When the plate of pasta landed at the table, it was so plain that if I were anywhere else, I would have been skeptical if not outright disappointed. But I was in Florence, having my first meal of my first trip to Italy, so I never strayed from optimism.
Even now when I show the photo of that dish, I feel like I have to explain, or apologize on its behalf. It doesn't look like much. It's a plate of very plain pasta with a couple of slices of very large mushrooms on top.
But I'd heard for years and years how the magic of Italian food is in the simplicity. And I wanted to believe it. So I set aside my inborn inclination for bells and whistles and complication and stuck my fork into the tangle of tagliatelle. Then I speared a chunk of the porcini mushroom, and I tasted it.
I think culinary hyperbole is the most annoying thing in the world, but everything kind of stopped in that moment. Yes, it was the best pasta I'd ever had in my life -- of this I was immediately certain -- and I was left trying to decide if I even wanted to have better pasta than this ... ever.
The menu at Trattoria Cammillo, a block south of the Arno River near the Ponte Santa Trinta, listed the dish as "tagliatelle fatte in casa ai funghi porcini freschi." I didn't need a translation app to glean that the pasta was made in house and that the mushrooms were fresh.
That dish had fewer ingredients than its menu description had words, I'm confident. The pasta was certainly just flour and eggs. The sliced porcini on top were probably cooked in butter at a low temperature so as to add no color whatsoever; they looked braised more than sauteed. The sauce holding the pasta together was nothing more than butter and probably some of the pasta cooking water. There was nothing green garnishing the plate, and there was no hit of acid to brighten anything up. Didn't need it. Our waiter asked us if we wanted some Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, which of course we did, but my first bite came before he offered, and let me assure you, that pasta didn't need cheese to make it memorable.
That was it. I couldn't discern one more building block. It was maddening. It all sounded nearly mundane. Why was it so good?
When I got home, I went to work.
The hurdle would be the mushroom. Porcini are kind of the Lamborghini of mushrooms, a singular statement of meatiness and earthiness virtually immune from substitution. They share some luxurious qualities with truffles, which makes sense because they grow wild in the same places. They're hard to find fresh in the States. When you can, they're usually small, in rough shape and cost about the same as that Lamborghini.
The obvious answer was dried porcini. But the texture of reconstituted mushrooms wouldn't work in this dish. To keep the texture, I seared crimini to develop some caramelization. To get the right flavor, I ground the porcini into a powder and let it steep quickly, right in the pan, in a little of the reserved pasta water that emulsified with some butter.
I tossed the pasta in the pan, then plated. It was objectively more attractive than its inspiration piece, but aesthetics were never the goal here. I tasted, and it popped me in the mouth with a shot of earthy umami. I wasn't on vacation, but I was happy.
It wasn't the same as the dish I had in Florence. It never had a chance. The best part of eating pasta in Italy is that you're eating pasta ... in Italy. But my version will serve as a souvenir until I get to go back.
Fettuccine con Funghi (Pasta With Mushrooms)
½ ounce dried porcini OR 3 tablespoons porcini powder (see note)
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, halved or sliced
9 ounces fresh store-bought fettuccine
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Grated parmesan cheese, for serving, optional
Fill a medium saucepan halfway with salted water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
Meanwhile, use a coffee/spice mill to grind the dried porcini into a fine powder; you should get about 3 tablespoons.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the crimini mushrooms, trying to arrange them cut side down as best you can. Sear without moving them until well browned on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Stir the mushrooms and cook until softened, 3 to 5 minutes more.
Once you stir the mushrooms, add the pasta to the boiling water and stir well to ensure the noodles don't clump together. Cook according to the package instructions, 2 to 4 minutes. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain.
Transfer the cooked mushrooms to a plate and reduce the heat under the skillet to medium. Melt the butter, then add the porcini powder and ¼ teaspoon salt and stir to incorporate. Add ½ cup of the reserved pasta water and stir to combine. Add the pasta to the skillet and toss until coated, adding more pasta water as necessary to help coat the strands. Return the mushrooms to the skillet and toss with the pasta to combine.
Divide among plates, making sure there are a few mushrooms on top. Serve with parmesan at the table, if desired.
Makes 2 to 3 servings.