To read more from Sarah Baker Hansen, go to her blog, OMAvore.
This is the third installment of Food Prowl, a yearlong series of stories in which we, along with a few special guest tasters, examine what the city's restaurants have to offer and choose our favorite foods in a dozen categories.
For month three of Food Prowl, we're looking at spaghetti, an Italian favorite. To read Sarah's full story from Friday's paper, click here.
Paul Kulik ---- chef-owner at the Boiler Room restaurant
George Matuella ---- volunteer at Omaha's Sons of Italy hall since 1997. He works there every Thursday during the group's spaghetti feed.
In our humble opinion, the best spaghetti in town is the Papardelle Bolognese at Dante Pizzeria Napoletana.
And after eating boatloads of sauce and heaps of pasta in Italian restaurants old and new, the thing we ended up liking the best — the restaurant we're choosing as the best spot to eat spaghetti in Omaha — isn't what Omahans might expect.
Our papardelle bolognese came to our table looking like nothing else we'd sampled.
The richly brown bolognese sauce is made with lots of meat, Strawhecker told me in an interview later. Chicken livers, ends of salami, pork and beef are all in there, along with a hint of tomato paste, herbs and no fewer than ten bottles of wine. It cooks down and mingles for 10 hours.
It's Strawhecker's own recipe, derived from his own cooking and recipes he made at two restaurants in Italy.
The sauce is rich, and the deep flavor — chicken livers and wine and fresh, green herbs — all comes through in the first bite.
It has something Paul Kulik, chef and owner of Omaha's Boiler Room restaurant, called umami, a Japanese word that roughly translates to "savoriness."
The sauce is evenly distributed through a pile of thick pappardelle pasta that's housemade using Strawhecker's favorite pasta recipe. The pasta is light in flavor, golden yellow in color and cooked al dente. A light sprinkling of freshly grated cheese decorated the dish.
"The chicken liver and all the meat and the wine make for an intense base," Paul said. "It makes me crave more."
It made me crave more, too.
It's a mix of the familiar and the future, the Sunday gravy done for a modern palette.
Dante Pizzeria Napoletana
---- 16901 Wright Plaza
THE OTHER CONTENDERS:
Lo Sole Mio
Lots of the sauce we ate during our Prowl was what many Omahans will recognize as "Sunday gravy," a pot full of tomato, beef, pork, meat bones and seasonings such as parsley, oregano and garlic that cooks for a day or more and is spooned over a mound of any type of pasta and doused with cheese. It's what we sampled at the Sons spaghetti feed.
And it's what we enjoyed, at Lo Sole Mio, a south Omaha institution.
Our server at Lo Sole Mio split a bowl of pasta for us, giving us each a sizable dish.
We talked a bit about the size of the portion: Why always so big — enough for three meals?
"I think it has to do with making people feel welcome," Paul said. "I think it has to do with hospitality and generosity."
The sauce tasted a touch sweet and, to Paul, caramelized, with a molasses-like flavor. The orangey-red sauce, studded with medium-sized chunks of ground beef, had a sprinkling of fresh parsley studding the top. The rest of the seasonings looked and tasted dried.
What impressed most at Lo Sole Mio was the pasta itself. When George Matuella, volunteer at Omaha's Sons of Italy hall since 1997, went there, he ordered the spaghettini, also called angel hair.
"It was terrific," he told me later. "It was cooked to my pleasure. Not mushy, not hard. Just right there."
The food writer, the 16-year Sons of Italy volunteer and the James Beard semifinalist chef all praised the perfectly cooked pasta.
Lo Sole Mio
---- 3001 S. 32nd Ave.
George lives near Mangia Italiana, in Irvington, and so he and Paul and I ate lunch there. We tried Bolognese and marinara with a meatball, and, while we ate, we chatted.
It turned out George's twin sons — two of his five children — graduated from Creighton Prep a year before Paul.
George told us about his Italian family. He's the second generation to live in the United States. Most of his family is from around Trento, a city in northern Italy not far from the Austrian border. He and his wife went to Italy two years ago for their 50th wedding anniversary.
Paul and George traded stories about the country, and I furiously scribbled down notes between bites.
They talked about Lake Como, the friendliness of the people, the wine.
They talked about the freshness of the food in Italy, and about how much of the sauce they'd eaten there was different from Italian-American sauces. Paul described the food again: light, balanced, bright.
George told us stories from his childhood: a grandfather who grew grapevines in his backyard, his mother's homemade pasta and how she made spaghetti sauce twice weekly, on Thursday and Sunday, but they never called it "gravy."
"That was a New York thing," he said.
George and Paul — who told me earlier he's not a fan of sweet sauces — agreed that Mangia's sauce was too sweet. Paul thought the flavor of dried herbs overwhelmed it. I wished the sauce and pasta had been mixed together better before being served.
---- 6516 Irvington Road
We tried another old-school spot, Malara's near South 20th Street.
Sinatra crooned to us about New York in the nearly empty restaurant as we sampled the sauce and the homemade pasta — Malara's was one of only two places we visited that makes its own.
The pasta seemed curiously thick. The texture, too, seemed odd: more like a soft dumpling than a strip of al dente pasta. To Paul, it fell somewhere between an Asian noodle and a German dumpling.
The darker-hued sauce came mushroom-studded. A too-grainy meatball didn't taste great to me.
---- 2123 Pierce St.
At Pasta Amore, in Rockbrook Village, the sauce was full of big, flavorful chunks of garlic. It wasn't sugary, didn't have dried herb flavor and was meaty but not overwhelmingly so.
"For me," Paul said, "this sauce tastes much fresher. It's nice not to have that tooth-clenching sweetness."
The sauce was one of the best we tried. But we had some gripes: The pasta was overcooked and the parmesan cheese was not freshly shaved.
---- 11027 Prairie Brook Road