I haven’t taken an Italian class in over a month, but my teacher Luca and I still occasionally get together. It’s usually centered around food, culture or history, but mostly food. Recently, Matt and I met him for dinner at Ristorante Nana. This wasn’t your typical rustic Umbrian trattoria. This was fancy-pants Italian: raw fish layered and stacked with colorful, curly, green garnishes, black squid-ink pasta, vegetable foam, and a whole page devoted to creative dishes. For dessert we ordered “coffee and a cigarette” which was coffee gelato and tobacco-infused creme brûlée.
Several days later, Luca invited us to his parents’ home for dinner. He picked us up early so we could see how his mom makes fresh pasta. His family lives outside Perugia in a charming, old farm house. We entered through the kitchen which occupies the space where the previous owners (many years ago) housed livestock. Now there is a fireplace on one wall, a wood-fired stove and oven against the other, a television in the corner, and most importantly, a work table used for rolling and cutting fresh pasta dough. We met Luca’s parents, Mirella and Giulio, who gave us Italian kisses on the cheeks and then offered the boys chocolates. It was all so warm and cozy, and I happily spent the next four hours dressed in an apron “helping” Mamma Mirella make dinner.
We started with tagliatelle. This is a type of pasta that Mirella has been making by hand since she got married. There are only two ingredients, eggs and flour. We began by measuring. For each egg, she uses 100 grams of flour. She piled the flour on the table and made a well in the center. Then she cracked open the orangest eggs I’ve ever seen. “How in the world?!” I asked. She said that the chickens eat really well over here. Next, she beat them in a bowl then poured them into the flour. Slowly with her fingers, she gently mixed it all together.
Once the flour and eggs were combined, the kneading began. With the palms of her hands pushing the dough into itself over and over, the mixture became perfectly smooth and evenly yellow. Once in a while, Mirella would add just a tiny bit of water if it felt dry.
The next step was to roll the dough into a thin sheet. Again, this took some patience. With a long rolling pin, we eventually succeeded in spreading it all the way to the corners of the cutting block.
When our arms were exhausted, and the pasta was stretched so thin that it draped over the table, Mirella let it sit and dry out a little. In half an hour it was ready to cut. The sheet of pasta was folded over and over until it was about 3 inches wide. Each layer had a little flour sprinkled on top so it wouldn’t stick. Then she sliced it all into thin strips less than a centimeter wide. After all the tagliatelle was cut, Mirella shook the long strands out to separate them from each other. Then she set the pasta aside until it was time to add it to the boiling water.
Next we walked outside to the cantina where Luca’s parents store their canned foods and home-cured meats. Giulio brought a prosciutto inside the house so he could prepare a platter of charcuterie for an appetizer.
Several other guests arrived as Mirella and Giulio finished making dinner. Earlier they had prepared a mixed grill including sausages, marinated pork ribs and pork livers wrapped in stomach lining. We skewered them on iron stakes and set them in the fireplace where Giulio kept an eye on them while they cooked. Finally, after Mirella boiled the pasta and tossed it with a tomato meat sauce, we sat down at the table for a feast.
We sat around the table until after 10 pm eating plates of food and drinking wine from the neighbor’s grapes. It was unreal. The whole day was an Italian fantasy. I was so happy to wake up the next morning with a bag full of provisions from Mirella and Giulio sitting on my kitchen table. We already used one jar of sauce and a pound of tagliatelle. I’ll save the second batch for a special dinner since I don’t know if I will be making pasta by myself away from the magic of Mirella’s kitchen.