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Italy's Artisanal Pasta - A search for fresh pasta in italy leads a young california couple to strange shapes and delightful tastes.

The pillows of pasta melted on my tongue, leaving a mound of fluffy ricotta flecked with spinach, wrapped in the tender sweetness of aged aceto balsamico. I closed my eyes and tilted back my head, all sounds around me blurring into a fog as I savored the heavenly morsel in my mouth. My husband, Christopher, and I were in Italy in pursuit of pasta like this. We had come to learn the trade secrets of creating one of the simplest pleasures in life, fresh pasta made by loving hands.

So it was that we found ourselves with Alberto Bettini, the third- generation owner of Da Amerigo, an enchanting restaurant in the tiny hamlet of Savigno in the hills surrounding Bologna. Just hours earlier, we had witnessed the birth of those divine dumplings, watching the strong arms of the sfogliatrice (the term for women who make sheets of pasta) roll out a thin sheet of pasta dough using long, stretching motions with a matarello (rolling pin) longer than a baseball bat. The woman quickly cut the sheets, and she and Alberto's mother dolloped the ricotta and spinach mixture onto each square, folding it in half like a miniature custard-colored handkerchief. So simple, yet so profound.

Saying good-bye to the gustatory pleasures of the Emilia section of the Emilia-Romagna region, we turned our sights south and were engulfed in an equally warm welcome at Locanda al Gambero Rosso in the southern realm of Romagna. A joyful Michela, the youngest of this three- generation affair, ushered our famished bodies to a table and, with many smiles, told us plate by plate about the foods that her mother, Giuliana, was turning out in the kitchen.

"These are foods of the memory," she said, elaborating on a flavorful pasta dish called basotti, saying that it was one of her mother's favorites growing up. The basotti's savory richness, made with broth but reminiscent of a baked macaroni and cheese, tapped into my own memory bank, warming my soul--true comfort food.

The next morning, the tables turned, and Christopher and I donned our aprons and set to work in the kitchen. Paola rolled the sfoglie and cut tagliatelle while I tried my hand at making tiny cappelletti. No matter how many times I watched Giuliana's hands, my fingers kept tucking the wrong way, resulting in tortellini. Giuliana chided me for having a Bolognese touch with the dough, which, as a neophyte pasta maker, I took as a compliment nonetheless.

On to orvieto

Bidding farewell to our new friends, we turned southwest, Tuscany's dusty yellow folds exploding into Umbria's forested mountains. Exiting the autostrada at the town of Orvieto, we ascended the tufa rock and were instantly swallowed up by a medieval maze of ancient alleyways, the gilded cathedral playing hide-and-seek in between the old stone facades. After much guesswork and what must have been divine guidance, we found our way to the hills across the valley from the city, where we landed softly at a small inn named Locanda Rosati. Giampierro Rosati charmed us from the get-go with a smile that extends like a force field around him, held in place by a succession of animated gestures and rumbling laughter. We felt like family from the first hello.

The pasta of choice in Umbria is umbrichelli, long, thick, chewy strands that are perfect for twirling in thick ragus. The pasta is made of a dough called aqua-farina, meaning simply flour and water. We slurped these noodles at restaurants throughout Umbria and hopped north across the Tuscan border to the ancient Etruscan city of Chiusi to learn the art of hand-rolling pici, Tuscany's answer to umbrichelli, at Osteria La Solita Zuppa.

After a warm greeting, Roberto and Luana Pacchieri ushered us back to the pasta board, where we watched Rosanna the cook take a small hunk of dough, rub olive oil on it, and roll it out like a thick pancake. Cutting off a slice, her hands glided over the mound, pulling and stretching it like a seamstress spinning yarn from wool on a spindle.

But after our umpteenth umbrichelli and pici, we needed a change of pace. So we dropped ourselves into the hands of the matron behind the counter at Carraro, back in Orvieto, and nodded obediently as she sliced us mica-thin sheets of loin of boar, boar sausage, truffle sausage, two pecorinos (one sharp and one mild and creamy), and a generous hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano. We turned to the young man for a bottle of Tuscan red wine, selected a loaf of salted bread, and headed with our spoils to the little town of Civita di Bagnoreggio.

Sunflowers the color of molten sunlight leapt out against the celadon sky, with puffy, flawless clouds and golden grainfields adding to the scene. We came upon Civita as we always seem to come upon places in our travels. Biting our tongues, convinced we're lost, on the verge of begging a turnaround when we spot the sublime--in this case, a tufa rock protruding from the ground and crowned with an ethereal village where only a dozen people live full-time nowadays, reached by a long, sloping footbridge leading up to its center. We ascended and walked the length of the town, then found a stone bench in the shade and savored our booty.

Returning to Orvieto, we went behind the scenes at two entirely different pasta shops--one dedicated to preserving the old ways, the other making the most of modern technology. Our first appointment was with Patrizia and Doriana Schiavo, sisters touting handmade pastas at Pasta Fresca. For Patrizia and Doriana, the choice to open Pasta Fresca was a very deliberate one. They are clearly in their element, enjoying each other's company as much as the tactile nature of their work. When I asked if they made other types of pasta, Patrizia said, quite pointedly, that they only make those that they can accommodate by hand. When I pressed with a "why," she thoughtfully replied that it was what they had decided they wanted to do--their mission, in a sense.

