Chef Joe Flamm grew up in a big Italian family, where there was always sauce bubbling on the stove. The rule of the house was: if you walked in the kitchen, you stirred the sauce. Since then Joe has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants, won Season 15 of Top Chef, and now opened his first restaurant in Chicago, Rose Mary. It’s named after his two grandmothers and inspired by his Italian heritage. Like Dan, Joe has strong opinions about pasta, but he takes sauce just as seriously. Joe tells Dan why rigatoni carbonara will always win out over spaghetti carbonara, when it’s better to skip fresh pasta and go with the dried stuff, and the one thing you never want to do when saucing any kind of pasta.
This episode is sponsored by Bertolli. Their new Bertolli d’Italia sauces are made in Italy, crafted with vine-ripened tomatoes under the Italian sun, finely-aged Italian cheeses, fresh cream, and Mediterranean olive oil. Find sauces, recipes and meal inspiration at bertolli.com/ditalia.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Electro Italy" by Nicholas Rod
- "Incidentally" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "DeSplat" by Paul Fonfara
Photo courtesy of fto mizno/FlickrCC.
Dan Pashman: It’s kind of crazy to me to think that Italian food, which is so beloved and across the country, isn’t cooked much on Top Chef.
Joe Flamm: Well, it’s not an easy food to cook on that show. Cause Italian food or anything in Italy isn’t about, like, oh, well let’s hurry up and get this done.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Joe Flamm: That is the opposite of Italian culture in all ways, shapes, and forms in anything they do.
Dan Pashman: Right. What’s that? It’s August? We’re on vacation.
Joe Flamm: Yeah. Sorry, you’ll get your other courses in September
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people.
Dan Pashman: And today we’re sharing a special bonus episode sponsored by Bertolli’s new line of d’Italia sauces. In true Italian fashion they take their time making these sauces. We’ll get more into that later, but first...
Dan Pashman: As much as we’ve talked about pasta on the show this year, we haven’t spent much time on sauce, which ones go with which pasta shapes, and the correct way to combine the two. Yes, there is a correct way!
Dan Pashman: Now, that voice you heard at the start of the show is Joe Flamm. He won Season 15 of Top Chef, he was the Executive Chef at Chicago's Michelin-starred Spiaggia, and he recently opened his own place in Chicago, Rose Mary, named after his grandmothers.
Dan Pashman: Bertolli connected us because Joe grew up in a big Italian family. He says everyone had a role in preparing the sauce.
Joe Flamm: You know, you go to the store and you get two loaves of Italian bread. And there was always the one to eat with the sauce during the day, that you just ate all day. You walk by as the sauce was cooking you dip a piece of bread in the sauce, and the other one for dinner, obviously. You know, it was just kind of an event, and it was like anytime — you know, the rule always was if you walked into the kitchen, you stir the sauce. Well, if you walked by the sauce, you didn’t stir it, you didn’t eat.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Joe Flamm: It's an all hands on deck situation. Like, you see the sauce, you stir the sauce. You know the rules.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Joe Flamm: So, you know, it's a big part of it. It was one of those things that, my house always smelled like growing up. The smell of, you know, olive oil and garlic heated up in the pan, it's very nostalgic of like being a little kid for me.
Dan Pashman: I’m imagining marinara sauce, like some kind of tomato sauce. Is that right? Is there meat in it? What is exactly the sauce is in this pot that everyone's stirring?
Joe Flamm: It depends. You know what I mean? On some days it was just your classic, you know, Pomodoro marinara type thing. If it was a Friday and Lent? it would be clam sauce spaghetti with onions and tomatoes and lots of black pepper. Sometimes it was like — you know, my mom didn't make like like a pot roast pot roast, but she would take like piece of beef pot roast And you put it in the sauce and you let the pot roast cook im the sauce all day. And that was like a special like Sunday treat. We would have like a pot roast cooked in red sauce all day. Then you pull it apart. And it was just delicious to just eat that with rigatoni.
Dan Pashman: That sounds incredible. I need to eat that right now.
Joe Flamm: Yeah. It's one of my favorites.
Dan Pashman: Now, as a chef, are you able to tease apart what was it about that sauce? I mean, of course, there's a nostalgia factor. It’s sauce you grew up with, but can you say on a culinary level what made that sauce so good?
Joe Flamm: I think, you know, it's just taking the time and the effort to do it right. Cook it slow, take the time, use the right gradients and just — you're putting the amount of time, technique, and love into it to make sure that it's something that's great.
Dan Pashman: And do you cook that for your family now?
Joe Flamm: Oh, for sure. My family, you know, they got to eat pasta once a week.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Joe Flamm: My wife and my son and my daughter now. You know, I think it's one of those things. It's like if there's downtime, you're making sauce.
