Pesto has been a fixture in my diet since I was little. Summer nights are punctuated by the sound of the whirring food processor and bright smells from fresh basil; in the winter, we dig out jars from the freezer, rationing them out until warmer weather returns. It’s one of the few dishes in our rotation that we really, truly relish having as leftovers, even for three or four nights in a row. And after watching my mom make it for years, I brought the recipe with me when I left for college, a comfort from home hundreds of miles away.
Although I follow the instructions to a tee, there’s one thing I change—the pasta itself. Pesto is typically served on linguine or spaghetti, mixed until little green flecks cover most of, but not all of, each noodle. I, however, prefer angel hair, also known as capellini.
It’s spaghetti’s lighter cousin, with a delicate texture that almost melts in your mouth. As such, it’s often paired with equally delicate sauces, which is why my mom argues that it’s not suited for something as pungent as pesto. I disagree—I think the sauce shines on such a simple pasta, every bite packing a punch of garlicky flavor. I was so enamored by the combination growing up that she would occasionally relent and swap out her preferred linguine for angel hair at the table. But as I got older, it took more convincing, and I eventually, reluctantly, settled for spaghetti at family dinners.
I’ve come to realize that the angel hair pasta fan club is pretty small, and I’m probably the head cheerleader. It’s a rare occasion to see it on menus in a world where spaghetti carbonara, cacio e pepe, and truffle ravioli, risotto, linguine, anything—except capellini, that is—reign supreme. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen it in the wild, and this is coming from someone whose profession involves eating out at restaurants. Some of my colleagues even feel that angel hair is a "kid’s pasta." I wondered if they were right—maybe I was clinging to nostalgia the whole time, remembering the dish I loved growing up.
The annual competition, hosted by Barilla, draws chefs from all over the world to vie for the coveted title of “Master of Pasta.” This year’s edition saw 14 chefs, from Italy and the U.S. to Brazil and Japan, who qualified with a signature “Masterpiece” pasta dish—and two of them featured capellini, Heaven Delhaye from Brazil and Sebastian Butzi from Austria.
Delhaye's recipe particularly stuck out to me. Called “Summer by the Sea,” the pasta was paired with langoustine tartare, dill bagna cauda, and bisque, crowned with little pearls of black caviar. It was a dish at once delicate and bursting with flavor, good enough for the judges to vote her through to the next round. And although she had to cook a different dish for her second round (funnily enough, with pesto), when she advanced to the third round and became a finalist, it was time for the capellini dish to shine again.
After taking in feedback from the judges, Delhaye made a few tweaks to the original recipe, including adding pine nuts for texture. Her new-and-improved capellini competed against dishes from Switzerland, Canada, and Japan—in the end, Japan’s Keita Yuge took home the grand prize for his “Penne Gorgonzola Profumo Giapponese,” which combined gorgonzola cheese, oysters, and an aroma of Japanese “Sake, Sansho, Yuzu.” The judges loved the taste and presentation, and when I tried it at the post-competition pasta party, I couldn’t deny how rich and complex the flavors were. But I also couldn’t shake the lure of the capellini, and made a beeline for Delhaye’s station, where little bowls of pale gold pasta and blushing langoustine sat at the ready. With one bite, there was an explosion—a light and creamy sauce, freshness and brine from the langoustine, crunch from the pine nuts. And bearing underneath it all were the fine strands of pasta, the perfect foil to the rainbow of flavors. I finished it in under a minute.
Even though Delhaye’s pasta didn’t win, I felt a renewed spark in my love for angel hair, having seen it celebrated quite literally on the world stage. And now that I’m back home, I’ve been eager to find recipes that celebrate it, too. We have a small handful on our site, like angel hair pasta with crab and country ham, and—a rare find—angel hair pasta with red pepper pesto and basil. (See, Mom? It does work!)
Maybe I’ll end up developing a few recipes of my own as I experiment in the kitchen; maybe I’ll eventually convince others, too, that angel hair is strong enough to handle all of the flavors (well, most of the flavors) in the world. But until I do, I’m fine with this being a fan club of one. It's more on my plate to enjoy.