Flavor can be as dramatic as black pasta’s inky hue

Whether served with a tangle of octopus rings and tentacles or given a spicy twist with a sauce of Italian peppers and sausages, there’s no question black pasta is a serious trend on local restaurant menus.

What is it about this pasta that makes it such a chef and customer favorite? Is it the dramatic color or is it the briny flavor of the pasta itself?

The vivid black color of the pasta comes from the ink harvested from squid or cuttlefish, marine animals that count the octopus as a cousin. These animals release their ink to darken the water around them and aid an escape from predators.

The liquid from their ink sacs is harvested and saved to tint and flavor a variety of dishes including pasta and risotto. Mike Patrick of Buckhead’s Storico Fresco says the use of the ink began in Italy as a way to use every part of the animal harvested from the sea.

<< Read about 7 places to eat squid ink dishes around Atlanta here.

“Who were the first people who thought of using it with pasta? Some claim it was the Phoenicians. I just know it comes from a tradition when people did not let anything go to waste. And whether it’s squid or cuttlefish, what’s in that ink sac tastes just like the ocean,” says Patrick.

Patrick and his team make pounds and pounds of fresh pasta every day. Each batch of pasta is mixed by hand, a mixture of flour, eggs and occasionally a flavoring agent such as cuttlefish ink. Each day there are two to three dozen pasta shapes available in the refrigerated cases at Storico Freco and always at least one flavored with this inky black liquid.

Patrick began his journey into pasta making by traveling throughout Italy and studying the more than 650 shapes made there. “I learned how pasta is part of the makeup of each region with its own shapes and traditions. And the variations extend to flavoring as well. For example, black pasta has a much heavier squid flavor in Venice than in Puglia or in Naples.”

Storico Fresco will soon open an expanded “alimentari,” or Italian grocery, on Peachtree Street. “We’ll be a full-blown Italian grocer offering our fresh pasta, cheese, cured meats, desserts made in house and more,” says Patrick.

In the meantime, customers who want to experiment with black pasta at home can special order any black pasta shape they like by calling the shop, or take their chances on what’s already available. “We usually have a filled black pasta and a noodle. Potatoes with smoked ricotta is a perfect year-round filling, or at the holidays we’ll make black tortellini filled with pumpkin,” says Patrick.

You can also pick up Storico Fresco pasta at the Saturday morning Freedom and Peachtree Road farmers markets. Freedom Farmers Market is open all year round while Peachtree Road will open for the season on April 2.

What works as an accompaniment to this ocean-flavored pasta? Patrick says of course seafood is a natural but he’s seeing more meats like spicy sausage being used. He likes to pair it with a deep flavored lamb ragu or with a sauce that’s a take on the Southern tradition of pork and turnip greens.

“When I first started out I was pretty hard-headed about what went with what. If it wasn’t made that way in Italy, it wasn’t right. But I’ve learned we’re not in Italy and our customers will do whatever they want. And it’s often delicious.

“In Italy they use the ink to color bread and the rice for arancini. It works with all kinds of carbohydrates. Or it’s used as a garnish with bruschetta topped with chick peas and onions. You can use it in lots of things as long as you don’t mind the color black in your food.”

Milan, Italy-born restaurateur Riccardo Ullio of Inman Park’s Sotto Sotto and Fritti and Novo Cucnia in Dunwoody occasionally offers black pasta with a mussel and clam ragu. “Squid ink pasta works well with seafood sauces because of its sweet notes, although I think its flavor properties are best expressed in a risotto. Cuttlefish ink is superior to squid ink” and pasta made from it is called “nero di seppia.”

For some restaurants like Murphy’s and Paces & Vine, black pastas are an occasional special with the pasta sourced from Storico Fresco. Others like chef Matt Marcus of Buckhead’s Portofino make their own pasta and always have at least one black pasta dish available.

“Squid ink is a brilliantly black and healthy addition to any plate. It’s high in iron and becoming a popular superfood in the culinary world. I love working with naturally beneficial and delicious products like squid ink. We always offer a variation of black spaghetti on our menu, which pairs well with a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc or dry glass of bubbly,” said Marcus.

For chefs that make their own pasta like Jessica Gamble of KR Steakbar, Craig Richards of St. Cecilia and Justin Gottselig of no. 246, squid or cuttlefish ink are available from metro Atlanta seafood purveyor Inland Seafood. It can also be found at specialty markets like Toscano & Sons Italian Market in Virginia-Highland and the wide-ranging Buford Highway Farmers Market.

Not every take on black pasta is Italian. ONE Midtown Kitchen chefs Matt Weinstein and Chris Maher offer Squid Ink Fettuccine with Uni broth, Gremolata, Micro Seaweed and Lemon Bubbles, a dish that references French, Italian and Japanese cuisine.

For chef Justin Jordan of La Tavola, black pasta dishes like his squid ink linguine with a sauce of calamari, Calabrian chilies, garlic and Thai basil pesto are a perfect combination of color and flavor. “This is my favorite La Tavola staple. This dish is full of bold flavors and just enough spice. It is a spin on a classic Sicilian dish and is great for any season!”

Where to buy black pasta:

• Antonio’s Fresh Pasta at the Wednesday Decatur Farmers Market and seasonal Sunday Grant Park Farmers Market. 706-340-9762. Bring fresh frozen pasta to Atlanta each week. Call ahead and Antonio can make any shape and bring it to market.

• Buford Highway Farmers Market, 5600 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 770-455-0770. Carries dried Pasta di semolina di Grano Dura al Nero di Seppia and jars of cuttlefish ink if you want to make your own pasta or season a pot of risotto.

