Ocotillo dropped a new menu this past weekend. It sports some pretty eye-catching offerings, the likes of mesquite-grilled rib eye, heritage pork pumpkin curry, and red corn polenta.
But my eye darts straight to the pasta section.
The restaurant has a cool, fun, progressive array of pastas. Chef Walter Sterling helms the pasta program. He makes his pastas fresh, and for all but ravioli he uses an extruder.
An extruder is a machine that kneads, mixes, and shapes pasta for you.
Seems pretty nice, right? There's actually a quiet pasta revolution going on in America. The spread of high-end extruders and information has elevated America to the second best country for eating pasta in the world, and the most creative in using the good old noodle. The restaurant world is mostly cool with extruders. Just about every top pasta restaurant in the country makes use of them.
There are, however, chefs who talk smack on extruders. The chef who spits the most yang is guru Evan Funke of Felix Trattoria in Venice, California. His refrain: “Fuck your pasta machine.”
Sterling knows about Funke and his anti-extruder shtick. Sterling even ate at Funke’s restaurant two weeks ago. Of the #fuckyourpastamachine stuff, Sterling replies, “Come on, man. There’s no difference between extruded pasta and fresh.”
All said, there are more than 600 pasta shapes. A huge percentage can't be made without an extruder. Sterling shows the kind of range a restaurant can have with an extruder, experience, and imagination.
“I have a special thing in my heart for pasta,” Sterling says. He uses words like “therapeutic” and “detached” to describe the feeling of making fresh pasta. “It’s super soothing to watch the pasta come out.”
The way an extruder works is pretty simple. You add flour and moisture; the machine goes to work. After not all that long, dough pushes out through a metallic plate cut with shapes. As sculpted ropes of dough push past the plate, a cutter nips them into noodles.
Ocotillo cuts some interesting ones: reginette (ribbon-like lengths), lumache (“snails”), paccheri (giant rigatoni), casarecce, radiatore, and others. Many of the 600-plus shapes can’t be crafted without an extruder. Bucatini, spaghetti with a tubular hollow center, is one.
Bucatini is Sterling’s on-and-off again favorite shape.
“I kind of bought the machine to do bucatini,” he says with a grin. “The outer edge of bucatini is thin, so you can do a buckwheat or a rye flour that has more tooth. The air between the walls of the bucatini lends itself to other grains.”
Pasta can be made with all kinds of flour. Sterling often uses AP. For some shapes, he’ll blend 00 flour (white flour ground superfine) and semolina (which gives texture and bite). Sterling has worked with flavorings beyond grain. He has mixed matcha into dough for tagliatelle (a flat, long-strand noodle). For dish that just landed on the new menu, Sterling crafts chestnut tagliatelle.
He makes it from a blend of chestnut and AP flour. Chestnuts lack gluten—the agent that binds pasta together—making some wheat flour essential to the dough's cohesion. As dough lengths push out the extruder's brass plate, Sterling cuts them by hand.
When made with AP or 00 flour, pasta is a canvas that you can paint the season’s flavors onto. Flour made from nut flour is different. Chestnut flour makes pasta a little sweet. Sterling aims to cut this sweetness with sage and Brussels sprouts. He also adds brown butter, brandy, and ground pecans.
This kind of novel pasta dish that, based on a no-gluten flour, would be a monster to make without an extruder. The beauty of an extruder is that not only does Sterling make chestnut pasta, he could make chestnut pasta in the wonkiest, grooviest shapes imaginable. (So long as he has the plates to cut them.)
Another of Ocotillo’s new pastas is ditalini. Diminutive tubes practically rain out of the pasta machine when Sterling crafts these little guys.
His ditalini dish begins with Manila or Littleneck clams roasted in chestnut pans. Serling puts them in the holes of the pan so they open without spilling their "liquor." These go with the ditalini into a tomato broth flavored with rosemary and black garlic (made in-house over a 30-day period). There will also be chickpeas, each about the size of a single ditalino.
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Other pasta menu highlights include a "calamarata" shape dyed black with squid ink. The pasta is shaped like calamari—squid—and it comes with squid. Snail-shaped lumache will come with roasted squash, goat cheese, winter greens, and bread crumbs.
Sterling’s extruder, an Emiliomiti, was designed by the Italian master Emilio Mitidieri. Some circles hold Mitidieri to a kind of legend status. Mitidieri has been selling pasta machines for almost four decades. More recently, a Pennsylvania-based company, Arcobaleno has made major headway beyond the northeast.
Pasta extrusion is the present and future of fresh pasta in restaurants. Ocotillo makes deft and creative use of its model. All said, it’d be pretty dumb to fuck Sterling’s pasta machine.
Ocotillo. 3243 N 3rd Street; 602-687-9080
Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.