Starting with Whole Grain Wheat
Oversized zip-top bags bulging with fresh Illinois winter wheatberries crowd the shelves of Nellcôte's walk-in fridge. These whole grains of wheat are the raw materials for the restaurant's different flours.
Milled Whole Wheat Flour
Entering Nellcôte's mill room, Van Camp warned me not to lean against anything—a coat of powder-fine flour had taken up residence on practically every surface. The two-stone mill and attached sifter are run by electric motors that fill the room with noise when switched on. The restaurant goes to this trouble to make its own flour because most commercial whole wheat flours, Van Camp says, don't mill the non-endosprem components of the wheatberry (the bran and the germ) to a fineness that allows the long, complex gluten strands to form in the resulting pasta dough. These contribute to a pleasing texture and mouthfeel.
For pasta flour, the wheat gets milled twice and is then thoroughly sifted to obtain granules of flour so fine that you'd need a microscope to measure their size.
As the whole wheat pasta flour is milled and sifted, the earthy brown color gives way to a sandy, not-quite-ivory tone. The target consistency is so-called "00" fineness. Most of the noodles made at Nellôte, including the spaghetti, are made from three ingredients: the in-house whole wheat flour, semolina, and water. A select few noodles call for egg, as well.
The Combination Mixer/Extruder
An Italian-made device agitates the flour and semolina into a loose, pebbly dough while Van Camp gradually adds water to the mix. Once the right consistency is reached and the dough has had a chance to rest, the same machine extrudes the dough into pasta noodles.
The noodles are cut by hand as they exit the machine and are arranged on a tray over a fan that dries any excess moisture.
Bronze Pasta Dies
Different noodle shapes are made with special die attachments made of bronze. Unlike commercial extruder dies that Van Camp says are typically made of teflon (which results in a overly smooth noodle surface), bronze imparts a desirable "tooth" to the noodles as they are extruded.
After being cut, the noodles are wrapped into individual servings and are refrigerated for dinner service.
A slightly rough texture to the spaghetti allows the noodles to "grasp" more sauce.
Preparing the Dish
In Nellcôte's kitchen, the pasta cooker is adjacent to the stovetop, making it easy to prepare sauce and noodles simultaneously. For his tomato sauce with Calabrian chiles, Van Camp starts by slowing browning garlic, paying close attention to avoid the bitter, off flavors of burnt garlic.
Tomatoes, basil, garlic, butter...
...plus a healthy scoop of Calabrian chiles and a few pinches of olive-oil-laced toasted breadcrumbs (made from Nellcôte's housemade bread)...
...all gets tossed with the spaghetti on the stovetop along with a couple of drips of pasta water. Once the residual liquid has been absorbed in the pan and the sauce properly tightens up, everything is quickly plated.
A Final Touch
Van Camp tops the dish with grated mojama, a Spanish dried tuna, to add a salty, anchovy-like flavor.
The Completed Dish
The concert of flavors and textures is impressive. For how balanced and delicious the sauce is, the noodles still manage to steal the show. They're a presence—decadent and substantial, almost physically compelling you to slow down and savor each bite.