Also check out our 10 Best Vegetarian Main Courses
In Providence, Rhode Island, where I went to college, there was a mythical little restaurant called Al Forno. There were countless other old school Italian establishments on Federal Hill, but it was Al Forno, just down the road from College Hill, that had the most mind-blowing pasta, the best brick oven pizza, and the most coveted reservation in town (they didn’t accept any for under 6 people).
If your parents were coming into town and someone caught wind that you had a reservation at Al Forno, you were the most popular college kid in the world, all of your friends vying for one of the three extra spots at your Al Forno table. I might have considered selling my first unborn child if it meant getting to eat Al Forno’s famed “pasta in the pink.”
Post college, to save myself the train trip, and the fate of my offspring, I started making Pasta Al Forno at home. The first time was for Matt’s birthday, and the result was shockingly close to the restaurant version. As at the restaurant, I served them in piping hot metal baking dishes for the whole table to dig into. The recipe was also shockingly simple. Five cheeses are mixed together with parboiled pasta and a little tomato in a mixing bowl, poured into the baking dish, and cooked at very high heat (to imitate the restaurant’s signature brick oven).
The resulting pasta is crispy on top, and tender in the center, drenched in a creamy pink sauce, with just the slight hint of flavor from the different cheeses. Of the five used, gorgonzola is the one I loath. But you barely taste it in the final incarnation. Rather, the cheeses melt together into a nutty, rich base–the kind of sauce you want to bathe in.
I’ve always wondered about the many variations that could be created from this simple formula. But it wasn’t until Merrill Stubbs, co-founder of Food52 and fellow alumna of my alma matter, posted about Al Forno Pasta with Pumpkin and Pancetta that I got up the nerve to mess with the original dish’s magic.
I tried my hand at her version, using roasted squash instead of pumpkin, omitting the gorgonzola (the idea of having half the block leftover in my fridge was too horrifying), and ramping up some of the other cheese quantities. The squash pasta that came out of the oven had a totally different flair than the original, but the same signature crunch and creaminess. By pureeing the squash with the cream, the sauce becomes incredibly thick and rich, making this the perfect vegetarian comfort dish, as winter insists on persisting for another few weeks.
From my kitchen, still waiting for someone to invite me to Al Forno with her parents, to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Butternut Squash Pasta Al Forno
One 3 pound butternut squash, peeled and seeded
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 pound conchiglie rigate (medium shells)
2 cups heavy cream
½ pound shredded fresh mozzarella
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano
½ cup fontina, coarsely grated
1/4 cup ricotta
2 teaspoons chopped thyme leaves
Heat the oven to 400°F. Cut the squash into large (3-inch) chunks, and toss together in a large mixing bowl with the olive oil, salt, and sugar. Arrange the squash in one even layer on a parchment or foil-lined baking sheet. Roast in the oven until tender and beginning to caramelize, 20-30 minutes.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta for exactly 5 minutes, drain and rinse with cool water. Set aside in the colander.
Add half the roasted squash and the cream to a small food processor or blender, and puree until smooth. Roughly chop the remaining squash.
Carefully pour the squash-cream mixture into the mixing bowl. Add the cheeses, ½ teaspoon salt, and the thyme, and stir to combine. Fold in the pasta and the chopped squash.
Raise the oven temperature to 500°F.
Spread the pasta evenly in a casserole or baking dish. Bake uncovered for 7 to 10 minutes, until the top is browned and the bottom layer of pasta is just tender.