The best way to cook pasta is in the sauce, according to Brian Clevenger at Vendemmia.

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IF YOU COOK spaghetti in a big pot of water, drain it, then toss it with sauce, you are pouring a lot of flavor down the drain, says Vendemmia chef Brian Clevenger.

“The trick to good pasta is cooking it in the sauce,” he says.

It was while working at Delfina in San Francisco that he really started to understand why. “Most places don’t do it because it’s so hard. It’s the most difficult ‘simple thing’ we cook in our kitchen.”

The technique is similar to risotto. After softening the noodles in boiling water, you finish cooking them in a saute pan with the sauce, adding ladles of the pasta water until they are done. “That’s flour, egg, flavor you’re adding,” Clevenger says. Vigorous stirring creates an emulsion that allows the sauce to coat each strand. As with risotto, the tricky part is stopping before the noodles overcook.

Clevenger says the technique works with any dried pasta (he prefers Rusticella brand) and with any sauce. They cook a lot of pasta this way at Vendemmia. “With all the starch that collects at the top of the pasta pot,” he says, “the best pasta of the night is the last one served.”


Pasta with Tomato-Basil Sauce

The sauce:

3 ounces extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, smashed

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

2 small white onions, diced

1 28-ounce can high-acid plum tomatoes, such as Muir Glen Organic, Redpack or Red Gold

1 teaspoon red chili flakes

2 ounces picked basil leaves


1. In a nonreactive sauce pot on medium heat, combine olive oil, garlic and 1 teaspoon salt. Lightly brown the garlic, flipping it to color all sides. Remove and discard. Add onions, and cook until translucent.

2. Remove pot from heat. Carefully add tomatoes, including liquid, to the hot oil. Cook tomatoes on medium-high heat. Stir often with a wooden or rubber spatula, scraping the bottom of the pan so the sauce doesn’t burn. When the tomatoes break down and the sauce thickens (about 35 to 40 minutes), add red pepper flakes. Pass through a food mill. Stir torn basil leaves into the sauce. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Yield: About 2 cups of sauce, enough for four 4-ounce portions of pasta.


The pasta:

2 cups tomato sauce

1 pound dried pasta, such as spaghetti, bucatini or other long noodle

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 ounces picked basil leaves

Kosher salt, pepper

Red chili flakes (optional)


1. Put the tomato sauce in a nonreactive skillet large enough to hold all the pasta.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the noodles until they bend enough to sit comfortably in the skillet, about 2 minutes.

3. Using tongs, transfer the noodles to the skillet. Immediately add 2 ladles (about 6 ounces) of the pasta water to the skillet. Turn the heat to medium, and bring to a boil. Stir with a spatula to gently agitate the noodles. The sauce will thicken and emulsify as it cooks. The pasta will swell, and you’ll be able to move the noodles without breaking them. Once most of the water has been absorbed, add more water, a ladle at a time, and continue stirring. When sauce begins to adhere to the noodles, taste for doneness. When the noodles are still firm to the bite — al dente — stir in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and torn basil leaves. Remove from heat. Season with salt, pepper and red chili flakes, as desired. Divide into four bowls. Garnish with more basil.

Brian Clevenger, Vendemmia