In contrast, La Bottega del Tortellino is a pennant of the twenty-first century. In a tiny room lined with sleek machines, Marco and Orella Provenzani can turn out five or more times what Pasta Fresca can in a day without breaking a sweat. Watching the machines grind away was like watching a circus. In one ring, the sheeter rolled out satiny bolts of pasta dough while the cutter sliced anything from linguini to papardelle. Across the way was the tortellini machine. Quick as a bullet, the little handles would slice a sheet, inject a dot of filling, and twist it into the perfect little knot, letting it roll down into the heap below--not an accidental cappelletti in the bunch.

Pasta of abruzzi

We had grown to love Orvieto, and the day to bid farewell and head east to the coast came much to soon. Zooming south on the autostrada, we circled Rome like a slingshot and headed east into the wilds of the Abruzzi region. Forested mountains became ever more sparse, thinning to signs of civilization every dozen miles or so. Dark clouds in the distance clung to crests like skyscrapers on a midwestern horizon, the peaks playing hide-and-seek in the stormy enclosure the whole way to the coast, where we were dumped out into the bustling modern city of Pescara.

Our destination was La Cantina di Jozz, a stalwart of simply and exquisitely prepared local cuisine. We spent the morning in the kitchen with Fabrizio Cichella, learning about various fresh pastas of Abruzzi, most notably pasta alla chitarra. Fabrizio laid a thick sheet of pasta on a contraption "strung" with wires much like guitar strings, then rolled over it with a matarello to make long rectangular strands.

After a lunch of our labors shared with friends we struck out for the restaurant at La Bilancia in the inland town of Loreto Aprutino. The next morning, we were escorted into La Bilancia's kitchen, where Antoinetta was making mugnaia, a rustic pasta of Abruzzi's ancient shepherds. Antoinetta showed me how to take my clump of beige dough, poke my thumbs through the center, and make a large doughnut shape. Working gently but swiftly, we squeezed and pulled the dough so it resembled a thick, malleable hula hoop. Then on to the board it went, to be eased between our hands in a movement I'd seen both in the making of pici and by the sfogliatrici with their matarelli--firmly, with flat hands, rolling and easing outward so the load beneath them gradually became finer and thinner.

Just as we began to get a feel for the motions, Antoinetta's husband, Sergio, whisked us away for his extended tour of the Abruzzi. We began with a rustic lunch of grilled arrosticini, skewers of mutton and liver served with bruschetta, at a remote cantina clinging to the side of a dramatic cliff. Tugging at the meat with my bread, I let the sharp, green olive oil drizzle down my wrist and popped the bundle in my mouth. I chased each bite with a gulp of chilly red wine that tasted like the crisp mountain air around me and drank in the view. Pure, wonderful.

We paused on the desolate plains of the Campo Imperatore, where giant clouds tumbled over distant peaks into an unseen abyss, so Sergio could haggle over freshly foraged mushrooms. Exhausted after our long trek, we were greeted at dinner by our mugnaia bathed in a garlicky mushroom sauce that perfumed the table with an earthy lustiness.

On our way north to the airport, we took the opportunity to enter the realm of Carlo at Trattoria Da Cesare for a parting lunch. We climbed the stairs to the airy room and were welcomed by Carlo's booming voice and a plate mounded with hunks of mortadella beside glasses of bubbly Lambrusco wine. Course after course came, including two different pastas: spinach and egg farfalle in tomato sauce and tortelloni in a butter sage sauce. Carlo waltzed from table to table, leaning over people's shoulders to sprinkle aceto balsamico on this or that as though it were holy water. We considered it an apropos benediction as we headed home and felt ourselves truly blessed.n

Potato and rosemary ravioli

This dish is taken from one served to us by Alberto Bettini at Da Amerigo. These ravioli are traditionally made only in the high Apennines of Emilia-Romagna, where a particular potato variety makes the ravioli light as air. While Alberto served his with a sauce of fresh chanterelles, this butter and sage sauce, enlivened by sliced shallots, is also a good accompaniment. The freshest eggs, preferably free range, organic, and laid the same day, are imperative to this recipe. Serves 6 as a first course, 4 as an entree.

Filling:

3/4 pound russet potatoes, peeled, boiled, mashed

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary needles, pulverized into a powder

3 Tbsp. butter

2 Tbsp. cream

1/4 tsp. sea salt

pepper to taste

Blend all ingredients together with a hand blender until silky smooth.

Pasta:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup pastry flour

4--6 large eggs, depending on flour, eggs, and weather

Mix the flours well and mound on a large surface, preferably wood. Make a well in the center and gently break the eggs into it. Starting near the center and working around the well, brush generous doses of flour onto the eggs with your fingertips, mixing it with the eggs as you go. Begin with four eggs and add additional if more moisture is needed, until the mass comes together and feels slightly tacky but solid.

