Pasta Perfect

By Jane Craig
Photography by Paul Miller

Patrick Kelly, Panzano’s new executive chef, shows us how to raise pasta making to a high art.

PanzanoChef

Executive chef, Patrick Kelly from Panzano

For such a down-to-earth cuisine, pasta has a surprisingly patrician pedigree. Everyone from Marco Polo (who sam-pled pasta at the court of Kubla Khan but did not introduce it to Italy) to the ancient Romans (who fried their noodles) to Thomas Jefferson (so enchanted by the macaroni in Naples that he reportedly ordered a pasta-making machine sent back home to Virginia) has had a role in the cuisine’s rich history.
So widely loved is pasta—and so diverse its lineage—that there are more than 600 shapes worldwide, from the totally tubular ziti to the curly strozza-preti (“priest stranglers”) to the perky orecchiette (“little ears”). Much of that—6 billion pounds a year, to be exact—is eaten here in the United States, where the most popular shapes, according to the National Pasta Association, are spaghetti, penne, fettuccine, linguine and lasagna.

Those standbys are all yummy, to be sure, but a little … been there, done that. What if a pasta lover wants to elevate his or her game and create more exotic shapes at home? It’s actually easier than you think.

Just ask Patrick Kelly, who, last August, took over as ex-ecutive chef of the venerable Panzano in the Hotel Monaco, replacing the renowned Elise Wiggins (who in turn had fol-lowed Ben Davis and Jennifer Jasinski). “The beauty of Italian food is that it’s got so much natural warmth and soul to it,” Kelly says. “When you elevate it, it’s still essentially a comfort food. And with pasta there are endless iterations of what you can do.”

‘ANYTHING’S DO-ABLE’
Panzano takes advantage of that versatility, making all of its pastas in-house, using two Arcobaleno machines—a sheeter and an extruder—that are like the Teslas of pasta making. The sheeter rolls out various thick-nesses of pasta, then slices them into spaghetti, fettuccine and other “straight” pastas. The extruder, fitted with a range of funky-looking bronze dies, takes a mixture that looks more like sand than dough and turns out 28 shapes.

But choosing the shape is only the start of the magic. “Anything’s do-able,” Kelly says. “I’m a masochist through and through. We also can color the pasta in different ways. I make a cockscomb pasta that I add a little cocoa butter to, turning it a gorgeous brown. We have a bucatini that we mix with basil so it’s completely green—and beauti-ful. Saffron and smoked paprika go a long way, too, in terms of coloring and flavoring.”

For the home cook creating a first batch, Kelly recommends making a basic egg dough, working in small batches so it won’t dry out and starting with flat noodles (like pappardelle or fettuccine) to get a feel for how pasta works. After that, you can graduate to folded, stuffed or extruded creations. Want to add spices? Do it to taste, Kelly advises. But once you get comfortable, you can add, say, a beet or basil purée (remembering to cut the amount of liquid in the recipe to accommodate).

“When making pasta, be adventurous,” Kelly says. “You have to take risks to learn something. Don’t be intimidated by the process because, once it becomes intuitive, it’s really not that complicated.”

‘I ALWAYS LIKED TO EAT WELL’
That Kelly ended up cooking high-end Italian almost seems pre-ordained: Born in tiny Fremont, Nebraska, he spent his summers on his grandparents’ farm, where every Sunday the family would gather for massive meals. “That’s where I learned what an egg should taste like, what a chicken should taste like, what a tomato off the vine should taste like,” he recalls. After moving at age 12 to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where his parents each worked two jobs and he had two younger sisters to feed, “I was already fully addicted to great food, so I’d get on the horn with my grandmothers—one quintessentially Midwestern, one Sicilian—and ask, ‘Grandma, how do you make pie crust?’ or ‘Grandma, how do you make meatballs?’ I always liked to eat well, and the joy of actually providing others with great food was really satisfying to me.”

After working in high school as a busboy in a local Italian restau-rant run by three Sicilian brothers, then graduating with a business and economics degree from the University of Wyoming, Kelly couldn’t shake the idea of being in the restaurant business. But it was only after casually picking up a Charlie Trotter cookbook that he was truly hooked. “Reading it blew my mind,” he says. “I was like, ‘Holy cow! You can do that? I don’t even know what a squab or truffle oil are! I’ve gotta check it out.’ That’s when I knew I wanted to be a chef.”

