Several times a year, a miracle is said to occur inside Cattedrale di San Gennaro, an imposing gray duomo at the heart of Naples. Deep inside—in a lavish and gilded chapel— a vial of dried blood from the city’s patron saint, Januarius, liquefies. If it doesn’t, legend predicts tragedy will strike the city.
With rumbling Mount Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii just in the distance, it’s perhaps a warning worth heeding. But truthfully, I’m more interested in a slightly less macabre liquid—the water at a rollicking boil on the stovetop of Antonella Scala’s rooftop kitchen. She’d invited me to her home at the foothills of the volcano to teach me a seemingly banal pasta: noodles, cauliflower and cheese.
Turns out, I underestimated how Scala—a talented home cook who runs pop-up dinners—could transform those humble ingredients, even the water itself, into creamy richness.
Scala’s process was simple. She blanched a cauliflower whole, then cut it into tender florets, which browned quickly in a skillet of garlic-infused oil. But the water in which the cauliflower cooked wasn’t done yet. She next cooked the pasta in it, letting the sweet flavor of the vegetable seep in. The pasta then joined the cauliflower in the skillet. Finally, she used the cooking water again, this time to marry pecorino Romano and aged provolone cheese to the rest, creating a creamy sauce.
Back at Milk Street, the recipe adapted easily. For speed, we cut the cauliflower in half before blanching. Like Scala, we discarded the garlic just after it infused the oil, while a sprinkling of red pepper flakes brightened the dish. A deliciously simple pasta; banality—and tragedy—averted.