Dan Pashman: Now know you were the executive chef at Spiaggia, Michelin starred restaurant in Chicago, probably one of the highest end Italian restaurants in the country. What was it like coming into that kitchen to work there as compared to sort of like the Italian food you experienced growing up?
Joe Flamm: It was all this food that it was what they were doing in Italy at the time. It was very contemporary. It was ingredients, super focused, and all these things. In a way, it was so different. At the same time, it was all the same principle. You're taking the best stuff from what's around you and you're putting a lot of time and care and effort into it. And that's, you know, Italian cooking at its core. And now where are we doing, a little things? Are we using, you know, very nice products to make it more high-end, you know, truffles and caviar, and all that? Of course. But, you know, is the backbone of it the absolute same? Yeah. You're just — you know, you're cooking it with a lot of care.
Dan Pashman: It's interesting to me to think about the evolution of Italian food in America. Italian food wasn't high end seventy-five years ago. But is that something you've ever reflected on?
Joe Flamm: Yeah, I mean, I think it's — you know, Italian food wasn't high end 40 years ago. It was just the food people cooked with their families. It wasn't, you know, these chefs who came over with these recipes. It was everybody's nonna and their mom's coming over here with the biggest pan they could possibly carry on their back, and twenty pounds of Italian sausage, and ready to feed an army.
Dan Pashman: Right. You now own your own restaurant, Rose Mary, which is named after your two grandmothers, who are both important figures in your life. And I'm curious beyond those basic lessons of time and ingredients, are there other lessons that you took from them that influence how you cook today?
Joe Flamm: You know, my grandma Mary, she's ninety-two now. She's the one who made me fall in love with traditions. We still make the ravioli for Thanksgiving. We still do a feast of the seven fishes and you know this is her way of telling me about her mother and about her grandmother growing up on the south side of Chicago and what they did and with her siblings.
Joe Flamm: And it was like when I was a little girl, this is where I'd go buy the squid with my mom. And, you know, we would take it back here and we would clean it. And, you know, it's cool for me to have those stories of, like, you know, when I was a little boy and my grandma would lay out all the newspaper on the table in the mudroom and we'd, you know, be cleaning the squid together for Christmas Eve. I have this great love and passion for that tradition, that history that goes into that dish.
Dan Pashman: Let's talk about sauces and pasta shapes. Now, there are some iconic pairings in Italian food, and then there's sort of some tendencies like pappardelle with wild boar ragu, like those are always together.
Joe Flamm: Sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Dan Pashman: Or broccoli rabe and sausage with orecchiette always.
Joe Flamm: Yup, yup.
Dan Pashman: Always, I always see those together. Is there a sauce and a shape that is especially genius or wonderful to you, personally, that you love?
Joe Flamm: I think people want to give all the love to spaghetti carbonara, but I think the real true winner is rigatoni carbonara. Rigatoni carbonara, it's a superior carbonara hands down, every day of the week, twice on Sunday. And it doesn't get enough love. But when you you go to Rome. You know, you eat at Richoli’s, you eat at Flavio D’Enza? All those places, some of the best carbonara shops in Rome, are going to serve it to you with rigatoni. And it's, I mean, the best.
Dan Pashman: Carbonara, of course, for people who don’t know is, I mean, rarely has there been a dish that is so decadent with so few ingredients. It’s eggs, parmesan cheese, and guanciale, which is salt cured pork. It’s creamy and salty and smoky. But why is a short tube, like rigatoni, better for carbonara than spaghetti?
Joe Flamm: I think because of the short noodle it gives you texturally more perfect bites. You get the perfect combination of egg, peppery, saltiness of the cheese, and the fattiness of the guanciale that it just makes the proportions of everything perfect.
Dan Pashman: And I also — I mean, I'm on record as saying, Joe. This may ruffle some feathers. I'm just not the biggest fan of spaghetti. I love any pasta. You put it in front of me, but it's just — it just doesn't do a whole lot.
Joe Flamm: Well, this is the thing. Really good spaghetti is the best. And this is the reason because an aglio-olio with spaghetti is perfection. And it's garlic and oil and pepperoncini. And that with just spaghetti, you're like, holy hell, this is the best. Spaghetti is — it's the Beatles of pasta, though. It's so overplayed that it's like when you hear, "Here comes the Sun" for the four thousandth time in like a sh--- rendition of it. You're like, maybe I don't like the Beatles. It's like, no, you don't not like the Beatles. You just don't like this horrible cover of spaghetti.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Well, that's a very persuasive argument, Joe. I don't think I can top that. Is there a pasta shape and sauce combo out there that you think is overrated or where like you feel like you could put your own spin on it? There's a better shape to go with this sauce.
