There’s a section in Bon Appetit magazine that provides recipes for restaurant dishes that were requested by readers. I’ve always loved this part of the magazine because it shines a light on the magic that you occasionally encounter in restaurants. Unfortunately, restaurants can’t divulge all of their secrets and sometimes cooks must attempt to reverse engineer their favorite dishes.
Probably my most successful attempt at this reverse engineering is this pink pepper pasta, which I swore I was going to reproduce after an inspiring dinner at Lilia. Lilia, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, maybe the best pasta restaurant to open up in the greater New York area in the last few years. Pete Wells, the New York Times restaurants critic, endorsed, simply, “all pasta” under the Recommended Dishes heading in his review.
In our characteristic uninhibited zeal, we ordered three pastas for the two of us (plus the magnificent clams). And then in lieu of dessert, decided to order one more.
The mafaldini with pink peppercorn was the most memorable of the four (but if you go, do NOT leave without also trying the agnolotti with saffron). The punchiness of the pepper is captivating, but the tone of this dish is primarily intimate and cozy. And luckily it was also the simplest of pastas, so I knew I would be able to convincingly recreate the dish.
Of course, what defines the pasta at Lilia’s is not the peppercorns, but the incredible texture and flavor of the pasta that comes with years of devotion to and experience with making pasta, not to mention the ability to mill your own flours. I knew I couldn’t compete with that, but procured my pasta from the best actually accessible source, Eataly.
I don’t know how close my recipe is to Lilia’s, but the flavor seems pretty darn close if I may say so myself. It really is simple to make as it tastes, making it the most elegant weeknight pasta or accompaniment to a main dish.
Pink pepper pasta
cook time 10-15 min
There are only three essential ingredients in this dish (pasta, pepper, Parmesan), and for that reason quality of the ingredients is key. Good, fresh pasta makes a world of difference. In this recipe I try to use mafaldine, the narrower cousin of mafalde. The small ridges of mafaldine make it perfect for holding onto the bits of pepper, and also that is what Lilia uses. Other pastas with ridges would work well, such as fusili or strozzapreti. Of course bucatini or spaghetti are fine substitutes in a pinch.
Unfortunately, there is not a reasonable substitute for pink peppercorns. These are much more delicate than their black or green counterparts, both in flavor and texture. They also need to be whole. The flavor of pre-ground pepper is sadly mute compared to the freshly ground stuff.
6 ounces / 170 grams fresh mafaldine pasta or 4 ounces / 110 grams dried pasta
1½ tbsp whole pink peppercorns
1 ounce / 25 grams freshly grated parmesean cheese (about 1 cup)
2 tbsp room temperature butter
1½ tbsp cream
½ tsp kosher salt
reserved pasta water (will use only about ¼ cup)
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- Meanwhile, crush the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. The pepper should be evenly ground, about the texture of coarse-ground coffee.
- Place the ground pepper, Parmesan, butter, cream, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Do not mix. This is where you will add the the pasta once it is done cooking.
- When the water is boiling, add the pasta and cook until tender, about 2-3 minutes for fresh pasta. Before draining the pasta, reserve 1 cup of pasta water. Drain the pasta and quickly add to the mixing bowl with cheese and pepper, with a bit of water still clinging to the pasta. Stir gently with a wooden spoon or tongs, but work quickly. The heat from the pasta will melt the butter and the cheese, which is why it is important for the butter to be at room temperature. Add about 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water and continue to stir until liquid is evenly distributed and noodles are thinly coated. Add more water as necessary until you have a consistent texture, though the sauce should not be too thin.
- Note: if you accidentally make the pasta too watery heat the pasta and sauce in a pot until the water evaporates and the sauce thickens.
- Serve immediately. Top with additional pepper or cheese if desired.