Making Pasta Unlike The Italians
I first tasted homemade Italian pasta 5 years ago in Parma in Northern Italy. The pasta was prepared by a rezdora (queen of the house) in a trattoria squeezed into the curve of a narrow winding street. There was a menu, but she decided what I would have based on how I looked, smiled and nodded blankly at her string of rapidly delivered Italian.
Out came a plate with five plump, glistening tortelli — a veil of diaphanous pasta holding a soft filling of ricotta cheese and herbs, seasoned with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano. “Life is a combination of magic and pasta” her red-cheeked son told me in broken English, which I realized later was a quote from Federico Fellini, the Italian filmmaker.
At the other end of Italy, the toe of the boot, is Sicily, the sun-blessed island known to be the birthplace of spaghetti. Its cuisine, rich and fabled differs from the food found elsewhere in the country — what we generically call ‘Italian food’. The Oberoi Mumbai is hosting Sicilian chef Agostino D’Angelo from the Oliviero Restaurant at Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea at their chic restaurant Vetro — they regularly call down international chefs to offer patrons new tastes and help their own chefs grow with the exchange of ideas in the kitchen — and so I decide to meet him to learn more.
He’s a few inches shorter than me, but his personality and feverish energy before a cook is immense. He’s offered to show me a few techniques and we’re starting, of course, with Italy’s most cherished carbohydrate, pasta. “Sicilian pasta is made without eggs,” he says, as he gathers the flour towards him, making a well. “Egg pasta is traditional to Northern Italy.” The history of pasta is also the history of conquest, which is why it’s quite common to find ingredients like raisins in spaghetti in Sicily which has seen Greek and Arab rules in its history. Most traditional homes in Sicily make cous cous by hand, a staple as important as pasta.
We prepare both kinds of dough, with egg (only the yolks, no water) and without (refined flour plus self-rising flour with warm water). While the rules are at once complex and flexible depending on the dish and occasion, in general fresh egg pasta gets its ‘bite’ from the egg proteins, and is traditionally served with the butter, cream and rich meat dishes of the north, while water pasta generally pairs better with the olive oil and tomato recipes of the south. We’re cutting out the middle man (the dough-kneading machine) and kneading it ourselves, “like my grandmother did,” says chef Agostino who grew up working in her small trattoria in Trapani. After several minutes of muscle work l end up with a stiff, dense dough, but that’s nothing to worry about apparently. Resting it for a bit, sorts it all out.
From there on it’s all theatre. He divides up the rested dough into chunks and fashions fantastical shapes from the dough with the ease and alacrity of a child left alone with silly putty. Sheets of pasta are turned into strips of fettuccine and spaghetti. Small rolls of the dough are pressed onto a wooden board with abrasions until the sides curl, forming the shape Cavatelli (literally little hollows). “You could even do it like gnocchi,” he shrugs, using the pressure of his thumbs instead of fingers to curl, demonstrating that that the myriad shapes of pasta originated as a way for Italian women to express their creativity with the least amount of resources.
The pièce de résistance of our session is a shape he’s invented, the pyramid ravioli. We quenelle soft warm goat cheese onto flat strips of dough and roll it inwards like cannoli (Sicily’s most famous desert) and then using the blunt side of a knife fold it twice to create a tiny, plump, piece of ravioli that stands upright like a samosa.
It’s time to taste the fruit of our labours. Chef Agostino ushers me onto a table and within minutes he’s serving me an appetiser of burrata with a Sicilian twist. Fruit is an important part of Sicilian cuisine owing to the island’s eternally fertile soil, and so 5 types of fruit are cooked in a vacuum to enhance their flavours and grilled until charred and served alongside the local cheese (sourced from a priest in Bandra), with a dash of olive oil, sea salt and a basil cream. It’s like spring in your mouth. The locally sourced fruits are like nothing you’ve tasted before, the slow double-cooking has transformed the flavours giving it a smoky, yet somehow more sweet and intense taste.
And then he brings out the pyramid ravioli we made minutes ago. The pasta is boiled for 2 minutes, then seasoned and placed atop a smattering of pea sauce. Slivers of asparagus, artichokes and snow peas are piled on top with a generous douse of olive oil. The perfectly taut-skinned, chewy parcels, slick with garlicky smooth sauce, ooze out tart cheese. A sophistication impossible to achieve with the store-bought version. In matters of both magic and pasta, chef Agostina’s Sicilian delivers plenty.