Nadia Munno Lives Up To Her Pasta Queen Name With The Best Pasta Tips - Exclusive Interview

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Everybody should bow down to The Pasta Queen. Nadia Munno, aka The Pasta Queen on social media platforms, is making waves in the pasta industry with her insightful tips and flavorful recipes. The TikTok star has amassed a total of 2.6 million followers and 45 million likes to date due to her food videos that are gorgeous — just like you are, as Munno would say.

In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, the Italian-born cook dished on her latest pasta concoctions; the biggest mistakes you're making with homemade gnocchi, pesto, and carbonara; and her upcoming venture as a content creator at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Originally from Rome, Munno told us the inside scoop on what the three top dishes across the pond are really like — cacio e pepe, carbonara, and amatriciana. The YouTuber dropped her first cookbook late last year, named "The Pasta Queen: A Just Gorgeous Cookbook," featuring over 100 recipes and authentic family stories. All we needed to hear was "pasta," and we were already sold.

The Pasta Queen is headed to a foodie festival

I want to start out by talking about the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. What are you planning on cooking?

I believe I'm doing a couple of great things. I'm doing a collab with another influencer called Jessica Woo and Nick DiGiovanni. That's going to be a really fun, outside-of-my-comfort-zone challenge on how to assemble a bento box. Then I am on "Good Day New York." We're cooking something from the hotel, and that's going to be ... I don't even remember what I'm cooking yet.

Say you have to make a pasta dish in 15 minutes. What are the five first ingredients you are grabbing?

Cheese, most likely — parmigiano or pecorino romano. And I would grab some garlic, extra virgin olive oil, pasta, and some chili peppers.

So a regular pasta dish with a little bit of heat?

An aglio e olio with melted cheese.

Homemade pesto doesn't necessarily need basil

I want to switch gears to talk about pesto ... If someone is looking to make something different from a traditional pesto, what are your favorite additions or ingredient swaps?

I have two versions that I love. One is pistachios, and it's got the usual pecorino, parmigiano, garlic, olive oil, and basil. That's really what I like to add — pistachios — because to me, it's even better than the original one. The other one I really, really love is to substitute basil altogether for mint and add lemon to it. So it's a minty lemon, creamy cheese, and garlicky pesto.

Is [the amount of] that mint you would put in the same [as the] amount of basil you would put in a traditional pesto?

Correct. Same amount of mint leaves, and then I add probably half a lemon juice.

How much lemon juice do you normally add?

It would be two tablespoons of lemon juice, and then you should garnish with lemon zest. It is really, really incredible. I made it for a Michelin-star chef, and he was mind-blown. I completely made it up. I was like, "I really love mint, and I really love lemon." [It's] like a minty lemonade, but with pesto.

Where [is] your favorite spot to eat in Southern Italy?

Definitely Rome, which still counts as South. We're right at the beginning of the South. I grew up in Rome, so I am biased. However, I do feel that the way they cook is my preferred way of cooking. [The] further south you go, the spicier it gets. In Rome, we do use spice. The type of flavoring is perfect for my taste buds.

And their method of cooking — could you elaborate on that a little bit? How is it different from [farther] south, like in Amalfi?

We use a lot of cheese. We're very cheesy-based; we have amazing cheese. Pecorino romano is the most available there because we make it in that region, so we add it everywhere. We have a lot of steam, the marinated stuff. We have a lot of zucchini, peppers, eggplant marinated with garlic, vinegar, parsley, and extra virgin olive oil. We have a lot of steamed stuff. I love steamed artichokes. 

But we don't fry as much as [farther] south. Further south, I notice there are a lot more fried dishes or deep fried. And I love it; I would love an eggplant parmesan where it's fried. I love deep-fried peppers. I love arancini that are deep-fried and all of that. But I feel it's too ... I didn't grow up so much down in Sicily, Calabria, Puglia. They're very deep-fried there. I like it a little bit lighter. It's a lot of oil, a lot of dripping, fried things, and although I like to splurge on that, I prefer the cuisine of the Lazio region.