Gather it into a ball and begin kneading. Push the mass away from you with your palms, catching it with your fingertips and gently pulling it toward you before pushing down again. When the mass begins to elongate after a few kneads, rotate it 90 degrees, pulling it over on itself so that it returns to a ball shape. Begin the process anew. Knead until smooth to the touch, about 10 to 15 minutes. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and set aside to rest for 15 to 20 minutes.

To roll out, divide the dough into 10 portions and roll one out at a time with a pasta machine, keeping the rest covered. Feed the dough through the largest setting 8 times, rotating the sheet each time, and then proceed to smaller and smaller settings until you reach the second-thinnest setting, feeding the sheet through lengthwise and holding it with your wrists to avoid uneven stretching.

Working with one sheet at a time, cut into 2-inch squares. Drop about 1/2 teaspoon of the filling into the center from a spoon by nudging it off with a knife. Fold over one corner to meet the opposite, forming a triangle. Press gently around the filling to expel any air. Press tightly around the perimeter to seal the edges.

Sauce:

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil1/2 cup shallots, thinly sliced1/4 cup unsalted butter1 Tbsp. fresh sage leaves, roughly chopped1/4 tsp. sea saltpepper to taste1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and soften shallots. Add butter, sage leaves, salt, and pepper; lower the heat to medium low and simmer for 5 minutes. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to boil and cook the ravioli until they rise to the top of the pot, about 2 1/2 minutes. Remove pot from heat and quickly but gently scoop out the ravioli into the skillet with the sauce. Turn heat up to medium, toss ravioli with the sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve in warmed pasta bowls.

Maccheroni alla chitarra with a tomato and chile sauce

This dish is typical of the Abruzzi region. The thick strands of dough are roughened by pushing them through the strings of a chitarra, creating an ideal surface for the flavorful sauce. Serves 6 as a first course, 4 as a main dish.

Pasta:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cups finely ground semolina flour

2 large eggs

1/4 cup springwater

more water by tablespoon as needed

Mix the flours well and mound on a large surface, preferably wood. Make a well in the center and gently break the eggs and drizzle the water into it. Starting near the center and working around the well, brush generous doses of flour onto the eggs with your fingertips, mixing it with the eggs as you go. Add more water by the tablespoon as needed.

Proceed as for the ravioli, rolling dough out to the third to thinnest setting on a pasta machine. In lieu of a chitarra, cut the dough into long strands 1/4-inch wide. Fluff the strands together with a good deal of flour and mound to the side. Repeat with each pasta sheet.

Sauce:

2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely minced

2 peperoncini (tiny dried red Italian chiles), crushed, or 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1 tsp. paprika

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 14-1/2 oz. can diced tomatoes, drained

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup grated pecorino cheese

Heat the garlic, peperoncini, and paprika in the olive oil over medium- low heat until the garlic is golden. Remove from heat and set aside to steep for 15 minutes.

Add tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and return to medium heat to simmer until thickened, 15--20 minutes.

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to boil and cook the noodles until they are just resistant to the bite, about four minutes. Drain pasta in a colander, letting some pasta water remain on the strands, and return to the pot with the tomato-chile sauce. Toss well to coat all the strands. Serve in warmed pasta bowls, and dust with grated pecorino if desired.

Farfalle with prosciutto and fennel

Farfalle's gentle ridges are a perfect foil for the savory bits of sauce, while butter and cream combine with the silky egg pasta to create a truly delicious dish. Serves 6 as a first course, 4 as a main course.

Pasta:

Proceed with ingredients and technique as if making ravioli. Roll sheets out to the last setting on a pasta machine. Lay sheets flat or drape them over a rod and let them dry for 15--20 minutes, until still pliable but just slightly damp--it should feel like a paper-thin, well- oiled piece of fine leather.

When ready, slice sheets lengthwise into 1-inch strips, preferably with a fluted pasta cutter. Cut sheets again, this time crosswise, 2 inches wide, to make 1 x 2-inch squares. Pinch each rectangle in the middle lengthwise, creating a bow, and toss gently onto a floured towel. Repeat with the rest of the rectangles and pasta sheets, dusting the completed farfalle with flour and fluffing them to prevent sticking. Cook within 3--4 hours, or the pinched folds will become dry and brittle.

Sauce:

3 Tbsp. butter

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 cup fennel bulb, finely diced

1/2 cup onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup leek, finely chopped

sea salt

freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano

1 Tbsp. parsley, minced

2 oz. prosciutto

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and gently saute fennel, onion, and leek for 10--15 minutes, until soft but not brown. Season with salt and pepper. Increase heat to medium high and add wine, stirring and reducing for 2--3 minutes. Lower heat to medium low, stir in cream, and simmer for 2--3 minutes.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of generously salted water to boil and cook the farfalle, stirring gently, until they are just resistant to the bite, about three to four minutes. Drain pasta in a colander, letting some pasta water remain on the bows. Stir Parmigiano-Reggiano, parsley, and prosciutto into sauce and add pasta, tossing well to coat each piece. Serve in warmed pasta bowls.

Lia Huber is a food and travel writer based in Healdsburg, California, where she and her husband have plans to open their own artisanal pasta shop in the near future.
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Author:huber, lia
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Recipe
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Words:3048
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