Omaha's best spaghetti - Omaha.com
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Chef Nick Strawhecker prepared pappardelle bolognese with pork, beef, red wine and spring herbs at Dante Ristorante Pizzeria in Omaha.(BY REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD)


FOOD PROWL

Omaha's best spaghetti
By Sarah Baker Hansen
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER


See our first-ever Food Prowl video

To read more from Sarah Baker Hansen, go to her blog, OMAvore.

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This is the third installment of Food Prowl, a yearlong series of stories in which we, along with a few special guest tasters, examine what the city's restaurants have to offer and choose our favorite foods in a dozen categories.

For month three of Food Prowl, we're looking at spaghetti, an Italian favorite. To read Sarah's full story from Friday's paper, click here.

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The tasters:

Paul Kulik ---- chef-owner at the Boiler Room restaurant

George Matuella ---- volunteer at Omaha's Sons of Italy hall since 1997. He works there every Thursday during the group's spaghetti feed.

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In our humble opinion, the best spaghetti in town is the Papardelle Bolognese at Dante Pizzeria Napoletana.

And after eating boatloads of sauce and heaps of pasta in Italian restaurants old and new, the thing we ended up liking the best — the restaurant we're choosing as the best spot to eat spaghetti in Omaha — isn't what Omahans might expect.

Our papardelle bolognese came to our table looking like nothing else we'd sampled.

The richly brown bolognese sauce is made with lots of meat, Strawhecker told me in an interview later. Chicken livers, ends of salami, pork and beef are all in there, along with a hint of tomato paste, herbs and no fewer than ten bottles of wine. It cooks down and mingles for 10 hours.

It's Strawhecker's own recipe, derived from his own cooking and recipes he made at two restaurants in Italy.

The sauce is rich, and the deep flavor — chicken livers and wine and fresh, green herbs — all comes through in the first bite.

It has something Paul Kulik, chef and owner of Omaha's Boiler Room restaurant, called umami, a Japanese word that roughly translates to "savoriness."

The sauce is evenly distributed through a pile of thick pappardelle pasta that's housemade using Strawhecker's favorite pasta recipe. The pasta is light in flavor, golden yellow in color and cooked al dente. A light sprinkling of freshly grated cheese decorated the dish.

"The chicken liver and all the meat and the wine make for an intense base," Paul said. "It makes me crave more."

It made me crave more, too.

It's a mix of the familiar and the future, the Sunday gravy done for a modern palette.

Dante Pizzeria Napoletana

---- 16901 Wright Plaza

---- 402-932-3078

---- http://www.dantepizzeria.com

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THE OTHER CONTENDERS:

Lo Sole Mio

Lots of the sauce we ate during our Prowl was what many Omahans will recognize as "Sunday gravy," a pot full of tomato, beef, pork, meat bones and seasonings such as parsley, oregano and garlic that cooks for a day or more and is spooned over a mound of any type of pasta and doused with cheese. It's what we sampled at the Sons spaghetti feed.

And it's what we enjoyed, at Lo Sole Mio, a south Omaha institution.

Our server at Lo Sole Mio split a bowl of pasta for us, giving us each a sizable dish.

We talked a bit about the size of the portion: Why always so big — enough for three meals?

"I think it has to do with making people feel welcome," Paul said. "I think it has to do with hospitality and generosity."

The sauce tasted a touch sweet and, to Paul, caramelized, with a molasses-like flavor. The orangey-red sauce, studded with medium-sized chunks of ground beef, had a sprinkling of fresh parsley studding the top. The rest of the seasonings looked and tasted dried.

What impressed most at Lo Sole Mio was the pasta itself. When George Matuella, volunteer at Omaha's Sons of Italy hall since 1997, went there, he ordered the spaghettini, also called angel hair.

"It was terrific," he told me later. "It was cooked to my pleasure. Not mushy, not hard. Just right there."

The food writer, the 16-year Sons of Italy volunteer and the James Beard semifinalist chef all praised the perfectly cooked pasta.

Lo Sole Mio

---- 3001 S. 32nd Ave.

---- 402-345-5656

---- http://www.losolemio.com/

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Mangia Italiana

George lives near Mangia Italiana, in Irvington, and so he and Paul and I ate lunch there. We tried Bolognese and marinara with a meatball, and, while we ate, we chatted.

It turned out George's twin sons — two of his five children — graduated from Creighton Prep a year before Paul.

George told us about his Italian family. He's the second generation to live in the United States. Most of his family is from around Trento, a city in northern Italy not far from the Austrian border. He and his wife went to Italy two years ago for their 50th wedding anniversary.