Don't make this carbonara mistake

Rome is also known for its carbonara.

Yeah. The three top Roman ones are cacio e pepe, carbonara, and amatriciana.

That's definitely a simple yet tough dish to perfect. What are the biggest mistakes people make when cooking carbonara?

They don't use the fat rendered from the bacon, the guanciale bacon. They don't grate the pecorino romano cheese fine enough, they don't use pasta water, and they don't cook the pasta al dente. Those are the things that I see that are most blasphemous on the web.

There's also the ultimate [mistake] ... which is frying the eggs. At that point, we can't call it carbonara. ... That'll be like a frittata. You could do a frittata di biase that is carbonara style. I've done it. Eggs and bacon fried with spaghetti, and you make it into a frittata. It's delicious. But it's a frittata di biase. It's a different dish.

Spaghetti pomodoro is a classic

What's your go-to Italian dish to make right now?

My favorite one is pomodoro, so tomato, basil, and garlic. I could eat that forever. And one thing I do that is different to make it really extra ... [is] I strain the tomatoes so there's no seeds, no peels. This makes the tomato a lot sweeter because the seeds themselves are very acidic because they're basically unripe future tomatoes. They make the sauce very, very, very acidic. You take peels and seeds out [and then] put it through a strainer. ...

A standard spaghetti cooks in eight minutes. So you cook [the spaghetti for] four minutes in boiling water, you toss it in the tomato that's now being strained, and you let them cook for four minutes [to] finish their cooking in the tomato sauce. This allows the pasta to hydrate in that juice, which makes the spaghetti tomato really, really flavorful because they're absorbing the tomato juice to cook.

Do you add anything like salt or any other seasonings, or do you just let the tomato do this job?

I would do garlic [and] basil. I sizzle it together. So the basil is sea salt before the tomatoes go in. They release a lot of flavor. Then I put the strained tomatoes in salt. Then I add the pasta. Four minutes into its cooking, I add that in. I [may] need to splash a little bit of starchy pasta water [on] it [to allow] it to bind together and finish its cooking and give it enough juice. Then I finish it off with some parmigiano and fresh basil leaves on top, and it's incredible.

That's so interesting that you season the basil before you put that in.

Yes. I like doing that. It's a trick that my grandmother taught me. A lot of people think it's a mistake in cooking, but it actually releases so much flavor into the olive oil.

You're underestimating fruits in pasta

Because you are The Pasta Queen ... I would love to know, with an authentic Italian dish, whether it's meat, seafood, soups, et cetera, what do you think is not talked about enough?

Fruit — the use of fruits in pasta. For example, one of my most popular recipes, the pear and gorgonzola pasta — it's delicious. And we have figs and bacon — that's a separate dish. 

And we have one that I just published last [month] — apple and sausage. I use green apples. It's the perfect acidity — the sweetness combined with the sausage. Then I added a creamy red bell pepper sauce on top of it to garnish it, and it was really, really, really delicious.

Do you pick fruits depending on the season?

Yeah. My next one that I'm doing, and nobody has seen it, is my cantaloupe pasta.

Is it green or orange cantaloupe?

It's the orange cantaloupe.

Could you tell me what you're doing with that yet, or no?

It's a surprise, but it's a classic Southern Italian recipe, so I'll bring it out and everybody can talk about that.

Canned tuna doesn't need to smell fishy

Do you have any recommendations for canned seafood pasta? 

Tuna is definitely one of my go-to [items] that I add. I do it a couple of different ways, but I'd love to add it [to] a puttanesca sauce. I love tuna. In Italy, we have a lot of tuna, and specifically, we have redfin tuna, which is a bit different than albacore. It's a lot richer in flavor.

