Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Renaissance Pasta Chef

It is dark inside Santa Trinita as Florence begins another day. Only small votive candles illuminate the small chapels and frescos that grace the walls of the 11th century abbey. Outside, I can hear the buzz of motorbikes as the morning paces accelerates. But, inside Santa Trinita, I am blessed with a few moments of quiet reflection.

Later, I return to Apicius, the Culinary Institute of Florence for a class on the art of pasta making. Chef Roberto is back as my instructor and we get right down to the business of a bevy of pastas, Tagliatelle, Gnochhi di Patate, and Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci.

Once again, Roberto moves like a soccer player through the kitchen, as he sprinkles the lesson with food history anecdotes. I learn that pasta originated in the region of Emilia-Romagna and the traditional tomato meat sauce that now has many variations was created in Bologna and is the Sauce Bolognese.

The preparation of the sauce prompts a brief chopping competition. The base of any Italian sauce is carrot, onion, celery and olive oil. I prepare what looks to be a reasonably fine dice of the vegetables. Roberto then chops his vegetables twice as fine. I am appropriately humbled, but he explains that the vegetable base is now the same size and consistency as the ground pork and beef used in the sauce and it will cook more evenly.

We start the sauce to simmer and Roberto adds a sprig of rosemary. We measure out durum wheat flour – which has a sandy texture – into a bowl, add two eggs and begin to assemble the first pasta dough. Roberto tells me the rule of thumb for pasta is 1 egg for every 100 grams of flour. That’s all it takes – the rest is in the handling of the dough. We take turns kneading the dough gently, so as not to overwork it, and I am told to mix with only one hand. Soon, the dough is golden yellow and springy to the touch.

After the dough takes a brief rest in the refrigerator, we set up a pasta roller with a hand crank which clamps to the side of the marble counter. He teaches me how to roll the pasta sheet through the machine, draping the long end over the back of my left hand as I feed it through the rollers to get the desired thinness. It’s a bit like handling the old rolls of music for player pianos. Once the pasta is paper thin, I feed it into the blades and gather long, lovely stands of tagliatelle out the other end.

The stove burners are temperamental and Roberto is annoyed as nothing is heating properly. Still he manages to boil gold potatoes for the gnocchi, and then puts them in a low heat oven to extract as much moisture as possible. He explains that moisture will require more flour, and that would make the gnocchi tougher.

In between preparing bright green pesto sauce, he quickly demonstrates techniques for making little “ear shaped” pasta from a dough that consists only of flour and water. Using two fingers of his left hand to apply even pressure against a knife, he sweeps the knife over a tab of pasta dough and curls the circular shape over his thumb to get the distinctive ear shape. We roll out even thinner sheets of pasta for ravioli and space out dollops of ricotta and spinach along the sheet, blanketing the filling with a second pasta sheet to create the little pillows. Gnocchi dough is rolled into long ropes and cut into small, even rectangles.

Roberto is clearly passionate about pasta. The exercise seems to invigorate him. “I hope you’re going to make this at home, and not just forget about it after this class,” he says.

In the final assembly, he teaches me a trick to assure perfectly cooked pasta that takes on the flavor of the sauce. Rather than simply dumping hot sauce onto cooked pasta, he cooks the pasta partially, and then adds it to the simmering sauce with a bit of the pasta water. As the water boils off, the sauce thickens, and the pasta continues to cook. He assures me it will be perfectly done.

The table is set and the wine is poured. The ravioli is dressed in a delicate butter and sage sauce, the gnocchi infused with emerald green pesto, and the tagliatelle folded into sharp, meaty Bolognese sauce. The pasta, as promised, is perfectly cooked and the texture is firm but tender. The gnocchi is as light as a cloud. “You made this,” Roberto reminds me.

As I prepare to leave, Roberto again makes an appeal that I continue to practice my pasta. “Don’t let me down!” he orders.

Not to worry, Roberto. Pasta is at the top of my list.

In the afternoon, I seek out another classic – Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia. No matter how many times you have seen a photo, it is no preparation for the real thing. The statue of the biblical hero stands 17 feet tall and is awe inspiring. A masterpiece, indeed.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

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