hen most people travel in search of good Italian food, they logically head to Rome, Naples, or Tuscany. To be clear, there is obviously a plethora of amazing Italian food to be enjoyed in Italy, but I was surprised to discover high-quality, Italian-inspired cuisine in Slovenia, a small country of former Yugoslavia that borders Italy, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and a sliver of the Adriatic sea.
Fans of the Netflix docuseries, Chef’s Table, would recognize Slovenia as the home to Hiša Franko, where chef Ana Roš cooks up local ingredients and her husband, Valter Kramar, pairs natural and biodynamic wines crafted within Slovenia.
I first traveled to Slovenia in 2019. My wife and I were doing a long-distance hike in the Dolomite region of the Italian Alps called the Alta Via when I hurt my knee halfway through the journey. Since we were hiking long distances with heavy packs, we opted to end the hike a week early, drive down the mountain, rent a car, and venture into Slovenia to spend our remaining time in Europe.
Chef’s Table is one of my favorite series on Netflix, and even before we started our impromptu trip to Slovenia, Hiša Franko stood out as one of the restaurants from the series that I’d like to visit someday. We were able to get a reservation last minute and enjoyed a diverse tasting menu inspired by local ingredients and Slovenian traditions. My favorite dish was a venison filet topped with a baked pine cone. I’d never eaten a pine cone before and expected it to be savory, bitter, and difficult to eat without shredding your mouth on the exterior thorns. The pine cone they served was young and the rough, pointy scales hadn’t unfurled from the heart of the cone yet. It was baked until soft and tasted like sweet pine, citrus, and melon.
We headed into the capital city of Ljubljana for a few days after our experience at Hiša Franko and expected that Michelin-starred meal to be the food highlight of the trip. However, the food we discovered in Ljubljana consistently impressed us. And what was bizarre to me at the time was that a lot of the restaurants served Italian cuisine. Some of my favorite pastas and pizzas I’ve ever had were in Ljubljana.
Later in 2019 we made the decision to move to Europe and live nomadically. When we planned out our itinerary, I made sure Shelby knew our return to Ljbubljana was one of my top priorities. We booked accommodations and made plans to “hop across the pond” in 2020.
Unfortunately, the pandemic hit a few weeks before we were scheduled to list our condo in Boulder, Colorado for sale. Then Covid went on and on. After the vaccines became widely available in summer 2021 and countries eased travel restrictions, we booked our flights to Europe. I was happy that Shelby agreed to make Ljubljana our first long-term stop.
There is a restaurant in Ljubljana called Raw Pasta that we wanted to eat at when we visited in 2019, but it was temporarily closed while the staff were on holiday. Pictures of the food looked amazing and all the reviews were positive. So when we returned to Ljubljana in the fall of 2021, one of our early food adventures was to Raw Pasta. Over the course of the 6 weeks we lived in Ljubljana, we ate at Raw Pasta too many times to count, tried every dish on the menu, got to know the friendly family that owns it, and even did a private cooking class with them, where they taught us how to cook my favorite pasta dish on their menu—Carrettiera.
Here’s the description of Carrettiera taken directly from their menu:
“Garlic (a lot of garlic), fresh chili, parsley, and aged Sardinian Pecorino on top. Ancient recipes of Sicilian origin takes its name from the cart driver who, wanting to eat pasta even during their travels, brought with them easy-to-preserve products like garlic, chili, and Pecorino cheese. A dish with a fresh and distinctive taste. Taste something simple but truly traditional.”
Carrettiera is simple. It’s a large plate of pasta with spicy, creamy sauce. What surprised me is that the sauce was not creamy in the way we make cream sauces in the US. It was not at all like alfredo and I generally wouldn’t describe it as silky or smooth. It was heartier and thicker. When I wound a bundle of spaghetti around my fork, the noodles remained coated in a thick layer of sauce that did not drip or run off. Each bite was packed with powerful, yet simple flavors. The spice was just hot enough to warm my stomach on a cool fall night and make my forehead sweat.
To say that I liked Carrettiera would be an understatement. While Shelby explored other items on the menu, I more often than not opted for my trusty Carrettiera. It was just so yummy. I craved it every few days. After getting to know the family that runs the restaurant over the course of many meals, I decided to ask if they would hold a private cooking class for us. They agreed and hosted us for an informative night of cooking where we made Carrettiera and Ragu (my other favorite dish).