[I also use] bluefin. What I do is I sizzle it. I start with a base of either shallots or garlic, and then extra virgin olive oil. I use Cayuga olives. I use capers. Then I put the tuna in, which has been drained of any oil or brine. Whatever brine might come with, I drain it all. I don't want any of that. I put it in, let it become flavorful. I sprinkle a little bit of parsley, I put the plum tomatoes in, and then I cook it for 15, 20 minutes, and it's absolutely delicious.

Do you have any tips for beginners working with canned tuna for the first time?

There's one thing that you should know. If you're a little bit put off by the smell of tuna, you can kill it instantly. You take the tuna, you drain it off, and then you squeeze a whole lemon on it. It makes it a lot milder and it doesn't give off [the smell]. It kills a little bit of that fishy type of intense flavor. 

I do it sometimes depending upon what brand of tuna. Some tuna is a lot fresher, and it doesn't give off that fishiness. But when you don't like that, you put in lemon and it neutralizes it a bit. And you can do that for anything — deviled eggs or a pasta salad or a tuna salad or a tuna sandwich. You can use that method for anything.

You've been cooking broccoli wrong this whole time

With the Super Bowl coming up, do you have any ideas for a pasta-oriented appetizer?

I am doing a crostino sausage provolone and broccoli rabe for the Super Bowl. First of all, I am completely in disagreement with the way that people cook broccoli here. I've seen a lot of home cooks and chefs doing the boiling method. It loses a lot of its flavor and nutritional properties. 

What I do [is] I almost steam-cook them in a pan. I put a frying pan [on the oven], regular frying pan. I put in a little bit of garlic. You can put in whole garlic cloves if you want. Break it up a little bit so it releases some flavors. You can then take it out if you want or leave it. I put extra virgin olive oil, one or two garlic cloves. I put the broccoli rabe, [also known as] rapini, in the pan. Then I let it stir fry a little bit. I add a splash of water, and then I put a lid on, so it almost steam-cooks.

Do you put it on high heat?

No, I put it on medium-low. 

Let the water come out. You add salt, of course, so that it extracts all the water out of the veg. It'll help extract all of the juice out of the broccoli rabe. Then you put the lid on so that you don't let the steam escape. It stays all in. It takes about seven to eight minutes. You take the lid off, [and] you'll see everything soften up. And that's it. I keep it there for another five minutes without the lid on, and then I toss it to the side. 

I open a sausage link, take it out of its casing, put it right next to the broccoli, and let it cook in that juice. ... That juice will have the juice of the broccoli and a little bit of extra virgin olive oil with the garlic flavors all in. You let the sausage cook in it, and it's done within five minutes. ... 

You toast a little piece of bread. You put provolone at the bottom of it so that it melts a little bit with the heat of the toasted bread. You put sausage and broccoli on it, and then you sprinkle some chili pepper flakes, and you're good to go.

Spicy chocolate is the dessert you should try

Valentine's Day is on the horizon as well. What is your favorite luxury ingredient to add to pasta?

I got one better for you. I'm about to publish [this] on [February 10] — a spicy chili chocolate mousse. It's a very, very aphrodisiac dessert, and it's got the spice of chili peppers. I'm using cayenne chilies. Whenever I can, I find Calabrian chili peppers. They're actually now on Amazon, believe it or not. You can get a whole bag of Calabrian chili peppers; I think you can get a pound for $13. I thought that was incredible because they're imported from Italy. ... If you don't want to buy the Calabrian ones, you can use this regular cayenne chili pepper powder.

You basically do a whole procedure where you're tempering the eggs with a little bit of milk. You are adding some sugar to it so it's all melted. I use powdered sugar so there's no grains and stuff. I tempered the eggs so that they're not raw, and then I break up the chocolate, dark chocolate — has to be at least 70% cocoa.

You toss this mixture of egg and milk over it, and it will instantly melt the chocolate pieces. Then you whisk it all together and put chili pepper, a whole bunch of it, like a full teaspoon. You've got this dark chocolate with the chili pepper, and it creates this really interesting balance of flavors. It really goes well together. For some reason, I'm obsessed with spicy chocolate bars. 

