When I was feeling low, I would sometimes go to Sandro’s in NYC to eat his famous lemon pasta. It was always a quietly comforting experience: spaghetti perfectly cooked al dente slicked with a suave, subtly lemon, perfectly-balanced sauce. I’ve tried many versions of this classic pasta that are over-lemoned or over-cheesed, and have settled on this close approximation of Sandro’s lovely version.
The sauce, which just coats the pasta, is very simple: butter and heavy cream are steeped with lemon zest. Once the spaghetti is slightly undercooked, it is tossed with the infused cream, lemon juice, pepper, and just enough Parmigiano to balance but not overwhelm the lemon flavor. Pasta cooking water acts as a moistening liquid that you can use to extend the sauce while you let the pasta soak up the sauce.
The pasta is about perfect as is, but can also be embellished with fresh herbs —basil, parsley, oregano, thyme — slivers of prosciutto or arugula…
If you are a wheat eater, I recommend using the best imported spaghetti or linguine you can find. Rustichella d’Abruzzo is a reliable favorite. For those who need to go gluten-free, the most toothsome brand I’ve found is Jovial, who makes brown rice pastas in a variety of shapes with remarkably good texture (the great failure of many gluten free pastas I’ve tried.)
Recipe: Pasta al Limone (Lemon Pasta)
Serves 4 as a first course; 2 as a main course. Double the recipe to serve 4 as a main; halve it to serve one.
1 lemon, washed and dried
2 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons heavy cream, with an additional tablespoon or two for balancing the flavor
1/2 pound spaghetti, linguine or other dry pasta
3 to 4 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Finely grate the zest from the lemon (I use a microplane grater). Measure 1 teaspoon of the zest and set the rest aside. Then cut the lemon in half and juice it; set aside.
In a small saucepan, combine the butter, cream and 1 teaspoon of the zest (reserve any remaining zest for possible addition at the end). Set over low heat to infuse; when it begins to simmer, turn off the heat.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt well and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is a very al dente (it will cook longer in the sauce). Using a measuring cup, scoop out 1/2 cup of the cooking water and set aside. Drain the pasta and return to the pot.
Add the lemon cream, 1 1/2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of the cheese and a few grinds of pepper. Toss the pasta to coat well, adding some of the cooking water 1 tablespoon at a time until the pasta is just slicked with the sauce. Taste, adding additional lemon juice, zest and/or cheese to taste. To tone down the lemon flavor, add an additional tablespoon of cream. Adjust the seasoning. If the sauce is thickening too quickly, stir in a little cooking water. Serve at once