 

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America (on weekends he’d work for free as a stagiaire in New York restaurant kitchens to gain big-league experience), Kelly cooked in a who’s who-worthy lineup of restaurants, from Chicago’s four-star Spiaggia to Napa Valley’s Redd and Angèle, to San Francisco’s La Folie, where he worked under Roland Passot, the chef he describes as his mentor. “He’s a master technician,” Kelly says. “We were doing four-star Michelin French in a shoebox—so intense and with such high expectations.” After going back to Angèle as executive chef, and seeing it named one of the top 100 Bay Area restaurants, Kelly went to work as executive chef at the Claude Lane Restaurant Group (later Au Bon Repas), then jumped to Lure+Till at the Ephiphany Hotel in Palo Alto before coming here.

panzano-purple-pasta

PURPLE REIGN Panzano’s braised veal agnolotti with Parmesan fondue, sautéed mushrooms, shaved purple cauliflower and hazelnuts.

The Bay Area, Kelly says, is a “cook’s paradise. With the insane farmers’ markets, it’s like cooking in the Garden of Eden.” But he and his wife, chef Bridget Batson, were eager to join the culinary scene in Denver. (She now works as the chief culinary officer of Denver’s chef-prepared dinner delivery service SupperBell.)

“We’d been looking to get to Denver for years,” Kelly says. “We were watching the restaurant scene here evolve—looking at flavor combinations, plate-up techniques, people’s backgrounds—and the talent in Denver was shining as bright as it ever had. I’ve seen some restaurants in town that would be relevant restaurants in any city in the country. What we have going here is really awesome.”

‘100 MILES FROM HOME’
When the Panzano job came open, Kelly applied instantly. “I knew I wanted to rock Italian cuisine again,” he says. The interview process was rigorous—“the most extensive I’d ever been through”—with Kelly cooking 14 courses in the tasting. (The fact that he blew one course, declined to serve it and was able to articulate what he’d done wrong may have helped him win the job.)

“Now I’m 100 miles from home, where my parents and my high school friends still live,” says Kelly, who bought an 80-year-old farmhouse in Golden with Batson (“it takes one to put up with one,” he jokes of being married to a chef), where they’re joined by their two dogs, Elvis (Elly Kelly) and Abner.

But, like any chef taking over a kitchen, he has a lot of work to do. Having kept two favorite dishes on the menu, the Cavolini di Bruxelles and the Caesar alla Griglia, Kelly has created a more developed cheese plate, added such antipasti dishes as a Parmigiano-reggiano custard, introduced duck breast and black cod entrées and, of course, played with the pasta, adding dishes including a saffron gnocchi with lobster and crab and a veal-stuffed agnolotti with shaved matsutake mushrooms and hazelnuts.

“I’ve got big shoes to fill. Panzano has had only four chefs in 18 years,” says Kelly, who did a major menu overhaul in October. “Italian is awesome, and there’s endless creativity with pastas. It’s an ingredient-focused cuisine, and I want to be as product-driven locally and season-ally as possible; I’ll never compromise on that. I came in August, at the end of the growing season, so it will be really telling in spring, summer and fall to be at the markets, get to know local farmers and get the freshest, most local stuff we possibly can.

“I’ve got big shoes to fill. Panzano has had only four chefs in 18 years,” says Kelly, who did a major menu overhaul in October. “Italian is awesome, and there’s endless creativity with pastas. It’s an ingredient-focused cuisine, and I want to be as product-driven locally and season-ally as possible; I’ll never compromise on that. I came in August, at the end of the growing season, so it will be really telling in spring, summer and fall to be at the markets, get to know local farmers and get the freshest, most local stuff we possibly can.

“We’re modernizing the menu, but in the context of Italian cuisine, which is in essence very rustic. There should be no reason that The New York Times would look at Denver’s best Italian restaurant and say, ‘It’s OK. It wouldn’t make it in New York.’ No. Absolutely not. I want to be n that same conversation.”

, ,