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A white bowl with black pasta in it on a white tablecloth.
The spaghetti nero at Bacaro on the Lower East Side.

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Why Bacaro’s Squid Ink Pasta Has No Squid Ink in the Pasta

More on the spaghetti nero at this Lower East Side restaurant

I have a dumb and stubborn rule about cooking with bourbon. I don’t do it. Ever. Why? Because by my calculation, there’s not a dish on the planet that’s more pleasurable with a shot of bourbon in it than the same booze-less dish cooked or eaten while taking that shot of bourbon straight to the face. It’s rooted in the principle that, whenever possible, ingredients should be put to their highest and best use: I believe this about whiskey. And, as it turns out, I also believe it about squid ink.

Countless Italian restaurants across New York City — Osteria Morini, Al Di La, Corner Bar, to name just a few — serve some version of squid ink pasta. The shapes — torchio, spaghetti, linguine — and seafaring sauces —shrimp and seppia ragu, octopus confit — vary from place to place, but what these dishes almost always have in common is that the ink is in the pasta dough itself.

I have no problem with this, these tangles of stunningly jet-black noodles that echo quietly of the briny ocean: I’m not a monster. But if I had to choose the highest calling for a single spoonful of squid ink, a lump of flour and eggs just wouldn’t be it. Dough defangs the ink, softens its salty punch, conceals its trademark texture and silky gloss.

If you prefer squid ink pasta that slaps hard, go eat the spaghetti nero at Bacaro. It’s been on the menu ever since the restaurant opened in 2007 at 136 Division Street, near East Broadway, where Chinatown bumps into the Lower East Side.

Bacaro’s subterranean dining room is one of the more memorable places to eat in the city; its stone, exposed brick, salvaged wood, antique chandeliers, and flickering candlelight conspire to create what essentially feels like a sexy medieval dungeon. The restaurant is owned by Kama Geary, who’s been there since the beginning and bought the business from the original chef and owner, Frank DeCarlo, in 2018.

The owner of a restaurant leans against a column in her dining room.
Kama Geary, owner of Bacaro on the Lower East Side.

Bacaro is a Venetian-leaning restaurant, and, as DeCarlo told me when I spoke to him late last year, the spaghetti nero “is a dish of Venice.” It uses ink from cuttlefish (seppia), which are abundant in the Venetian lagoon. Rather than being worked into fresh pasta dough, the ink goes straight into a sauce that’s tossed with plain-old dried spaghetti.

There aren’t many chefs cooking this dish the way you’d see it in Venice. More often than not, the ink-in-sauce treatment is saved for risotto, which, with all due respect to risotto, is a dish I would only order if all the pasta in the world suddenly went missing. I asked DeCarlo, on the spectrum of easy to pain-in-the-ass pasta dishes that you could possibly cook in a restaurant, where does this fall? “I think it’s pretty much the easiest dish you could do,” he said. “That or cacio e pepe.” And he agreed wholeheartedly — probably because I wouldn’t shut up about it — that the ink packs way more of a punch in sauce than when it’s in the pasta dough itself.

Geary let me slide into the kitchen one night before service got busy to watch Victor Jimenez cook this pasta that I’ve been eating for over a decade. DeCarlo was right; it’s dead simple. First a single cuttlefish is sauteed in olive oil for less than a minute and removed. Then shallots, garlic, chile flakes, and dried oregano; sizzle, sizzle. Next, white wine, two small ladles of tomato sauce, a splash of vegetable stock and a few basil leaves; bubble, bubble. The amount of ink required to turn things immediately macabre is shockingly scant: less than a teaspoon, stirred to a murky black before the sauce — Geary calls it “a brew” — is left to thicken away. A small handful of Grana Padano cheese is sprinkled in, then the spaghetti, which swims and swirls in the sauce until barely al dente. Into the bowl with that cuttlefish on top, a drizzle of olive oil and that’s that. The whole thing took like seven minutes start to finish.

A chef starts a dish in a hot pan on a stove.
Ink is added to the ingredients in a hot pan on a stove.
Cheese is added to the pan on a stove.
Plating black pasta in a white bowl on a butcher block counter.

Plating spaghetti nero at Bacaro.

I don’t know what to say; this dish has always known how to push all my right buttons. It has a brininess that splashes right up to the edge of salty; the spaghetti is gloriously toothy; the sauce at once feels luxurious — from the ink — and comforting — from the tomato-oregano combo that’s unmistakably reminiscent of a New York slice.

Even that lone, whole cuttlefish serves a purpose: getting the hell out of the way of a bowl of noodles too perfectly creamy to be bothered with chunks of this or slices of that. Or, as Geary put it, “If you’re blindfolded it has the same texture as mac and cheese.”

The mac and cheese comp inspired me to take home the leftovers to my kid, who rolled his eyes and pushed away the to-go box. Whatever. I waited until he went to bed, then ate the rest of those beautiful black noodles the best way I know how: standing at the kitchen counter with a glass of bourbon. On the side.

Black pasta in a white bowl on a white table.
Spaghetti nero at Bacaro.

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