I remember the first time I made fresh pasta. It was about 40 years ago, and I lived in Boston’s South End. My apartment had a tiny little galley kitchen (with a window where the cat sat) and three other rooms. One was a bedroom, one was a combination dining and living room, and the last was a closet. It was the entire floor of an old brownstone—the rent was less than a hundred dollars a month.
Nowadays—well, we won’t go there. I cannot imagine the price of the apartments and condos that have since been renovated and sold, many times over. I loved my home at that time, even though it was infested with cockroaches and the ambulances pulling up to Boston City Hospital made it difficult to listen to music or television, let alone hold a conversation.
The sirens didn’t interfere with my pasta-making, however. I was intent on reproducing a dish I had been served in the North End; it was straw and hay pasta (spinach and egg) in a light, creamy sauce. I had no pasta machine—just a lot of determination. It’s amazing how many people are reluctant to make pasta at home, even though with just a few ingredients and tools, you can turn out a pretty tasty dish in just a few hours.
What I didn’t know at the time, however, was how much room I needed for the pasta to dry. Mixing in the kitchen and rolling on the dining table were easy enough—but the recipe I used called for hanging the pasta over wooden dowels to dry for a few hours before cooking. That meant my entire dining and living area became a sort of pasta factory, with brooms and mops (the handles were my dowels) arranged between the chairs and sofa, and bits of eggy pasta and lots of flour sprinkles decorating the floor.
Recently I made pasta again, this time in Tuscany. I was reminded of how simple it is to do, and it seemed to me that four decades later, it was easier—again, without a pasta machine. We were at the Fattoria Colleverde, an organic/biodynamic vineyard that produces wines and olive oil. It’s located in Matraia, near the medieval walled city of Lucca, not too far from Pisa and Florence.
Our instructors were Chef Luca Pizzo, accompanied by Christina Fabbri, who translated for him. We were told we were about to make pasta “the old-fashioned way,” using our muscles, a rolling pin, and a sharp knife. The process was simple: we were each stationed at a large wooden board, where we had a bowl filled with flour. Next to that was an egg and a bottle of olive oil—from the vineyard, of course.
The egg was as fresh as could be—when I broke it into the bowl, it had a bright orange yolk. Next we were instructed to add a few drops of olive oil, then start mixing the flour into the center of the bowl in order to combine it with the wet ingredients. After it all came together, we kneaded the dough, first in the bowl, then on the board, until it was smooth and pliant.
Next we rolled it out with large wooden rolling pins, scattering a little more flour underneath as we lifted and turned to dough to make a large rectangle, about 20 by 25 inches. The flour we used was half “OO All Purpose” and half farina, a semolina flour that had the texture of “sea sand.” Our bowls each contained just a half-cup of each, and perhaps a pinch of sea salt. After our rectangles were approved by Luca, he showed us how to roll the dough around the rolling pin and drop it onto the board.
Then we had to cut the pasta—about a third of an inch for tagliatelle, half an inch for fettucine, or three-quarters of an inch for pappardelle. Next we sprinkled it with flour and tossed it, making it “jump,” so that it dried (no broomsticks or wooden dowels for us!). Luca and Christina then placed our pasta back in the original bowl we had mixed it in and put our name on a post-it, which was stuck to the bottom of the bowl.
That way, when we had lunch, we each were able to enjoy our very own pasta topped with two different sauces. One was an olive oil and fresh herb sauce, the other a simple pomodoro made with “tons” of chopped vegetables, canned tomatoes, and fresh basil. The pasta was simply gorgeous, and needless to say, it tasted as good as it looked.
The entire pasta-making lesson took less than 45 minutes—actually, it might be a fun way to start a party sometime. Each serving was more than enough for one person, especially because our meal started with Tuscan crostini, then the pasta course, followed by a chicken cacciatore with roasted potatoes. Each course, naturally, was accompanied by wines from the vineyard. We ended with a classic Tuscan dessert, a slice of sweet bread with raisins, called Buccellato. That was topped with a warm custard sauce, offered with tiny glasses of hot espresso.
Making pasta for two people for dinner may seem like a chore, but it’s probably one of the easier of all the kitchen preparations I can think of. You, too, can turn out tender, flavorful noodles, just waiting for your favorite toppings and sauces. Try any of the following simple sauces for fresh pasta, and you may find yourself transported to the rolling hills of Tuscany…or perhaps back to an apartment in Boston.
Sage And Butter Sauce
8 TBSP salted butter
4 to 6 fresh sage leaves, minced
whole fresh sage leaves for garnish, optional
Fresh pasta cooks quickly, so start heating your water early, and melt the butter for the sauce; keep the butter on low heat until it’s golden brown. While the butter is cooking, add the whole fresh sage leaves and cook until crisp. Remove from the butter and set aside for garnishing the plate. Add the minced sage; it will sizzle a bit; remove the pan from the heat. Add a generous amount of salt (2 to 3 TBSP) to the boiling water and cook the fresh pasta for 2 to 3 minutes; drain the pasta, leaving a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water in the pot. Stir in the sizzled sage butter, garnish with whole leaves, and serve immediately.
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce With Onion And Butter
2 cups canned, imported Italian tomatoes (preferably San Marzano, DOP)
5 TBSP butter
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
Cut up the tomatoes and put them, along with their juice, in a medium saucepan; add the butter, onion, and salt to taste. Cook, uncovered, at a slow simmer, for 45 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and the butter floats above the tomatoes. Stir from time to time, then check the salt and serve with cooked and drained pasta and freshly grated Parmesan. Note: you can remove the onion if you wish and use it for another recipe, or you can include it with the pasta; you also can puree the sauce with an immersion blender, which will give you a more “oniony” tomato sauce.
Basil Lemon Sauce
3 TBSP salted butter
1 tsp garlic
½ cup each: lemon juice and dry white wine
Handful fresh basil, cut in chiffonade
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat; add the garlic and reduce the heat to low. Add juice and wine and stir until warmed through; toss with cooked and drained pasta and top with cheese and basil before serving.
Pasta With Sage, Olive Oil
2 TBSP olive oil
15 to 20 fresh sage leaves
2 garlic cloves, minced
1⁄3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
After you have cooked and drained the pasta, in the same pan, heat the olive oil over medium low; add sage leaves and minced garlic and sauté for a few minutes. Add drained pasta, toss quickly; remove from heat and add Parmesan and plenty of black pepper. Serve with additional cheese at the table.