Down the street from me in Milan was a little neighborhood trattoria, La Ragazza, that served the most delicious pasta. The rich pancetta and tomato sauce in their signature penne dish included lots of creamy, fresh ricotta – a combination you don’t see often stateside. The only problem was, when I returned from Milan, La Ragazza was no longer down the street from me, and I was still craving their house specialty. So I set to Googling, and found the traditional recipe from an Italian pasta blog, Pasta Recipes Made Easy. Success! Here it is re-envisioned with American measurements and a few pasta-making tricks of my own.
La Ragazza’s penne is housemade and dried. If you can’t find this at a specialty pastaria near you (there are many more in Italy than here), use artisanal-quality packaged pasta.
Recipe: Penne with Ricotta and Pancetta
1/2 a 28-oz. can of whole San Marzano tomatoes
1 tbsp. regular olive oil
1/2 red onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/4 lb. pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 tsp. tomato paste
7 oz. penne rigate
1/2 c. fresh ricotta cheese
Parmesan cheese, grated with a microplane to measure 1/2 c.
5-10 leaves basil, cut into chiffonade
1. Set a sieve over a bowl and pop open each tomato to strain out as many seeds as possible. Add the seeded tomatoes and half the sauce from the can to the bowl. Save the rest of the tomatoes and sauce for another use.
2. When you have prepared your mise, start cooking. Season a large pot of water with a handful of kosher salt, cover it and put it over high heat. Heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion and pancetta and stir well. Saute, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft and the pancetta is cooked through, about 10 minutes.
3. Add the tomato paste and stir for a few seconds, then add the tomatoes and their juice and scrape up and browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add sea salt to taste, turn the heat down to medium-low and cover the saute pan. Cook the tomatoes, covered, for 5 minutes to soften them. Then remove the lid and crush the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Turn the heat down to low.
4. By now the pasta water should be boiling. Add the pasta, return it to a boil, and cook according to package directions.
5. Leave the sauce uncovered on low heat and stir occasionally while the pasta cooks. One minute before the pasta is done, add the ricotta, half the parmesan, and the basil to the sauce. Turn the heat to high, and stir until the ingredients are thoroughly combined and heated through. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pasta to the saucepan and stir for another 30 seconds, until the penne takes on some of the pinkish color of the sauce.
Serve the pasta immediately with the extra parmesan sprinkled on top. To make this dish ahead of time, make the recipe through step 3 an hour or so in advance, then finish it just before serving.