Italy’s Artisanal Pasta
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 goodbye to the gustatory pleasures 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 to my own memory bank, warming my soul — true comfort food.
The next morning, the tables turned, and Christopher I donned our aprons and set to work in the kitchen. Paola rolled the sfoglie and cut the 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 complement 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 medieval maze of ancient alleyways, the gilded cathedral playing hide-and-seek in between the old stone façades. 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 grumbling 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 aquafarina, meaning simply flour and water. We slurped these noodles at restaurants throughout Umbria and popped 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 Roseanna 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 Dai Fratelli, 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 molten sunlight leapt out against the cerulean sky, with puffy, flawless clouds and golden grainfields adding to the scene. We came upon Civita as we always seem to come upon places and our travels. Biting our tounges, 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 others’ 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 reply 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 21st 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 too soon. Zooming south on the autostrada, we circled Rome like a slingshot and headed east into the wild of the Abruzzi region. Forrested mountains became ever more sparse, thinning to signs of civilization every dozen miles or so. Dark clouds in the distance clung to the 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 Chicella, 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 from the restaurant at La Bilancia in the inland town of Loreto Aprutino. The next morning, we were escorted into La Bilancia’s kitchen, where Antionetta was making mugnaia, a rustic pasta of Abruzzi’s ancient shepherds. Antionetta showed me how do take my clump of beige dough, put 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 had 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 our 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 dribble down my wrist and popped the bundle in my mouth. I chased each bite with 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 tortellini 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.
Dry versus Fresh
Any Italian will tell you that fresh pasta is not necessarily superior to dry pasta — it’s just used for a different purpose. Pastas that arer made of hard-wheat semolina flours, extruded through shaped bronze dies and carefully dried, are great companions to heavier sauces. A number of wonderful artisanal dry pasta products are being imported to the United States today; they are sold both online and through specialty stores (Rustichella d’Abruzzo, Martelli, and De Cecco are some of our favorites).
But the silky, refined taste of fresh egg pasta or the toothsome chew of a just-rolled noodle made of aquafarina is simply incomparable. Don’t for a second fool yourself into thinking that the doughy strands of ravioli sold in the refrigerated section of the supermarket taste anything like what real, artisanal-quality fresh pasta tastes like. Those are mass produced from mediocre-quality ingredients and left to sit on a shelf for far longer than any fresh pasta should have to endure. Aside from a handful of high-quality producers that sell at local farmers markets and small stores, your best bet is to take the time to experiment with fresh pasta at home with the freshest ingredients you can possibly find.