Paul and George traded stories about the country, and I furiously scribbled down notes between bites.

They talked about Lake Como, the friendliness of the people, the wine.

They talked about the freshness of the food in Italy, and about how much of the sauce they'd eaten there was different from Italian-American sauces. Paul described the food again: light, balanced, bright.

George told us stories from his childhood: a grandfather who grew grapevines in his backyard, his mother's homemade pasta and how she made spaghetti sauce twice weekly, on Thursday and Sunday, but they never called it "gravy."

"That was a New York thing," he said.

George and Paul — who told me earlier he's not a fan of sweet sauces — agreed that Mangia's sauce was too sweet. Paul thought the flavor of dried herbs overwhelmed it. I wished the sauce and pasta had been mixed together better before being served.

Mangia Italiana

---- 6516 Irvington Road

---- 402-614-0600

---- http://www.mangiaitaliana.com/

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Malara's

We tried another old-school spot, Malara's near South 20th Street.

Sinatra crooned to us about New York in the nearly empty restaurant as we sampled the sauce and the homemade pasta — Malara's was one of only two places we visited that makes its own.

The pasta seemed curiously thick. The texture, too, seemed odd: more like a soft dumpling than a strip of al dente pasta. To Paul, it fell somewhere between an Asian noodle and a German dumpling.

The darker-hued sauce came mushroom-studded. A too-grainy meatball didn't taste great to me.


Malara's

---- 2123 Pierce St.

---- 402-346-8001

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Pasta Amore

At Pasta Amore, in Rockbrook Village, the sauce was full of big, flavorful chunks of garlic. It wasn't sugary, didn't have dried herb flavor and was meaty but not overwhelmingly so.

"For me," Paul said, "this sauce tastes much fresher. It's nice not to have that tooth-clenching sweetness."

The sauce was one of the best we tried. But we had some gripes: The pasta was overcooked and the parmesan cheese was not freshly shaved.

Pasta Amore

---- 11027 Prairie Brook Road

---- 402-391-2585

---- http://www.pastaamore.net/

FOOD PROWL

See previous Food Prowls at Omaha.com/foodprowl

The tasters:

Paul Kulik
---- chef-owner at the Boiler Room restaurant

George Matuella
---- volunteer at Omaha's Sons of Italy hall since 1997. He works there every Thursday during the group's spaghetti feed.


Food Prowl is a yearlong series of stories in which we examine what the city's restaurants have to offer and choose our favorite foods in a dozen categories. The stories won't be comprehensive — we can't try everything. But they'll include our food writer's opinion, and the opinion of other Omaha food lovers who treat the city as a place for culinary adventure. We'll eat together, and then collectively make the call on the foods (and one drink) we like the most. We also invite readers to chime in online and tell us their favorite places, too.

>> January: Reuben
Our Pick: the Crescent Moon's Blackstone Reuben

February: Pho
Our Picks: tie between pho at New Gold Mountain and Saigon Restaurant

March: Spaghetti
April: Falafel
May: Cupcake
June: Taco
July: Cheeseburger
August: Fried chicken
September: The Old Fashioned (Cocktail)
October: Chicken Tikka Korma
November: Eggs Benedict
December: Ribeye

MORE ON ITALIAN


>> Italian food is widely varied and each area has its own specialty. Regional differences can come from many things, chef Paul Kulik said: a bordering country, like France or Austria, whether a region is in the mountains or near the ocean and what's available seasonally.

>> Longtime Sons of Italy volunteer George Matuella says Omaha has a thriving Sicilian community. Much of the food in Sicily is influenced by Spanish and Greek traditions, and some traditional specialties from the region include arancini, a deep-fried rice croquette, caponata, and desserts such as cannoli and granita. Marsala, a red, fortified wine similar to Port, also is typical of Sicily.

>> In northern Italy, fish, potatoes, rice, pork and cheese are common ingredients. Northern Italian cooking uses less tomato sauce, garlic and herbs. Stuffed and baked pasta dishes are also common in Northern Italian cuisine.

>> The food of central Italy can include tomatoes, all kinds of meat, pecorino cheese and fish.

>> Southern Italian food — what's most commonly found in Omaha — includes more tomatoes and tomato sauce, along with peppers, olives, olive oil, garlic, ricotta cheese and capers, among other ingredients.

>> In Italy, pasta is made in hundreds of shapes. In northern Italy, fresh pasta made with eggs is more common. Italian pasta is traditionally cooked al dente (Italian: “firm to the bite,” meaning not too soft).

Contact the writer: Sarah Baker Hansen

sarah.bakerhansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1069    |  

Sarah writes restaurant reviews and food stories for the World-Herald.

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