NOTE: The previously reported free promotion has ended but the lo spaghetto al pomodoro is absolutely worth it.
Eataly Chef Michael Nogera had five ingredients on his desk—and mind—for the past six weeks: olive oil, salt, jarred tomatoes, basil and dried pasta. These five ingredients, and only these five ingredients, are in the Eataly Italia’s Corporate Chef Enrico Panero’s lo spaghetto al pomodoro—the dish Nogera was adopting for the US flagship in Flatiron. “You’d think to add garlic, and we tried that, but it just overpowered the dish,” Nogera said. “This dish is all about the tomatoes.”
The team went into the aisles of the market, pulled out 26 varieties of canned tomatoes—and also more than a few different olive oils, salts and pastas—and got to tasting. In the end, the perfect equation worked out to: Così Com'è whole red unpeeled Datterino tomatoes from Campania + artisanal spaghetto di Gragnano IGP by Afeltra from Campania + ROI Monocultivar Taggiasca extra virgin olive oil from Liguria + hand-harvested Sicilian sea salt "Sale Integrale" by Il Mercante di Spezie from Sicily and then all topped with fresh basil.
Italian cooking is about selecting quality ingredients and then getting out of their way. The genius is like director Christopher Guest casting incredibly and then letting the actors ad-lib or ‘90s Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson recruiting around Michael Jordan and then sitting back. It’s curation over cooking, so much so that the only time Eataly heats the sauce is when it's added to the warm pasta right before serving.
You can find the dish at Eataly Flatiron’s La Pizza & La Pasta (If you enter from 5th Ave, head straight back until you can’t anymore). The restaurant was relaunched this month with more light and a revamped look along with the fresh arrangement of the classic spaghetto al pomodoro. I was told that many Italians base their opinion on a kitchen by its pomodoro, and I have no reason to believe that isn’t true. What did I think of the bowl? It is phenomenal. I couldn’t believe it, but this simple pasta dish surpassed the hype (like the ‘96 Chicago Bulls or This Is Spinal Tap). Nogera did not lie about the tomatoes, they were the star. The Datterino is an Italian variety about the size of a grape tomato or a date—hence their name. Eataly selected a skin-on version so that the small tomatoes wouldn’t dissolve completely, and the recipe calls for them to be broken up by hand. But how, if Eataly doesn’t cook their canned tomatoes, does the dish not taste tinny? The take-home (all five ingredients are available to purchase in the market portion of Eataly) packaging is glass, the restaurant/bulk size can is lined with an enamel on the inside so the sweet, acidic tomatoes don’t interact with metal. The spaghetto absorbs the sauce but remains toothy while the salt and olive oil are tasted but not seen. The finish of basil isn’t heavy-handed, so every fourth fork twirl you get a nice herbaceous note, though I kept seeking out pearls of that tomato.
I only stopped eating the lo spaghetto al pomodoro when a large ceramic dish was brought tableside and a square of tiramisu was carved out with a spatula. “Like at nonna’s house,” I was told. Here was New York City’s least-Instagrammable dish, an imperfect lump of cream and coffee dust, but damn was it spectacular, just like an Italian grandmother makes and very few restaurants can replicate.
Had I not fallen for dessert, I could have been in and out of La Pizza & La Pasta in a half-hour—maybe 40 minutes if I were really going to luxuriate in the pomodoro. Often I’m reticent to sit down for lunch in the city on a weekday because I need to be back at my desk in a hour. But this fast casual meal, for only $12, is much more rewarding and cheaper than another pay-by-the-pound steam table lunch (I can’t be trusted around spoon-your-own mashed potatoes). They did it. Nogera is so confident in the dish that this week he finally took the five ingredients off his desk.