No Reservations: Cooking Italian Pasta

For a minute, with the sheet of silky, egg-rich pasta between my fingers, I feel like Catherine Zeta-Jones.

"Take your time. It's all in the fingertips," Michael White, the celebrated New York City chef behind Alto and L'Impero restaurants, gently encourages me. "You want the pasta to have a toothsome quality and that takes work."

Were those the same words he uttered to the Hollywood bombshell, I wonder with more than a hint of competitiveness. Moonlighting as the chef consultant behind the 2007 foodie film "No Reservations," starring Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart, White knows how to coerce the best out of his kitchen co-stars.

I try to sneak a peek at my reflection in his chef's knife. Fine, Michael Douglas' better half wins with the glamour quotient, looking much better than I under the fluorescent lighting.

But, I'm a determined sous chef. And as I fold the tissuelike pasta over its rich, braised short rib-parmiggiano filling, I vow to learn a thing or two about Italian dinner table staples. Maybe my beef will never be fork-tender. Perhaps I'll never turn out savory pillows of pasta perfection. But after a few hours of culinary coaching from Chef White at the James Beard House, I bet you I can figure out how to make noodles with a fantastic meat sauce.

Then, I'm putting on a saucy pasta production of my own.

"For buttery, flavorful meat, braising is key," Chef tells me as he tucks the heavy-bottomed pan filled with browned beef, wine and veal stock into the oven. Even though I love the idea of a cut of meat hanging out in a gently simmering, Jacuzzi-like bath of stock and chopped vegetables for two, six, eight hours, I know that I can't withstand that much cook time in my studio apartment. A girl can read only so many magazines.

Mixing up and rolling out pasta dough isn't for the time-strapped lady cook either. "You've got to work it. Pass it through the machine as many times as you can stand," Chef repeated with his unerring patience, rolling out sheets of pasta as long as my 3-year-old niece. An image of my kitchen (which also doubles as an office and bedroom) flashes into my mind. I have one flat surface to work with, and it barely holds my Mr. Coffee.

Little Miss Adaptation faces a serious dilemma.

The situation grows even more complicated — though admittedly more delicious — when Chef plates the ravioli. After four hours of cook and preparation time, he gilds the lily by shaving fresh, black truffles atop the finished plate. I consider my outstanding rent check and swiftly determine there's no way I'm topping my pasta with an underground fungus that retails for $800 a pound.

Back in my bedroom-cum-kitchen, I remember Chef's last words of advice: "My recipe is just a guideline. Don't be married to it, don't be too serious. Have fun!"

If Catherine Zeta-Jones heeds his advice, I should too.

I make the executive decision to forego braising, rolling and splurging and, instead, focus on premade mushroom ravioli with a hearty, quick beef Bolognese. Chef's orders are to have fun. And a good time to me on a random Wednesday night means no more than an hour at the stove.

Within 10 minutes, my ravioli are cooked, drained and glistening with a coat of olive oil. The sauce is halfway done. Ground chuck, browned until crispy and then simmered with wine and tomato paste, sings with richness and depth despite its short cook time. A final flourish — a nod to both chef and the glamorous screen queen — is a pour of white truffle oil into my quick and easy Bolognese.

I taste a forkful of ravioli with meat sauce. Guess who I feel like? Ms. Zeta-Jones — on a budget.

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