I hardly ever order pasta in a restaurant. Especially in the United States. I mean, with some basic ingredients and a modicum of skill, one can recreate most pasta dishes found on most menus. But there are some pasta dishes that I'll order whenever I see them. Even if I spy lamb scottadito on the menu. Because they are so fabulous, and so hard to replicate, it feels like I won the lottery just finding them on the menu.
1) Tagliatelle ai porcini. I'm pretty sure that years from now, scientists will discover some sort of opioid drug in porcini mushrooms. Because the way my heart races when I see them on the menu, and the sense of peace and oneness-with-the-world that I experience when a plate of them appears in front of me sending that earthy scent ringing through my body, and the surge of annoyance I feel when anyone asks me for a bite can really only be explained by a chemical fixation. You have to be very careful though. A pasta that says it has porcini mushrooms may be serving them out of jar. Scandoloso! Processed porcini mushrooms are sometimes decent, but more often they resemble dirt encrusted snail tracks rather than the sublime perfection embodied in their fresh cousins. Want to be safe? Order in season, and ask to see the porcini mushrooms.
2) Pasta alla Norma. I probably had this every day in Sicily. Something about those busiate noodles, those wild Sicilian herbs, that perfectly crumbly ricotta salata, that eggplant with the crisp edging giving way to an almost marshmallow-smooth center, that suggestion of savory yet bright tomato sauce. Oh my. I've never had it as well outside of Sicily, but I still feel compelled to order it if I believe the chef will even approach the bliss that is this dish in its birthplace. How can I tell? Well, the description of the ingredients, mostly, and asking the server how heavy-handed the tomato sauce is. If it's doused, it's probably wrong.
3) Linguini con vongole. Linguini with clams gets me where I live. I'm also a sucker for other shellfish pastas, but it's the clams I'm after. Which is strange, I know how to make this, it's not particularly daunting, but it does take a dab hand to get the proportions right, and to cook the sauce to its perfect balance of rich and bright. It could also be that my eyes are drawn to this dish because I learned to cook with shellfish late into my cooking life, so clams still feel like a luxury ingredient. I'm not sure exactly, but I know that I throw my shoulders back like a princess when I order this one. Keith will often try to dissuade me from choosing it, as it's likely to not be as good as when we make it at home, but I just can't help myself. I should add, the linguini con vongole from our neighborhood trattoria, Tavola, is a particularly divine version—with just the right amount of soave wine and a pleasing hit of Calabrian chili. Whenever I order something other than this (or the other shellfish pasta on the menu) I'm invariably disappointed. Every thing is wonderful, but when I deviate, I can't help but regret my lack of garlicky clam pasta.
4) Ragú with lamb or rabbit or deer or cinghiale or duck. From le Marche to Brooklyn to the Dolomiti to Spello— some of my favorite, most memorable dishes of pasta have included these meats rarely found on styrofoam plates. When chefs are cooking with game (is lamb game though?), it's a sign that they know what they're doing. And if the ragú doesn't include tomatoes, I get really excited. The dish of pasta is likely to be festooned with a layered sauce, rich with nuance and verve.
There's a non-meat version of this rule of thumb: I'll order any pasta with a wild vegetable. Wild asparagus, wild fennel, wild greens. These dishes are sure to be fresh and stir the tickle of spring's promise. I'm a particular sucker for greens clothed in ravioli. Something about the bite of the greens brushing against the creaminess of ricotta and the nuttiness of browned butter with sage. That's pasta nirvana.
Relatedly, I'm always keen to order a pasta shape outside the usual fusilli, spaghetti, and penne. Stand-outs: wide paccheri, spiraled busiate (as mentioned above in the pasta alla norma), hearty pappardelle, and thick bucatini (an amatriciana without mention of bucatini in an untested restaurant won't get a second glance from me—though, it should be said I had one of the my favorite amatricianas at Il Cacciatore in Spello and it was served on, wait for it, penne).
5) Anything described as regional. I'll never forget when we were at a restaurant in Lucca and Nicolas opened his menu and then snapped it shut. To my confusion, he responded that he'd spotted an item that was described as a regional specialty. I asked, "But what if it has frog in it?" "Then I'll eat frog," he answered. Turns out, it didn't have frog in it. At least I don't think so. Instead, the dish was round pillows of meat ravioli with a decadent ragú tinged with unfamiliar spices that tasted like Christmas. It wasn't only a spectacular dish of pasta, it really connected us to our newly burgeoning understanding of Lucca's historic placement along the silk road. That same meal, Keith ordered a different specialty, chestnut noodles. They hit the same sweet spot in my appetite that ramen does. Total slippery-umami-noodle goodness. My palate determines much of my traveling, and when I order food with historic roots in an area, I'm not just traveling—I'm transported.