Cream, in this case, half-and-half, adds an ineffable quality to any pasta sauce. It works its magic here in a simple, summery combination that is as pretty as it is comforting. A big bowl of this on a buffet table alongside a platter of roasted chicken or a selection of vegetable salads, a wonderful bread or two, a cut of cheese, and you have the makings of a feast. Another advantage: Both the pasta and the base of the sauce can be made in advance.
2 pounds plum tomatoes
2 garlic cloves
6 ounces pancetta (Italian bacon)
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 ½ pounds penne
1 cup half-and-half
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Wash, trim, and dice the tomatoes. Peel, trim, and thinly slice the garlic. Dice the pancetta into ¼-inch cubes. Rinse and pat the basil leaves dry.
In a large skillet, saute the pancetta in the olive oil over low heat, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute, stirring until softened, but do not let it brown. Add the tomatoes, salt, black pepper, pepper flakes, and nutmeg. Cover the pan and cook, stirring once or twice, for 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the sauce cool to room temperature.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta, stir to separate, and cook over high heat for 10 minutes, until al dente. (Or follow the cooking directions on the package.) Drain the pasta in a colander. To prevent the pasta from sticking together, spread it out on a large baking sheet or platter and let it cool, about 15 minutes. Cover and hold at room temperature for up to 3 hours. Turn the pasta into a large ceramic serving bowl.
Mix the half-and-half into the tomato sauce and stir until well blended. Pour the sauce over the pasta and toss a few times to combine. Blend in the Parmigiano and toss again. Add the basil leaves and toss gently to distribute them. Best served within 1 hour of finishing.