Donatella Arpaia grew up in New York, but spent summers in Italy cooking alongside her aunts. This is one of the first dishes she learned to make, and it's still one of her favorites. Click through the following slides for Donatella's tips on making this pasta favorite.
Donatella uses two types of flour: 00 (double zero) and semolina; putting them through a sifter ensures they are evenly combined, and that water will incorporate easily.
Make a well in the flour; pour 1/4 cup water into well and add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Using a fork, slowly swirl the flour mixture into the water, beginning with inner rim of well, until a dough begins to form. Continue adding water by tablespoonful until dough comes together.
After you've added about 1 cup of water, gather the dough into a mass and work into a ball. Don't worry if some flour is left behind on the work surface. As you knead, more will be incorporated into the dough.
Fold the dough and push down with the heel of your hand. Flip over dough, fold in half, and push down again. It's a rhythmic motion that requires moderate effort Donatella says. "You're not killing it, but it is a forceful motion."
After 10 minutes of kneading you should have dough that is smooth with no lumps. It should feel elastic and soft "like a baby's bottom," Donatella says. In our test kitchen we found that kneading the dough for a full 10 minutes gave the most tender results. Less kneading left the cavatelli tough and dense. Let dough rest, covered, at least one hour before proceeding to the next step.
To keep dough from drying out while you form it into the cavatelli, cut it in half with a bench scraper or knife and cover the half you're not using with a damp kitchen towel or plastic wrap.
After dividing dough, flatten and cut portions into 1-inch-wide strips. With the palms of your hands, roll dough into ropes roughly ½-inch thick (left). Then lay ropes on lightly floured work surface and roll to an even diameter with the palms of your hands (right).
Cut the rope of dough crosswise in 1/2-inch pieces; lightly dust with flour. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Lightly dust work surface with flour. Lay a piece of dough on the surface and pull the dough toward you with two fingers using medium pressure. It should roll as you pull. The first few will likely be difficult and may not be beautiful, but shaping gets easier as you develop a feel for the dough. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel until ready to use.
Place a piece of dough on the ridged side of a cavatelli paddle (also sold as a gnocchi paddle) and press with two fingers as you roll dough downward. Cavatelli should have ridges on one side and a depression on the opposite side. Repeat with remaining dough, placing cavatelli on a floured baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel until ready to use.
Donatella recommends cooking the cavatelli in salted water (combine 8-10 cups of water with about 1 tablespoon of salt in a 4 to 6 quart pot). Cook cavatelli in boiling lightly salted water until they float, 3 to 4 minutes, or until they are just tender to the bite (al dente).
To judge al dente: "Split a piece in half. If it has a white center, it needs more cooking," Donatella says. Instead of dumping the whole pot of cavatelli into a colander, she recommends a long-handled strainer to transfer pasta to pan with spicy shrimp and arugula. "Most people put the sauce on top, but you must put the sauce and the pasta together in the pan so the flavors can marry," Donatella says. Plate, then serve.