Then you do a little bit of side of whipped cream. After the mousse is chilled in the fridge for at least two hours, you decorate it with whipped cream. Then I put dried cranberries — but you can put dried strawberries or dried raspberries — as a little decoration on top of the whipped cream, which is now white. Then I put in a strawberry. That decoration strawberry is nice, made into a little rose on the side of the little bowl. It's quite incredible, and it's very creative for Valentine's Day.

Is that something that you have to make [on the] day of? Or can you leave it in the fridge [for longer than] two hours?

You can leave it in the fridge for two days, max two days, because there's also egg white, which I forgot to mention. There's egg white to give it that airy mousse. You have to beat the egg white until they're fluffy, and then you combine and fold it into the chocolate cream.

Gnocchi is all about the potatoes, obviously

What do you think is the key to achieving the perfect texture for potato gnocchi?

One of the biggest mistakes that people make is they use the wrong potatoes. You have to use very old potatoes. And to avoid any mistakes, I always use russet potatoes, which are generally a lot drier than Yukon gold potatoes. You want the water content to be very, very little because the more water content the potatoes have, the more flour [they need] to actually become the perfect consistency.

If you keep adding flour because you've got all this water content in the potatoes, you are going to end up having a very doughy, rubbery gnocchi which is mostly made out of flour. You want it to be mostly made out of potatoes, so you have to have the driest potatoes you can. I would use russet potatoes that have been lying there for a couple of months so that they're really, really dry. Then you put a little bit of flour, one egg, and you get to a point where the dough is very soft but not sticky, where it stays sticky on your hands. It leaves little sticky bits.

At that point, you've got your perfect mixture because the balance of potato versus flour is correct. And when it cooks, it's mostly potatoes, so it will be a lot softer.

Do you normally enjoy pesto with gnocchi or marinara [sauce]?

I love to make a gnocchi alla Sorrentina, which is baked with melting mozzarella and tomatoes and basil. That's a really nice one because you bake it and the gnocchi get a little bit crunchy and a little less soupy.

So that's like a baked ziti-inspired dish?

Yeah. Of course, not every gnocchi is going to be crunchy, because you're going to have the ones at the bottom that are full of sauce. But when you do get that one that is slightly crunchier, it's so satisfying.

Add pecorino romano to your pasta dishes

Beyond parmesan, what is your favorite cheese to pair with pasta?

Pecorino romano.

Do you head to the farmer's market to grab [it]? Where are you based?

I'm in Tampa Bay. We are so lucky because we have an Italian market, which is actually one of the biggest ones. It's the biggest Italian market in Florida. People travel from three to four hours away to go to this market. It's massive, and it's got authentic Italian imports. It's called Mazzaro, and it's in St. Petersburg.

And the cheeses are really ... They have a lot of cheeses there. I created an Amazon list which has all of the biggest imports from where you can buy these cheeses, and they get delivered cold, iced. They send them to you within a day or two, and they're iced, so they arrive fresh.

Do you have any upcoming projects or anything else you would like to share that's coming up this year?

There's a lot coming up this year, but I'm not allowed to disclose it right now. But there's very exciting projects. You are definitely going to be seeing a lot more of [The] Pasta Queen everywhere. For right now, I would like everybody to buy my cookbook, which is a New York Times bestseller. [I'm] very proud of it. It was an instant New York Times bestseller [and] Wall Street Journal bestseller. It became a bestseller in the same week in Canada.

It was a great success, and it keeps on selling. I want more and more people to know about that. I'm in South Beach on [February 25], and anybody can come, and I'll be doing a meet and greet and a book signing as well.

Nadia Munno, aka The Pasta Queen, will be appearing at FoodieCon at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival on February 25. Keep up with her latest recipes on TikTok and Instagram.

This interview has been edited for clarity.