Friday, May 13, 2011

Fresh Pasta - A Class with Viola and Corrado

Pasta.  Yummm.  Is there any more iconic or better part of Italian cuisine?  Over my years of eating Italian food I have realized that while there are many excellent antipasti and secondi dishes, I always gravitate to the pastas included in the primi group.  In fact, in some cases I would be happy to have a couple of pastas to the exclusion of all else.  As reflected very well in “The Geometry of Pasta,” the shapes seem endless, and the sauce combinations infinite.

So, when at the beginning of last week I received an email from the Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano di Cultura) in San Francisco announcing a cooking class featuring my favorite cuisine (Pasta Fresca e Dintornian exploration of different kinds of fresh pasta and other handmade primi piatti from all over Italy”), it was a no-brainer.  I called the Institute, learned that there was still a space available, and signed up.

Since March, and continuing through next month, the Institute has been presenting an impressive array of programs to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italian unification.  I had noted that a number of them dealt with food and wine topics, but unfortunately had been unable to attend.

The Institute’s series of food and wine events – called ENOGASTRONOMIA - has been primarily organized by an Italian food expert named Viola Buitoni, who lives in San Francisco and comes from a prominent Italian family with a long history in the food sector.  Those events have included both lectures and tastings at the Institute, as well as classes of the sort for which I signed up – part of Viola’s “La Cucina di Casa Mia” (“Cooking of My Home”) series.  Here is a very good article which highlights both Viola and the series.

As a bonus, I learned the class was to be taught in the kitchen of the Pacific Heights residence of the Consul General of Italy in San Francisco.  So at the appointed hour on Friday I made my way up Broadway to the entrance to the residence.  Viola met us there and escorted us to the kitchen where we were introduced to Corrado Sani, a professional chef born and raised in Toscana who now lives here in San Francisco and who was collaborating with Viola on the class.

The kitchen at the residence was a perfect venue for our class – a colorful room with a lot of natural light and an excellent workspace in the center of the room for the five of us who were taking the class.

At the start of the class, Viola gave us each a handout with recipes for the dishes we would be preparing:

~ Orecchiette con le Cime di Rapa
~ Pici all’Aglione
~ Pappardelle sulla Nana

I had heard of the first dish – a classic from Puglia with "little ears" pasta – but the toppings for the other two were new to me. The “all'Aglinoe” turned out to be a traditional Tuscan garlic (“aglio”) based sauce, while “Nana” proved to be duck (“anatra”) in the Tuscan dialect.

The three pastas featured different mixes of the two staple wheat products used in pasta production – semolina made from durum wheat (semola di grano duro) which is primarily used in southern Italy, and “regular” flour (farina di frumento tenero) – the most highly refined being “tipo 00” - which is used for the more refined and filled pastas of northern Italy. The extent to which any eggs were used was another factor.

In the case of the orecchiette, we used only semolina and water and no eggs. For the pici we used a combination of the two grain products in a 30% semolina/70% flour ratio, together with a single egg. Finally, for the pappardelle, we used just the 00 flour and several eggs. This affected both the color of the pasta and the texture, as well as the amount of effort that it took to work the dough. A very interesting illustration.

Orecchiette con le Cime di Rapa

As the name suggests, the focus of this dish is broccoli rabe with its slightly bitter flavor and we had some beautiful produce with which to work.

There are a number of recipes online for this dish and the ingredients are quite simple.  The version we prepared did not include any anchovies, although I always enjoy the added flavor they bring.  Here is a video with Viola demonstrating the proper technique for working the pasta dough, and here is a second video with Corrado showing us how to form the orecchiette using a blunt table knife.  After being boiled, the broccoli rabe was minced and combined with some garlic and chili peppers to form a beautiful vivid green sauce for the orecchiette.

It added to an excellent final dish!

Pici all’Aglione

Pici, a rustic and fairly thick Tuscan rolled pasta, is one of my favorite pastas.  I love its hearty and chewy character. Nancy and I first had it at a restaurant called Osteria La Porta in the small town of Monticchiello south of Siena, and Sociale here in San Francisco usually has it on their menu with a meat ragù, a version we learned to make at a class last year at Cavallo Point.

The “all’Aglione” version we prepared at Friday’s class was a wonderfully simple dish which was based on some beautiful green garlic available in the Spring, although Corrado told us regular garlic cloves could also be used.

In fact we made two versions of the dish, the first a sugo rosso including tomatoes.

The second version excluded the tomatoes, but added toasted breadcrumbs just before serving to provide added texture.

Of course, once again the real work involved the production of the pasta. Here is a video with Corrado’s demonstration of the proper pici rolling technique, and here is a photo showing our final product.

It would be hard to say which was the better of the two sauces.

Pappardelle sulla Nana

It’s a good thing I love pasta, because we still had one to go! Further, duck may be my favorite meats, so I was really looking forward to this final dish.

This was by far the most time consuming of the dishes we prepared. First, the duck had to be browned, the fat removed, then the duck simmered in a sauce that had been prepared with a standard carrot/celery/onion soffritto, tomatoes, olives, red wine and spices. Then, although Corrado said it could served with the duck leg and thigh whole, for our dish we shredded the duck meat off the bones and added it back to the sauce.


As indicated earlier, pappardelle is a pasta which uses flour and eggs, resulting in a much yellower and smoother dough.  It also required a good deal more kneading and, at least for us, the use of a pasta rolling machine. 

Although I have to admit that by that point I was beginning to feel a bit full, our final dish was so tasty I had no problem in finishing my entire serving.

Finally, as a bit of a bonus, earlier this week Viola sent us this link to a video showing her and her son, Ernesto, preparing Tagliatelle with Spring Vegetables. That dish looks great too.

One thing that Viola mentions in that video is ricotta secca, a “dried” ricotta cheese that she brought with her to our class and which was excellent. That is not to be confused with ricotta salata (“salted ricotta”) which is more commonly available but, as the name suggests, much saltier and a different product. I understand ricotta secca is available at Avedano’s in Bernal Heights, another of my favorite spots.

Thanks again to Viola and Corrado for an excellent class. I am looking forward to participating in additional events in the ENOGASTRONOMIA program!


Simona said...

All the dishes look wonderful! Making pasta by hand can be fun. I think the secret is to give ourselves time: it's not something that can be rushed.

gastronomichael said...

Thanks Simona. You are right about the time - you have to give the pasta dough a bit of time to "relax" before starting to make the pasta. Also, it certainly helps to have some company while making pasta by hand!

food lover kathy said...

This looks like so much fun! I need to make it to one of these classes/events soon. Thanks for sharing and letting us know about the events.