Being a quote-unquote "foodie" I like to have a lot of variety in the type of foods that I eat. I get bored quite easily with dishes and have been known to say that I have "overdosed" on a particular dish after having it one too many times within a short period of time. Despite my, let's call it "fickle" palate, when it comes to the food that I consume at work, it's all about routine and repetition.
Pretty much every single time that I have a shift at the restaurant I will order myself a big ol' bowl of either Funghi Risotto or Orecchiette Pugliese. It may be the fact that there are only so many dishes that I can quickly wolf down at work while standing in a small corner of a hidden server station, without having to use more than one utensil, and that I can easily digest, or it may be because they're just so damn good that I have no problem eating them on a near-daily basis. I'd say it's likely a combination of all of the above, but the fact that our Funghi Risotto and Orecchiette Pugliese are just so knock-your-socks-off delicious certainly makes it easy to consume almost every day.
Although I look forward to going into work just for our risotto and orecchiette, and despite the fact that I already eat it way more times in a week than I care to admit, I still find myself craving both dishes on my days off at home. Being such a simple dish, I have tried to recreate the orecchiette from work several times at home, but each time something was slightly off. I would never follow a recipe, simply winging it with the ingredients that I knew were present in the dish, which always seemed to result in a dry, oily, and quite bland bowl of pasta. With such an incredibly simple dish, it's easy for things to go wrong. You really have to have the highest quality ingredients in order to get the optimal flavour, as well as be spot on in your execution and quantities of ingredients.
Desperate for my homemade orecchiette to be just as fantastic as the one from work, I finally gave in and started working with the very same recipe we use at the restaurant. Though I was fortunate enough to get an exact copy of the specs that our chefs use in the kitchen, lucky for you our Executive Chef Doug Neigel's recipe for Mercatto's Orecchiette Pugliese was featured in the Toronto Cooks cookbook for you to enjoy!
This is one of my all-time favourite pasta dishes thanks to its simplicity and perfect balance of flavours and textures. I love the way the rich and salty fennel sausage plays off of the bitter and crunchy rapini, and that bit of heat that lingers on the tongue from the razer-thin slices of fresh hot peppers. In my opinion its the Padano cheese that ties the whole dish together, which I both toss in and grate on top with reckless abandon (the chefs all know I always order my orecchiette with a request for "CHEESE CHEESE CHEESE" typed into the chit).
TIPS FOR COOKING ORECCHIETTE PUGLIESE:
Undercook Your Pasta - In order to achieve the best results with this dish I recommend undercooking your pasta, taking it out even before it reaches al dente. Remember that your pasta will continue to cook when you toss it together with the other ingredients, so ensuring that it's still fairly tough when taken out of the boiling water will save you in the end.
Keep Your Rapini Crisp - Just like you don't want mushy noodles you also don't want mushy rapini. When boiling your rapini, you are literally dropping it into the heavily salted water, and then taking it straight out. Fifteen seconds in the boiling water and straight into an ice bath is all you need to get tender, yet still crunchy rapini. To reduce any chewiness in the rapini, I like to peel the stalks with a vegetable peeler to remove any of fibrous strands.
Use The Best Sausage - I also recommend finding the absolute best fennel sausage you can get your hands on! It's the flavour of the sausage that will really permeate into the whole dish, giving it it's addictive flavour. Though the fennel sausage I buy at my local market isn't quite as good as the one used in Mercatto's kitchen, I add in some extra fennel seed and dried chilli flakes to amp up the flavour.
Season Every Step - Lastly, it's super important to season every step of the way in order to get that great hit of flavour when ready to serve. Season your pasta water well as well as the water to boil the rapini. Also, be sure to season your rapini and when you sauté it in the pan and, if needed, add additional seasoning to your sausage. This will all help to build the flavour naturally.