I made a spaghetti dinner for my family the other night, and was shocked to hear rave reviews from the youngest member, a 10-year-old pasta connoisseur who does not toss around food compliments lightly. It was just the standard noodles-and-tomato sauce (jarred at that) I've been preparing for myself for decades on nights when a little quick and simple comfort food is in order. But the enthusiastic reaction reminded me that the method employs a little restaurant-style finesse that makes all the difference. The tricks are simple. Here's the gist:

  • Cook the pasta in salted water. How much salt you use is up to you, obviously depending on how much sodium you want in your diet. But even a little will make a difference, since the pasta water is used to fortify the sauce.
  • While the pasta cooks, heat the tomato sauce in a large skillet. Over low heat, just so it bubbles gently. It'll reduce slightly, which is good, because you're adding more liquid in the next step.
  • When the pasta is about 1 minute from being cooked to your liking, pull it from the water with tongs, and place it in the skillet along with about 1/4-1/2 cup of pasta water, depending on how much you're making. Stir it all together, and raise the heat on the skillet so that the liquid reduces and the pasta finishes cooking. This step is the real key to it all. It's the point where the pasta absorbs the flavor of the sauce, while giving off starch to enrich the sauce's taste and texture. Cook until the pasta is done and the sauce coats the noodles tightly. The sauce shouldn't be very loose or liquidy: the tighter it is, the more vibrant the flavor.
  • Take the skillet off the heat, and gild the lily. Here's where you make a good thing awesome: Let the mixture rest for just a second so the temperature drops a few degrees (this way the dairy won't curdle), then stir in finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and just a touch of butter. It's best to grate the cheese with a microplane, so it melts quickly and evenly. Both the cheese and butter emulsify into the sauce, making it a thing of utter beauty: intense, rich, and fit for the pickiest of pasta eaters.