Avenue restaurant Yong Susan. Consider the namesake beef noodle soup at Chinatown’s Pho 79, the springy, handmade udon at Gardena’s splendid Kotohira, the strange, oily Burmese noodles at San Gabriel’s Romantic Steak House.
Or consider the Platonic ideal of noodles: a low, open shed in the midst of Lambrusco vineyards, a splendid day in spring, a side road outside the barely existent town of Nonantola, about half an hour from the industrial city of Modena. Tractors line up in a dirt lot by the side of the restaurant, six splendid, turf-green Lamborghini machines that rest while their owners have lunch; an occasional whining Ferrari pulls into the lot. You have eaten flat omelets moistened with the balsamic vinegar the owner has made himself, and you are drinking tumblers of the bitter, fizzy wine that comes from the vineyards you are looking out into.
Suddenly, a platter arrives, heaped with garganelli, a sort of casually folded ridged penne, that had been cooked only seconds before, and tossed with grated Reggiano cheese (also made within a few miles of the osteria) and a long-braised Bolognese sauce that has a depth of flavor, a complexity, that makes you realize what every second-rate Italian chef in the world is trying, and failing, to reproduce. The garganelli is almost alive under your teeth, so minutely gauged is its elasticity, its mild wheatiness transforming the simmered meat into shimmering cascades of flavor, and you linger over your bowl until the restaurant’s owner actually snatches it away when he becomes impatient to replace it with braised rabbit.
I had thought these garganelli to be the finest noodles in the world. But Lynn Rossetto Kasper, whose cookbook The Splendid Table is the definitive reference on the cooking of Emilia-Romagna, actually yelled at me when I mentioned the osteria to her a few years ago.
“What is it with Americans and that place?” she barked, her face turning the color of a rather well-made marinara sauce. “It’s okay . . . if you like balsamic vinegar, for that one kind of garganelli, but . . .” Her voice trailed off in a manner I recognized from having nodded politely too many times while new acquaintances overpraised the soba at Mishima, or the sautéed cat’s ears at what is only the third-best Islamic-Chinese place in the Rosemead–San Gabriel area.
“There’s so much more to pasta,” she said.
Just so. And yet . . .