Cooking is a powerful social tool. It can cultivate friendships, break the ice with strangers, or ingratiate you with coworkers. More than anything, though, it helps with navigating the dating scene. I didn’t realize it until I was in my mid-20s, but people are usually willing to blow past a ton of relationship red flags if you show them you can cook. Nobody ever really seemed to be tripped up by the statement “I’m addicted to gambling and come from a long line of alcoholics” so long as I kept churning out homemade pasta.
Pasta, my birthright, has never steered me wrong. I hold a strong emotional connection to it. Whether on a first date or a random Tuesday two years into a relationship, few things are as romantic to me as hanging out in a kitchen with somebody else and rolling out dough. Pasta is jam-packed with feelings, infused with meaning. When you make pasta for someone else, you’re communicating something very specific. Each dish conveys its own message about love, and the state of the relationship between you and the recipient. Here’s what each one means, so you can make sure you say the right thing.
Carbonara is what I cook when I’m pulling out all the stops, when I’m trying to make the first impression. Carbonara, if done right, is the most seductive of the pastas. It’s dense with flavor, deep with fat, and beautifully simple. It wouldn’t work in a giant pot or served family style a la Buca di Beppo. It’s personal, intimate, meant to be crafted with precision and care. It’s also hard to pull off. You need to bring your A game for this one. When you make carbonara, you’re saying, Damn, I really want to get my shit together for you.
Meat sauce is what you make when you’re super comfortable, maybe even complacent with someone. I remember about a year into one particular serious relationship when I was making meat sauce regularly. We were both way past the maybe-I-should-watch-what-I-eat-around-this-person stage. The honeymoon phase was over. Sex wasn’t paramount to the relationship. There wasn’t much happening in the bedroom after a belly full of homemade orecchiette and ground veal, pork, and beef. Eventually, we both became out of tune with what the other person needed. I blame meat sauce. If you make bolognese right, your sex drive will plummet.
I know this is a little food-shamey, but I want you to know I don’t hate Alfredo—I just grew out of it. There’s a time and place for fettuccine Alfredo, and it’s usually when I’m hungover as hell and I want to eat an amount of cream and butter that will make me fall back asleep. Alfredo is what I ordered when I was in high school. My tastes have evolved. If I’m dating somebody, and I say, “I’ll make you whatever you want,” and they say, “Blackened chicken Alfredo!” that’s not a good sign. Our interests aren’t aligned. We’ll just end up getting into a huge fight if you praise my Alfredo by telling me it “tastes just like Olive Garden.”
Ravioli requires a ton of time and effort. First you mix the dough, then you knead it, then you roll it out in long sheets, then you make the filling, then you cut circles in the sheets and seal them up with egg wash—it’s a lot! If I’m putting in this much effort making ravioli just to impress and delight you, surely it must be clear that I really want this to work. Because I love you.
There was a period from 2016-2018 where I went from one fling to the next, and at the center of it all was gnocchi. I was trying to get good at it, so I was making batches constantly, and testing it on everyone who came through the door. Gnocchi is quick, easy, and doesn’t require a lot of kneading. Throw it the freezer and pull it out when you need it. I’ve got a lot of fun memories associated with gnocchi. Remembering how I used to cook these little potato pillows at 3 a.m. after a night of drinking in a quiet kitchen with somebody I just met... it makes me smile. But I’m also glad that the crazy-one-night-stand part of my life seems to be over. One night in Texas, a woman and I got drunk and broke into a house that wasn’t ours. She just handed me a brick and said, “Do it.” I was elated. I said, “Are you sure?” And before she got the “s” out in “yes” the brick was already through the window. The next morning, I woke up in a house that wasn’t mine with a woman I barely knew, and it freaked me out. I moved to Los Angeles three days later. Now, is that gnocchi’s fault? Probably not, but I can’t uncouple it from this memory. Make gnocchi for someone you don’t expect to see again.
Pretty simple stuff.
Red sauce: it’s either the saddest meal or the happiest. If it’s not eaten alone at night out of the jar, it’s lovingly made to feed a family of four. If you’re not a bachelor eating Ragu, Barilla, and pre-shredded cheddar, then red sauce is usually a committed, familial kitchen project. Any time I’ve made marinara from scratch, it’s used for manicotti on Thanksgiving or to feed a large group of people. Red sauce says, “I could see a family for us,” or at the very least, “Let’s not throw bricks through anyone’s window.”