I like my pasta the way I like my wine, red and with a 12% ABV.
Spaghetti All’Ubriaco, otherwise known as “Drunken Pasta,” is my dream dish – like, a “where have you been all my life?!” kind of meal. It’s simple, classy, awkwardly attractive, and delicious; everything you could possibly want in a mate meal.
I was first introduced to this dish when one of my husband’s colleagues invited us over for dinner on a sweltering evening last summer. This friend, although fabulous in many ways, is no cook. He willingly admits to his struggles in the kitchen, yet he’s been able to glean one or two recipes throughout his world travels and unapologetically serves them over and over again. Regardless of this somewhat limited repertoire, his intimate dinners have become a hot ticket among the Tufts PhD crowd. Hosted around a small wooden table in his tiny, third floor kitchen, there is never a lack of food, wine, dripping candles, and laughter – all of which spill late into the night.
It was at one of these dinner parties that I first fell in love with drunken pasta. As our host cooked, I stood over his shoulder curiously watching as he plunged fistfuls of pasta into a boiling pot of red wine and heavily salted water. The pasta melted into the water and began absorbing the color of the wine, turning the noodles crimson. Just prior to reaching al dente, he swiftly transferred the spaghetti to a skillet with butter, shallots, and more red wine, swirling the pan until the sauce became thick and glossy. Into a serving bowl it went with a sprinkle of parmesan and some torn basil. It. Was. Fantastic. And I vowed right then and there to try the dish at home.
The following day I spent the afternoon researching recipes on my favorite cooking sites. Each offered different variations of the same dish: where one site added Italian sausage, another preferred ground lamb; the same was true for oregano, parsley, and basil. One site finished their pasta with toasted pine nuts, another with a poached egg (gasp! drool…), and a third with shaved parm. Overwhelmed by the options, I started with a simple recipe from The New York Times, then composed a list of add-ins, herbs, and finishing touches to make the dish mine. Off to the store I went to pick up a few many bottles of Italian red, some meats and cheeses, herbs and mushrooms and the like. After sampling a glass bottle of red, I felt my inner nonna take over. (My recent online genetics tests determined that I am a whopping 0.1% Italian after all.)￼
The result of my experiment was an immediate success with the family and was unanimously voted into our monthly meal rotation. So here you are, miei amici, buon appetito!
1 bottle of dry red wine, preferably Italian: Chianti, Sangiovese, Barbera, Montepulciano (you might as well buy 2, one for cooking and one for drinking)
2 Tbsp Kosher salt
1 lb. dry spaghetti noodles
3 Tbsp olive oil
5 oz. pancetta, diced (omit to make vegetarian)
1 red onion, diced
4 oz. baby bella or crimini mushrooms, diced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp tomato paste
Pinch of red-pepper flakes (optional)
Pinch of nutmeg
1 bay leaf
Fresh cracked black pepper
4-6 sprigs of fresh basil leaves, torn (divided)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
4 oz. finely grated Parmesan, divided
Shaved Parmesan and/or ricotta for serving
1. To a large stockpot, add about 4 quarts (16 cups-ish) of water, 1 cup of red wine, and 2 Tbsp Kosher salt. Bring to a boil over high heat.
Once boiling, add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost al dente, about 2 to 3 minutes. Reserve 1 cup of cooking liquid then drain pasta. (Note, pasta should still be very stiff at this point, but don’t sweat it, the spaghetti will continue to cook on the stovetop at the end.)
2. Meanwhile, add olive oil to a large skillet set over medium heat. Once oil is shimmering, add pancetta and cook until crisp, about 2-3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer pancetta to a plate and set aside.
3. Add onion, mushrooms, and a dash of salt and pepper to the skillet and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms begin to brown and onion becomes slightly translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes until just fragrant.
4. Add tomato paste, red pepper flakes (if using), nutmeg, and black pepper. Stir to combine and cook for 1 minute. Add remaining bottle of red wine (yasss!) and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Continue to cook until wine reduces by half, about 10 minutes. Turn heat to medium.
5. Remove bay leaf from sauce, then add reserved pasta into the skillet and cook, tossing frequently, until the pasta begins to absorb the sauce and becomes perfectly al dente – this should only take a few minutes. If the sauce is looking too dry, add some of the reserved pasta/cooking liquid to the skillet 1 Tbsp at a time, tossing as you go.
6. Stir in the reserved pancetta, butter, half of the Parmesan cheese, and half of the torn basil leaves. Taste pasta and season as needed.
7. Scoop pasta into a preheated serving bowls and top with remaining Parmesan and torn basil.
8. Serve alongside bowls of shaved Parmesan and/or heaping mounds of ricotta for topping.
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the pasta dish of your dreams. I hope you enjoy it around a table full of friends, preferably in the kitchen, because I’m sure we could all do with a few more cozy dinner parties someplace other than the (boring) dining room. And of course, serve with plenty of wine. Always. More. Wine.(Evidence of the bottles I sampled while developing this recipe. Just kidding. Kind of.)