• Storico Fresco, 3219 Roswell Road, Atlanta. 404-500-2181. Makes small batches of fresh black pasta every day. Call ahead to order a particular shape.

• Toscano & Sons Italian Market, 1050 N. Highland Avenue, Atlanta. 404-815-8383. Carries dried black pasta as well as cuttlefish ink.

Channel your inner Italian and prepare one of Mike Patrick’s three dishes featuring black pasta. The sauces, while designed to match up with the flavors of squid or cuttlefish ink, would be just as delicious on plain pasta. Remember when cooking fresh pasta, cooking times will vary. Fresh from the shop? It may cook in a minute or two. Been sitting in your refrigerator for a day or more? Then add a minute or two to the cooking time, checking frequently to be sure you don’t overcook.

Black Cavatelli with Lamb Sugo

Lamb shoulder is generally available at stores with a well stocked meat department. If a large cut of lamb shoulder is not available at your grocery store, you should find lamb shoulder chops. Treat them as you would a whole shoulder, cutting the meat off the bone and trimming most of the fat.

Patrick makes this ragu with 14-ounce cans of red ruby plum tomatoes imported from Italy. They hold up well in the braising and retain their shape to the end. Storico Fresco sells those tomatoes at the shop, or you can use the 28-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes called for in the recipe and found on most grocery shelves.

The anchovies in this recipe add an element of seafood umami that complements the flavor of the pasta.

Garnish the sauced cavatelli with grated Pecorino Romano.

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder, cubed, fat trimmed

Salt and pepper

1 yellow onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

1 medium carrot, chopped (about 1 cup)

1 rib celery chopped (about 1/2 cup)

2 heads garlic, cloves peeled

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 anchovy fillets

1 sprig rosemary

1 bay leaf

1 pinch dried red pepper flakes

2 cups white wine

1 (28-ounce) can San Marzano tomatoes

1 pound fresh black cavatelli

In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Season lamb shoulder cubes with salt and pepper and sear in oil until lightly browned on all sides. Do not crowd pan. As cubes are done, remove them to a plate and continue until all lamb is cooked.

Add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic to the fat remaining in the pan and saute 3 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, anchovies, rosemary, bay leaf and red pepper flakes and cook until vegetables are just browned, being careful not to burn the ingredients. Return the lamb and any collected juices into the pan. Stir in wine and bring to a boil. Cook until liquid reduces by half, then stir in tomatoes. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover pan and cook until lamb is tender. The sauce should be thick, not watery. If the sauce is too liquid, remove heat and simmer to thicken.

When ready to serve, discard bay leaf and rosemary sprig. Cook cavatelli in lightly salted boiling water until just tender. Drain cavatelli and add to sauce. Toss together. Makes: 4 cups and 6 cups ragu

— Adapted from a recipe provided by Mike Patrick of Storico Fresco.

Per serving of 1/2 cup pasta and 1/2 cup sauce: 436 calories (36 percent from fat), 16 grams total fat (6 grams saturated), 64 milligrams cholesterol, 42 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams protein, 222 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Black Tortelli with Arrabbiata Sauce

For a quicker version, you’ll find prepared arrabbiata sauce on your grocers’ shelves or in the refrigerators at Storico Fresco. Patrick suggests a pasta filled with smoked ricotta, spinach and potatoes but any most filled pasta would be just as delicious.

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish

1 onion, diced (about 1 cup)

1 carrot, diced (about 1 cup)

1 rib celery, diced (about 1/2 cup)

4 cloves garlic

1 pinch dried red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 (28-ounce) can whole San Marzano tomatoes

Salt and pepper

1 pound black tortelli filled with smoked ricotta, spinach and potatoes

In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, carrot, celery, garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook until vegetables are lightly browned. Stir in tomato paste and cook 1 minute, then add tomatoes. Season to taste. Cook sauce, uncovered for 25 minutes or until thickened.

When sauce is ready, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add tortelli. Cook until tender. Drain and add to sauce. Toss together and serve immediately. Drizzle with olive oil to finish the dish. Makes: 4 cups pasta, 4 cups sauce

— Adapted from a recipe provided by Mike Patrick of Storico Fresco.

Per serving of 1/2 cup pasta and 1/2 cup sauce: 216 calories (21 percent from fat), 6 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 38 milligrams cholesterol, 34 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 464 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.

Black Chittara, Pancetta, Turnip Greens and Squid

Chitarra is a pasta from the Abruzzo region of Italy. It resembles spaghetti but is square instead of round. Patrick likes to prepare this dish with both squid bodies, cut into rings, and tentacles.

This dish will be on the menu of Patrick’s new shop scheduled to open at Grandview and Peachtree in Buckhead in April.

1 pound black chittara

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1 ounce pancetta, sliced (about 1/2 cup)

4 cups lightly packed chopped turnip greens (about 1/4 pound, stems removed)

2 cloves minced garlic

1/2 cup white wine

5 tubes calamari, bodies cut into 1/4-inch rings (about 1/4 pound)

In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat and add pancetta. Cook until it begins to brown. Add turnip greens and garlic and saute 5 minutes. Add wine and cook until mixture reduces by half. Add calamari and cook 1 minute. Keep sauce warm.

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add chittara and cook until tender. Drain pasta and add to calamari mixture. Toss together and serve. Makes: 6 cups pasta, 2 cups sauce

— Adapted from a recipe provided by Mike Patrick of Storico Fresco.

Per serving of 1/2 cup pasta and 1/2 cup sauce: 250 calories (8 percent from fat), 2 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 36 milligrams cholesterol, 44 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein,112 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

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