Chef Michael White freely admits that you would never find a dish like his fusilli with baby octopus and bone marrow on his Marea menu, in Italy. But since he is cooking in America, he feels justified in creating what he calls an homage to surf and turf, substituting octopus and marrow for the more traditional seafood and steak.
There are other local influences, the sauce base is an ode of sorts to the traditional "Sunday gravy" that simmers away for hours in Italian-American kitchens, but the ingredients themselves and the cooking techniques are mostly gleaned from Italy. The dish is similar to White's fusilli with pork shoulder served at Convivio, one of White's other restaurants, which I recently reviewed and found to be a near perfect synthesis of textures and flavors.
White has struck that elusive balance again with his latest offering. After the jump, see how he does it.
The pasta used for the fusilli is made from Durum wheat. It is a tricky wheat to work with compared to other varieties because it requires hot water (190°F hot) to release the gluten and integrate the wheat and liquid to form a smooth pasta. Once the pasta is formed into sheets and allowed to cool, it's rolled to a thickness of three-eighths-of-an-inch and then cut into thin ribbons.
Fusilli translates to mean "coil" or "spring" in English. When you watch the pasta-forming process, it becomes apparent why. A single strand is held down on the table by the pasta-makers left hand while the right hand rolls the pasta forward, causing it to twist around itself and form the distinctive rope-like shape. Both hands work in unison, moving in opposite directions, to create the perfect spiral.
Once the individual strand is complete, it's affixed to the cutting board. This can only be accomplished on a wood since other surfaces won't allow the pasta to adhere (it will literally recoil). As the strands accumulate, they are also affixed to each other. Once all the strands are completed, they get a quick dusting of flour, before being cut into short pieces. While you might traditionally find longer lengths of fusilli, White decided to keep his short to make them easier to eat. Marea is a fine dining restaurant and no one wants to have to have to wrangle lassos of pasta flinging sauce all over ones pricey threads.
The finished fusilli.
The pasta is apportioned into serving size packages and allowed to chill before service.
The base of the sauce is baby octopus from Spain that is braised for an hour and a half in Sangiovese wine, San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, basil storks and salt and pepper. The concoction then cools completely, which allows the flavors to homogenize and intensify. When an order for fusilli comes into the kitchen, a portion of the sauce is ladled into a pan and brought up to temperature. Moments before adding the marrow, they sprinkle fresh basil into the sauce.
Marrow bones are soaked in a bath of ice water and salt providing a chilly brining of sorts. The pipes are then shucked and the marrow is seasoned with thyme, garlic, salt and pepper, then sautéed for a moment to begin the process of rendering the fat. It is then added to the sauce. If the gelatin from the octopus didn't bind to the liquefied marrow, the marrow would simply float to the top of the sauce. Instead, the two ingredients complement each other on a molecular level, allowing the sauce to be realized.
While the sauce thickens the fusilli are dropped into boiling water. They are cooked for two minutes, then added to the sauce to cook for a further minute bringing them to the perfect doneness and allowing the sauce to coat the pasta,
If necessary, a little extra tomato base is added to achieve the right balance.
The dish is ready moments later—the sauce fully integrated and the pasta perfectly al dente.
The pasta is plated.
A generous portion of "mollica" is sprinkled over the dish to add a textural contrast. Made from the toasted crumbs of the insides of the bread (which is infused with garlic, chilies, parsley, and olive oil) the mollica adds a pleasing crunch to the dish.
When the fusilli is placed in front of you, lubricated by the marrow, it glistens in Marea's sultry lighting. The sauce, once a vibrant red, has become a much deeper hue, almost like that of a tomato-based stew. The ropes of fusilli coil around themselves, interlaced with the octopus tentacles and dotted with buttery slivers of marrow. Pressing a fork into the knot of pasta, spinning it to scoop up a few tender strands, is an easy affair. The sauce clings to the fusilli and because the pasta is so short, it's easy to lift.
The first bite is unexpectedly complex for such a simple-looking dish. The marrow, completely emulsified in the sauce, adds a velvety smoothness balanced by the sweetness of the octopus and the tartness of the wine and tomatoes, brightened by the fresh basil. The dish is equally compelling from a textural standpoint: the fusilli are tender yet retain some firmness, mirrored by the octopus itself, while the silky marrow is complemented by the crunch from the bread crumbs.
I find the dish just sensational. What's not to love about surf and turf with Sunday gravy?
The fusilli with baby octopus and bone marrow is available at Marea for $27.
240 Central Park South, New York NY 10019 (b/n Broadway and 7th Avenue; map)