They taught me some simple tricks about making pasta that make a big difference in the end product. First and foremost, getting the salinity and water volume of your pasta water is important because it’s eventually used to make the creamy sauce I love so much. Rather than thickening their sauces with cream or additive thickening agents, they use the traditional method of mixing the starch from the pasta water with grated cheese, which forms a thick paste that acts as the base of the sauce.
The starch content of the pasta water is the secret to achieving a perfect sauce. If you add too much water in proportion to your pasta, the starch concentration will be too low. Traditionally, the only salt added to a recipe like this would be in the pasta water, which then gets added to the sauce. This is one of the main reasons salinity is important. I believe the salt also helps with water retention in the noodles and possibly extracts more starch, but I’m still researching this. The perfect salinity is about the same as sea water.
They told me that in fancy restaurants in Italy, chefs will often prepare super-concentrated pasta water for making sauces by either boiling pasta for way too long (and then throwing the pasta away) or boiling potatoes until they start to disintegrate. So if you really want to impress with a thick sauce, you can try this method.
I typically make the sauce the traditional way with the pasta water that my noodles cook in. Sometimes I’ll scoop the noodles out when they’re done cooking and add a chopped yukon potato to boil for an additional 5-10 minutes. I can save the potato for breakfast and have a pot of pasta water with plentiful starch.
It’s worth noting that I typically have extra pasta water even after making the sauce, but I try not to dump it down the drain. You can save it to make other sauces as this technique is not unique to Carrettiera. And if I’m being honest, I kinda like drinking the pasta water as a tea, but maybe I’m special.
- Two servings of pasta, preferably fresh spaghetti, but you can use other noodles
- 1 bulb of garlic
- 1 red chili pepper
- 1 bundle parsley
- 1 block of Sardinian Pecorino grated finely
- Olive oil
- 1 yukon potato (optional)
Yield: 2 servings
- As stated above, the pasta water is used to make the sauce, so don’t dump it out when the pasta is done cooking!
- Preparing the pasta water is important. You need ~1 liter of water per 100 grams of pasta. Add 10 grams of salt for each liter of water. This will create a similar salinity to sea water.
- Cook the pasta until al diente. This only takes a few minutes if it’s fresh.
- For the best results, have the sauce base ready by the time the pasta finishes cooking. For the best sauce and sauce coating on the noodles, scoop them out of the pasta water directly into the pan with the garlic, chili, and parsely mixture.
- As a bonus, if you have a potato handy, you can dice it thin and add boil it in the pasta water for 15-20 minutes before adding the pasta, which will boost your starch content. If you go this route, remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon and replenish the water that evaporated before adding the pasta. More starch in the pasta water leads to a better texture for the sauce. This step is optional.
- Peel all the garlic cloves on the bulb and destem the pepper. Add the garlic, pepper, parsley and a little olive oil. Pulse the blender until a coarse paste is formed—do not let the mixture become smooth. This is the base of the sauce.
- If you have time, let the mixture sit for a day or two in the refrigerator. You can use it right away, but the flavor is better once it sits.
- Heat a pan with some olive oil on low heat. Add the garlic-pepper-parsley mixture. The goal is not to crisp the garlic, but to cook it slowly. Add pasta water continuously if the mixture becomes too dry or the pan gets too hot. You can always wait for the water to boil back out.
- When the water is almost gone and forms small bubbles around the chunks of garlic and pepper in the pan, add the pasta and remove the pan from the heat. If you add the cheese when there’s heat, the cheese will separate from the sauce and form oily globs.
- Dump the pecorino on top of the pasta, then use a ladle to spoon pasta water directly on top of the grated cheese. Mix everything quickly, taking care not to break the pasta into pieces. The sauce should come together to be thick and creamy as you stir. You can add as much cheese as you like to get the desired texture. Generally there is a perfect equilibrium between the starch in the water and the amount of cheese you can add before the sauce starts to become sticky. The perfect texture is thick and hearty, almost as if a combination of cheese and bread has been dissolved into the sauce.
- Serve topped with extra cheese and enjoy!
- 9/3/22: we made this with fresh spaghetti from Pastaficio and it was by far the best sauce I've achieved yet. It was just like Raw Pasta back in Ljubljana. I think there are two key differences from other times we've made it. First, the pasta was fresh (non-dried). Second, the spaghetti shape definitely contributed to the better texture. I didn't even need to boil potato to get enough starch, the pasta water from just 2 minutes cooking the fesh spaghetti was plenty.