Italian Cooking Tips From Sessanta NYC

In the summertime, grilling is great, and we welcome any version of s'mores we can find. But, mostly, all we want to eat are fresh ingredients, simply prepared. That's why you can find us cooking Italian most nights of the week. So when Sessanta, one of NYC's hottest Italian restaurants, took on a new chef who revamped its menu, we knew where to go for a refresher in the ways of cooking Italian at home, especially during the hot months.

If you're not seeking advice from an Italian grandma, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better source of wisdom on all things pasta than Adam Leonti, the former chef de cuisine at Vetri in Philadelphia. At Sessanta, Leonti caters to tourists, as well as neighborhood locals used to eating out five nights a week, so he's constantly making sure his menu hits all the right notes and appeals to a diverse crowd.

Artichoke lasagna | Photo: Sessanta

Right now, you can find him whipping up seasonal dishes like pork with chanterelles and cipollini onions, or Alaskan king salmon with stewed hot peppers. He's already created cult favorites, too, with a creative play on artichoke lasagna, in which he fries a whole Roman artichoke and caramelizes thin layers in a cast-iron pan.

When we ask Leonti about the tools we need to cook better Italian food at home, he tells us it's less about gadgets and more about ingredients. "You don't need a whole lot. It's more about learning how to buy a better pasta, for example, and seeing what mileage you can get out of it."

Take your Italian cooking to the next level this summer with five of Leonti's tips for sourcing the best ingredients—plus two pro tips for making pasta at home.

Chef Adam Leonti | Sessanta

① Buy Better Boxed Pasta

"Start to buy the more expensive pastas available," Leonti advises. "It's not a sham. You get that better texture." Leonti likes Rustichella d'Abruzzo, Garofalo and De Cecco.

② Don't Use All-Purpose Flour When Making Pasta from Scratch

Technically, you can use all-purpose flour when you're making fresh pasta, but Leonti suggests buying bread flour instead. One of the pitfalls of making pasta at home, Leonti says, is that the noodles often come out too thick, because all-purpose makes for weaker dough that breaks more easily. With bread flour, however, you get a stronger noodle, which means you can roll the dough out thinner before it breaks. Bob's Red Mill and King Arthur are good places to start.

Pro tip #1: Let the noodles dry as long as you can. "The longer process is what changes the texture of the noodle," Leonti says. "A slow dry changes the physical structure; it's what gives the pasta that bite when cooked al dente."  

Pro tip #2: Don't just dry your pasta on a sheet pan. Freeze the noodles as soon as you've rolled them out. Even just 20 minutes in the freezer will make for a better final product.

③ Splurge on High-Quality Olive Oil

Plain and simple: "Just buy the best you can get," Leonti says. It'll go the distance.

④ When You Find a Perfect Tomato, Don't Cook It

With tomato season around the corner, make sure you know how to treat the fruit right. It's almost as rare to find a perfect tomato as it is to find a perfect peach, Leonti says. In either case, when you spot that ideal specimen at the farmers' market, you should just slice it and serve it—don't cook with it. Use the mealier or misshapen tomatoes for sauce, since they'll still impart the same great flavor.

⑤ When You Find a Good Eggplant, Don't Salt It

With summer in full swing, it's a great time to make eggplant Parmesan. When you're at the farmers' market, look for firm eggplants, Leonti advises, and when you find a good one, simply slice it up and fry it; there's no need to salt it first before cooking, or it deteriorates quickly. When you're using eggplants from the grocery store that aren't quite up to snuff, that's the time to salt them before tossing them in the fry pan.