I have learned a lot about making pasta in the last 2 years or so; it is not a coincidence that this overlaps with my having very little time to contribute to the blog. I'd like to illustrate what I now know about the "true" italian approach to pasta with a dish from the menu of the restaurant where I currently work, Delfina.
This dish has, approximately, 4 ingredients. It is also one of the signature dishes of a well-regarded restaurant which has served dozens of them every single day of its 12 year history, which should indicate that the devil is going to be in the details. It is officially listed on the menu as "Spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and peperoncini"
Spaghetti: This is a dry pasta dish. Texture-wise, the sauce adds little more than mouth-feel, so everything depends on the noodle itself. The industry standard for Italian dry pasta is Rustichella d'Abruzzo. I think you can find it retail at fancy-pants grocery stores, or online. De Cecco is pretty decent too. And there is no reason not to use Barilla or equivalent; as always, make sure you cook it properly.
Tomato sauce: The only cheat in the "4 ingredients" is in the tomato sauce, which is itself comprised of 3 ingredients. For tomatoes, again the gold standard is Alta Cucina; whole-peeled San Marzano plum tomatoes, canned with a good amount of basil. According to the image on the front of the can, they are delicious enough to eat plain, on a fancy plate while wearing a suit. They are also astonishingly cheap, running a few bucks for a big 29 oz can, which would make you a couple quarts of sauce. Adequate subsitutes are Red Gold, or pretty much any similar imported canned tomato, using San Marzanos or equivalent, and in whole-peeled form.
Ingredients 2 and 3 are onion and garlic, and the technique for the sauce could hardly be simpler. Sweat chopped onion and garlic in oil until fully cooked but not colored. Smash up the canned tomatoes by hand, add them to the pot, and cook on low until reduced by about a third. This is your sauce.
EVOO: Simple: use the very best EVOO you feel like buying. At Delfina we use a rare boutique small batch Tuscan oil called Stephen Singer, which costs $27 for 750ml, or just over $1 per ounce. You probably do not have this at home; I know I don't. Buying decent oil in a big 1.5L can is generally the best bet, especially if you know somebody in a restaurant who can buy you one can out of a case, giving you an awesome wholesale price. The best brand you can generally find in normal grocery stores for a somewhat affordable price is Frantoia, usually running around $18 for a liter.
Peperoncini: This is fancy Italy-speak for chile flake. Delfina makes its own, by roasted a sheet tray of Arbol chiles until deep brown and aromatic, and then breaking them up into a rustic flake product by hand, which involves gas masks and extreme risk of irritated mucus membranes. At home? Toast a couple chile pods in a pan or in the oven until your kitchen makes you want to cry, let them cool, and roughly break them up or chop them.
The only other ingredient is whole fresh basil leaves.
Technique: I will give a full recipe first, with more in-depth notes below.
Blanche your spaghetti in boiling water until it is just tender enough to bend. Reserving the pasta water, remove the noodles to a saute pan, along with "enough sauce." Add to the pan a hearty pinch of salt, and a very scant pinch of chile flake.
We could call this stage one; at the restaurant, this brings the dish to "pre-fire" status.
To cook the pasta: Add to the saute pan enough of the pasta water to cover the noodles, but only just. Bring the pan to a boil and maintain it over maximum heat. At the very beginning, be careful with the noodles as they are still brittle and too much worrying will break them up into a mess of noodle-shards. But, once they become more supple, you need to constantly move the pasta and the pan to prevent them sticking to one another or to the pan, and the keep the sauce from burning around the edges.
What you are attempting to do over the course of this procedure is find the intersection of having 0 additional liquid remaining in the pan and a perfectly cooked noodle. As it cooks, you will want to add small additional amounts of the pasta water if you think the sauce will dry out and burn before the pasta finishes cooking; but if you add too much, by the time that water has been reduced out of the sauce, your pasta will be hammered. This is only easy to do once you have made the dish, say, 100 times. Working a pasta station, you hit that milestone around week two. At home? Either be content to perfect this over a couple years, or start eating lots and lots of spaghetti.
To finish: Take about 4 medium sized basil leaves and tear them all rustic-like. Add the basil and a medium dash (say, 3/4 oz) of your chosen olive oil. Toss the pasta over the heat until the basil just wilts and the oil is fully emulsified into the sauce.
Serve as is, or, if you are a barbarian, with some sort of hard aged cheese grated on top.
1) Do not salt your pasta water: Yes, every recipe for pasta ever includes the redundant "large pot of heavily salted water." We will be using that pasta water to adjust the consistency of the pasta as it cooks in the pan with the sauce, so if it is salted, you will almost invariably be screwed by the time the pasta is fully cooked. You do, therefore, need to salt the sauce itself liberally at the beginning in order to give the salt a chance of penetrating into the pasta. Get a feel for how to add 90% of the salt the dish needs at the beginning so you have a bit of wiggle room to adjust at the end. This is something like a big 3-fingered pinch, when using Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, and making a single portion. Mortons is denser (i.e. more saltiness-per-pinch) so be careful if that is your brand of choice.
2) Barely cook your pasta in the pot of water: I also directed you only to blanche the noodles in the water, until they bend enough to fit in your saute pan. The purpose of this method is to allow a perfectly tuned sauce with a perfectly cooked noodle, and for virtually 100% of the starch from the pasta to remain in the final sauce, allowing for the ideal mouth-and-noodle-coating texture which we want.
3) Enough sauce?: For a large order of spaghetti, we use something like 7 dry ounces of noodles with 6 ounces of cooked tomato sauce. That said, the consistency of the sauce varies enormously, and I am not even certain about the portion for the noodles. Basically, imagine that you want a sauce which thoroughly coats all the noodles, without any residual tomato gunk left in the bowl after you have eaten; once you get an eye for it, you're really looking for the tint of the noodle itself.
The quantity of chile flake is difficult to describe or measure. It is something like a fraction of a single chile pod. The idea is not for the final dish to be spicy by any measure, but for the warming perfume of the chile to penetrate the palate in a hardly perceptible fashion.
Good luck, knowing that true dedication requires making a 4-ingredient dish several hundred times until you can, happening upon an in-progress pasta, immediately ascertain from an arm's length whether it needs more or less water, more or less tomato, and approximately how much longer until it has to cook.