The Last Detail

The simplest, most pared down things allow the tiniest details to shine. If something, a wall, bedding, a dress, is all white, you will immediately be drawn to the shadow, the texture, the fabric, the delicate stitching, or the little button, and likewise, the flaws. The negative space is equally important as the 'relevant' space. I have so much reverence for confident restraint. I wish I had it.

In food, the dishes that personify this concept tend to be the ones I respect and crave the most; an olive oil-fried egg, a butter croissant, a perfectly ripe avocado with a squeeze of lemon, drizzle of nice oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, a tomato sandwich with a juicy, extra-ripe, in-season tomato, a basic moist yellow cake with chocolate frosting, a bowl of fresh pasta with some blistered tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic and olive oil. All so sincere and unembellished - none of these foods or dishes have any room for error. They must be executed deftly and with conviction.

And it is the flawless rendering of these dishes can allow the attention to detail to really sing; the rich, warm bright yellow yolk running out of the egg's center, the gorgeous moist layers under the crisp brown flakes of the croissant, how bright that little bit of lemon and salt render the round, nutty taste of the avocado, or how elegantly the basil has been chiffonaded, weaving through the pasta like a loose ribbon through a long braid of hair.

Though I have never personally been very persnickety about formal service when dining out, there are a few of those little extra-specials that I notice and do so love. I get strangely excited when I order a dozen oysters or a fish entree and I spot my lemon half has been wrapped in cheesecloth and tied up with a little butcher twine so as not to muck up my hands too much when squeezing. It's not something I miss when it's not there, but when it is, I take note. Same goes for the napkin being folded back up and placed next to my plate if I leave the table for some reason. And I do always appreciate a proper wine service. But mostly, I try to focus on, and be cognizant of, the food-related nuances. 

My thing if I had to have a one thing, would be in the pasta department. That perfect plate of pasta. And while I have deep, deep affection for carbonaras and pomodoros, and may very well trade my right arm for a beautiful yolk-filled raviolo with brown butter, what I am always most blown away by when done just so is the remarkably simple, almost stark, spaghetti al limone. To the eye, it could just be a swirly mound of plain spaghetti noodles. But if you look carefully, you will see those thin bright green ribbons of basil and tiny little flecks of yellow lemon zest. One bite in and you detect the muted creaminess and earthy bite of Parmiggiano. Once that begins to mingle with the fresh basil and jolt of lemon, your palate springs alive and you realize, this dish has layers. To successfully achieve the balance of these flavors is not child's play. Ultimately, this is one of the most simple and most difficult pasta dishes in the Italian repertoire.

I have devoured this dish in some truly exceptional Italian restaurants in this country and, with that inspiration, and that of Bon Appétit's Out of the Kitchen series, recently made my own version. One change in my own kitchen; the sole addition of some ripe cherry tomatoes, blistered in a bit of olive oil and salt. I guess you could call those tomatoes my own personal touch, the little buttons on the white dress, my cheesecloth-wrapped lemon half.

*Want to meet purveyors who are making a difference with their customers? Check out BonAppetit.com’s “Out of the Kitchen”, an ongoing exploration of the relationships that build and sustain the food industry. See how hyper-local food markets operate and how their focus on quality and service keep customers coming back for more.

Spaghetti con Limone with Blistered Cherry Tomatoes

Serves 4

6 quarts water
 Tablespoons salt
6 Tablespoons butter
1/4 cup fresh lemon zest (zest of 4 lemons)
1 pound dried spaghetti
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 cups cherry tomatoes
Small handful of fresh basil leaves, chiffonaded
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring water and 2 tablespoons of water to a boil and add salt. In a large sauté pan, heat the butter with the lemon zest over medium heat.

Meanwhile, in another sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over high heat. Add tomatoes and cook for about 1-2 minutes while occasionally tossing to evenly blister the skin. Add a generous pinch of salt, toss again to coat and cook for 2-3 more minutes.

Add the pasta to the water and cook for approximately 7-10 minutes, depending on your al dente preference. Drain the pasta and add to lemon butter.

Remove from heat and add basil, tomatoes and cheese. Pour into a warm bowl and serve with salt, freshly ground black pepper and an extra sprinkling of that delicious Parmigiano.

Printable recipe.

One year ago: Coconut Cake
Three years ago: Pimiento Cheese Burgers
Four years ago: Cream Biscuits
Six years ago: Lumples


  1. Very delicious,
    And amazing final touch-up to the recipe.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. LOVE your description of negative space vs. relevant space, beautifully said! and speaking of beautiful, this recipe is STUNNING. could not be dying for a forkful more, just so so yummy :)

  3. I love these little pasta nests - so delicate and beautiful - yet they make you want to shovel a huge forkful of pasta in your mouth all at once - or maybe that's just me! :)

  4. I don't understand. Is "bring two tablespoons of water to a boil" a typo?

    1. Thank you for bringing that to my attention. And yes, it is clearly a typo - it would be ideal to boil pasta if one brought a pot of water in addition to the bit of olive oil to a boil. I will correct that tout suite.
      Thank you for reading, and, again, for calling the error to attention!