The very best part of this dish might not be the actual pasta (although it's garlicky and lemony and oh so good), but the crispy, crunchy breadcrumbs that are sprinkled with abandon over the top. They're toasted with lemon zest and combined with Parmesan and chopped parsley to become a scene-stealing addition. The crumbs get caught in the nooks and crannies, waiting for you to discover their greatness when you gobble up a big forkful of noodles.
The pasta itself is extra tangy from the lemon and has a briny kick from the capers. It's a dish that's right for just about any moment, whether you have an almost-empty pantry and it's late and you're hungry on a Wednesday, or you're cooking for a few friends over the weekend.
The Surprising Power of Breadcrumbs
It's the breadcrumbs that make this dish taste like the pasta you've ordered at a restaurant. The Italians have known this all along. They have been sprinkling pangrattato, which translates to "grated bread," for a long, long time. It was common practice for poor Italian peasants to grate stale bread over their pasta instead of more costly Parmesan. It's not just a cheap substitute, though — breadcrumbs add toasty flavor and crunch, which makes for a more interesting pasta. These days we can have the best of both worlds, adding cheese to the crumbs for that signature, salty finish. After trying it on this one, you may just find yourself sprinkling the mix over just about any pasta dish that comes out of your kitchen.
Lemon Caper Pasta
Serves 4 to 6
dry short pasta, such as campanelle, gigli, medium shells, pipette, or orecchiette
fresh or panko breadcrumbs
Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon
chopped fresh parsley leaves
freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 1 large lemon
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes, or according to package instructions. Meanwhile, toast the breadcrumbs.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the breadcrumbs and lemon zest and sauté until the crumbs are golden-brown and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl. Add the parsley, Parmesan, a pinch of salt, and a few grinds of pepper, and stir to combine.
Melt the butter in the same pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant but not browned, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and stir in the capers and lemon juice; take the pan off the heat if the pasta is not ready yet.
Reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta. Return the frying pan to medium heat and add the pasta and reserved cooking water. Toss and stir the pasta until the sauce coats the pasta and the water has evaporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of the breadcrumb mixture and toss again to combine. Serve garnished with the remaining breadcrumb mixture.
Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.