I knew I was making a simple sauce for dinner, with good olive oil and fresh tomatoes simmered until they fell apart, but as I stood in the pasta aisle, the bold, bronze-cut pastas of modern note seemed too much for it. I needed something lighter. Just then the name — angel hair — which I hadn’t thought much of in years, rang as clear as a bell in my brain, dispelling all anxiety around grocery shopping. Light, simple, a textural symphony when your teeth bite down through each strand, snapping them like bubble wrap. Of course, I thought, how had I ever forgotten?
Angel hair feels like a relic of the ‘90s, as ubiquitous as sun-dried tomatoes and raspberry vinaigrette. It was touted as a diet food, a way to eat fewer carbs while making your plate look full, the math of which I’m still trying to figure out. But by the 2010s, as the trends turned toward thick, handmade agnolottis and tagliatelles that gestured toward some idea of rustic authenticity, angel hair had fallen out of favor.
But haven’t you heard? The ’90s are back. And like espresso martinis and Boursin, angel hair is getting a second look. Priya Krishna and Eric Kim have already proclaimed their love for the shape, and last year Deb Perelman used it as the cover image for her latest cookbook. Now, angel hair appears to be making a slow return to home kitchens and restaurant menus. And honestly, it never should have left.
Angel hair is thriving on TikTok, where most of the recipes are simple, comforting meals — light tomato sauces, lots of fresh basil or lemon. When there’s meat, there’s shrimp scampi, or a “marry me chicken” served over the noodles. It’s prevalent enough that food writer Helen Rosner says she’s “been influenced and [has] been buying it again,” and that it feels like “the new chic ‘90s pasta for sure.”
“Chic” was the selling point for angel hair in the ‘90s. The thinner noodles were elegant and light, favoring fresh, simple sauces that were the hallmark of California cuisine and a pass of regional Italian cooking that favored Tuscany and the north. The problem was, in the hands of most home chefs, angel hair turned to mush. The shape’s microscopic cooking times mean if you don’t get it exactly right you’ll be left with a goopy, congealed mess instead of feeling like you’re biting through the finest filigree.
Or sometimes, the overcooking was the point, and angel hair became associated with soft, buttered noodles meant only for children. This has led to a palpable hatred from those who perhaps grew up knowing only the worst possible version of it. Editor Claire Landsbaum says she’s returned to the shape recently, but after a breakup with someone who hated it. “They shamed me for buying it, and I eventually stopped. It’s possible that my aggressive love of angel hair is partially out of spite.”
Restaurants across the country have also begun returning to angel hair, whether because of nostalgia or just because it’s the right noodle for the job, especially places of the Coastal Italian persuasion. Faccia a Faccia in Boston serves it with sheep’s milk ricotta and bottarga. Nostrana in Portland uses calamari and breadcrumbs. Fausto in New York is serving it with a squid ink sauce and rock shrimp. And pop-up Giovedi in Honolulu offers a dish of angel hair with dungeness crab, salted lemon, and kani miso breadcrumbs.
Bao Tran, the chef and owner of Giovedi, says when they were conceptualizing the dish, the delicate sauce meant they immediately ruled out using fresh pasta, as “the richness of the egg yolk would overpower the subtlety of the sauce.” As for dry pasta, “spaghetti or linguine would also be problematic, as neither would let out enough starch to thicken the sauce.” Angel hair was perfect, as it was thin enough to release a lot of starch, and would match well with a more delicate sauce. The noodle also lent itself to the Italian-Asian menu; “Angel hair is very similar in shape and texture to Vietnamese vermicelli, so it felt like the perfect pairing for us,” Tran says.
Erin Shambura of Fausto says it’s hard for some people to get over the “Mom’s home cooking” stigma of angel hair, but that like any ingredient, it just has to be used right. “I love capellini as a delightful, sumptuous base to highlight fresh and vibrant ingredients like seasonal tomatoes, basil and olive oil or even seafood,” she says. “The thin strands absorb sauces, ensuring that each bite is flavorful.”
Tran says he recalls angel hair being bashed by the culinary community in the 2010s, but his mind was changed while working at Carbone in New York, and making their angel hair AOP, which is still on the menu. He realized “angel hair was damn good, you just need to treat it right.” Now, his angel hair dish is one of the most popular on the menu.
There are plenty of ingredients that will never be someone’s favorite, no matter how impeccably prepared. But there is no such thing as a bad ingredient — everything has its place. Maybe angel hair was overused and overcooked for a time but, like with anything, when used right it offers a singular, delightful experience. The angel hair haters can continue to hate. But maybe you’ve been hating the wrong thing all along. Don’t hate the angel hair, hate the way it’s been made for you, and go get it done right.