Cooking

To Shell and Back

Emily and Matt Hyland of Pizza Loves Emily cover Al Forno's five-cheese baked pasta
Photos: Dave Katz/Tasting Table 
Baked Cheese Pasta

The cheesy baked pasta shells (see the recipe) that Emily and Matt Hyland serve at their adored Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, restaurant, Pizza Loves Emily, are the result of a very happy accident.

Let's take things back to Providence, Rhode Island, in the fall of 2001. It was the couple's first date. Emily wanted to impress Matt and bring him to a hibachi-sushi joint she loved. They drove around Providence, unable to find it, until Matt eventually suggested an alternative: Italian standby Al Forno.

They got the grilled pizza (margarita) that the restaurant is famous for. They got the spicy clam roast. And they got the "pasta in the pink" (now just called the less colorful but more descriptive "baked pasta with tomato, cream and five cheeses"). The restaurant (and that pasta) were a big part of their courtship, even though, Emily says, "If we didn't finish it, there was always a fight over the leftovers." Six years later, they got married, and six years after that, they opened Pizza Loves Emily.

To celebrate their anniversary, they decided to recreate the pasta for their own customers. They worked from memory, rather than from one of the cookbooks by Al Forno's owners (another couple), Johanne Killeen and George Germon, because food, like love, sometimes demands you forge your own path, even while looking to others for guidance.

There was experimentation: They tried a few varieties of blue cheese before settling on one, to be added alongside fresh ricotta, mozzarella, pecorino and fontina. "The hardest part," Emily says, "was getting the texture of the sauce just right. You want to be able to scrape a bit off the edge, but also to be able to dip a piece of bread in there." The most important thing, she adds, is the shower of shaved scallions the dish receives right before being served.

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The dish has become a frequent special at the restaurant, one that they change seasonally, as is the case at Al Forno. "Sometimes," Matt says, "they put corn in it, sometimes pumpkin, but always the core of the dish is the same. The same cheese sauce, the same little shells."

The weekend they debuted the dish, it sold out. Leftovers were sent away with customers—surely spawning a few friendly lovers' quarrels over who got to eat them.

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