Joe Flamm: Yeah. I feel like it's a lot of times when you see like a too fresh of pasta with either a carbonara or cacio e pepe, like a tagliatelle cacio e pepe, and there's just no texture to it. And it's like you need that dry pasta to carry it. You know what I mean? And I think sometimes people are like, oh, it'll be nice. We'll make the pasta. And it's like, it's nice to make the pasta, but nobody in Italy would do that.
Dan Pashman: The fresh ones just get too soft.
Joe Flamm: Yeah. You need something dry to have the texture, that bite to it to carry that pasta. So I think that's always one for me is like certain pasta should be done with fresh pasta. You need something dried.
Dan Pashman: What's the most common mistake people are making when they're putting sauce on their pasta?
Joe Flamm: I think the most common mistake, my biggest one is where they just cooked the pasta. They dumped the pasta out. They just take that jar. They just dump it right on top. Like put the sauce on the pan, heat it up a little bit, and then toss the pasta in the sauce. Cook the pasta in the sauce a little bit. You get that marriage and then it's like really, really beautiful. You know, if you have a nice, beautiful sauce like that, like the Bertolli? You want that flavor from that sauce to go into those noodles, right? You want to go into that pasta.
Dan Pashman: It's not just about coating the pasta. It's also about infusing the pasta.
Joe Flamm: Right. The same way, you know, you seasoned your pasta water for a reason, right? Because that salt is going to go into that pasta. So if you then take that pasta and you put it in that sauce, all the flavors going to go into those noodles.
Dan Pashman: Right. So lets say the box says cook 10-12 min. Really what you should be doing this cooking for eight or nine minutes, drain it, then back into the pan in the sauce and simmer it in the sauce for another couple of minutes.
Joe Flamm: Yeah. It's usually it's like back into the sauce with like ladle full of the pasta the water, so that it thins out the sauce a little bit and then it lets the sauce thicken back up, heat up, and get all nice and congealed with the pasta.
Dan Pashman: It's time now for the lightning round, Joe.
Joe Flamm: OK.
Dan Pashman: I'm going to name one of these four new Bertolli sauces, and I just want you to tell me in one sentence, like, why it's so good. Number One: marinara. There's a lot of jarred marinaras out there. What makes this one good?
Joe Flamm: This one, I love the sun ripened tomatoes they use. It's sweet but it's balanced. And I think, you know, a great marinara sauce? It's your little black dress. It goes with everything.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Creamy Rosa.
Joe Flamm: Oh, the Creamy Rosa is nice. It's almost like a vodka sauce and I think it's just something a little bit more rich, which is really nice with like a penne or gnocchi. My wife loves gnocchi with that kind of Creamy Rosa sauce.
Dan Pashman: I've never cooked vodka sauce myself. I would buy it at a store. And so it's just the kind of thing where, like, it's nice that there's a high quality version of it you can just pick up
Joe Flamm: Vodka sauces like — yeah, like I've made it, but like if my wife was gonna make it, she'd be like, I don't know. This is this is a lot. And so it's like nice to be like, here you go. Here you go. Here it is.
Dan Pashman: Right, right. Number three, Alfredo.
Joe Flamm: The alfredo’s nice. You know, they use great quality cheeses and when you're have cheese sauce, it's only going to be as good as what you start with. So you going to be starting with something that's really, really nice. I'm using good quality Italian cheeses. I think it's really, really important. So it gives it that nice, not just creamy flavor, but like nuttiness, richness to it with those kind of levels to it.
Dan Pashman: Would you do fettuccine with the alfredo or would you pick a different shape?
Joe Flamm: I'm not a big fan of fettuccine guy. If I was to do the alfredo — you know, I like a gnocchi alfredo.
Dan Pashman: Oh, that sounds very decadent.
Joe Flamm: Very. Very decadent.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] And then there's the Four-Cheese Alfredo, which is just like really — that's like New Year's Eve, I feel like. You're just going all the way.
Joe Flamm: I think that's what you do with the gnocchi, then you shave the black truffles over the top and you — you know what I mean? Call it a year. Send me home.
Dan Pashman: That’s Joe Flamm, chef and owner of Rose Mary in Chicago, on behalf of Bertolli. And these new Bertolli D’Italia sauces are made in Italy, crafted with vine-ripened tomatoes under the Italian sun, finely-aged Italian cheeses, fresh cream, and Mediterranean olive oil. The folks at Bertolli take their time making these sauces, and that’s why they are authentically Italian, and authentically delicious.
Dan Pashman: There’s Marinara, Creamy Rosa, Alfredo, and Four-Cheese Alfredo. Look for them in your local grocery store. And find more sauces, recipes and meal inspiration at bertolli.com/ditalia That’s Bertolli.com/ D-I-T-A-L-I-A. We’ll also have a link on our website. Again, that’s bertolli.com/ditalia.