Before traveling through Emilia Romagna, I would have considered myself an expert pasta eater. I can eat pasta with the best of them. I also could make a mean pasta, so long as that pasta came from a box or bag or plastic container from the local super market. Although Eric could make a mean pasta sauce, including a bolognese from scratch, we always placed it over boxed pasta.
How to Make Pasta in Italy, in a Fancy Kitchen
One problem: we were learning in the kitchen of a Michelin star restaurant, alongside a famous American chef. I was intimidated to say the least.
Back in the kitchen at Amerigo dal 1934, in the tiny town of Savigno, Chef Francesca walked us through the preparation of several iconic dishes, including passatelli, gnocchi, and tagliatelle. It was a crash course in pasta making.
Passatelli is a traditional pasta, well known in Emilia Romagna. In fact, I had never tasted it before arriving in the region. It is thicker than many other pastas, and has a more floury, dense taste to it. As dense as it is, though, it is also much more delicate than it appears.
The passatelli was made simply with parmigiano cheese, bread crumbs, egg, flour, and nutmeg, by slowly folding the egg into the flour. Once the mixture was finished, it was run through a press, almost like a garlic press, to form its eel like shape. There was a texture, or a roughness to the pasta, which allows the sauce to hold onto the pasta more than a smooth pasta would. I think this is because no water is added to the pasta mixture.
We were able to taste Amerigo’s passatelli at that evening’s truffle dinner, and it was amazing. Both light and dense at the same time, a combination that I assumed would be hard to balance.
Learning to Make Gnocchi
Then, Chef Francesca moved onto making gnocchi. I had tried to make gnocchi once before back in the US, and I failed miserably, so I was eager to learn the secret. This gnocchi was made by baking the potatoes, whereas I had boiled the potatoes, making the mixture too soft. Lesson learned.
The potatoes were pressed almost in a mashed potato, but thicker, and then mixed with egg and flour. The mixture was then rolled out into a long, thin log and cut into smaller pieces with a pasta cutter. Those pieces were then rolled onto a cheese grater style tool, in order to add some texture to the gnocchi, again to encourage the pasta to hold the sauce.
Eric was a natural when it came to pressing his thumb into each piece of gnocchi and then rolling it on the grater. I was not. That simple. Perhaps I had stage fright of some sort, feeling insignificant in my surroundings. Perhaps I am better at eating pasta than learning to make pasta.
Learning to Make Tagliatelle
The tagliatelle was the pasta I was most concerned about helping with, and thereby messing up. Often, Chef Bettini, the owner of Amerigo, has his mother come in, with another eighty year old woman, to roll out the tagliatelle.
We were learning how to make pasta in Italy from Chef Francesca, a much younger woman, but still with loads of experience. When I asked how long she had been making pasta like this, she sort of paused, rolled her eyes, and replied “since she was a baby.”
Traditional, quality tagliatelle is made with a rolling pin. No pasta machines are used because then the pasta would be too thin, and would not hold the sauce well, a consistent theme with pasta in Emilia Romagna.
The pasta was rolled until almost paper thin. There was a seductive rhythm to Chef Francesca’s movements, the way she rolled from one side to the other, and the way she lifted the entire, very large, piece of pasta up off the cutting board and replaced it delicately back on the board.
We watched the process with a glass of bubbly Prosecco, providing me a little liquid courage for the job ahead. I would be helping to roll out the tagliatelle, as it was finally time to step up and learn to make pasta in Italy.
When I stepped up to the plate, Chef Amy Ferguson from the US, who joined us in our class, attempted to make me feel better, noting that the rolling process was “tricky.” That was an understatement. I tentatively approached the wooden board, and took the heavy, and ancient, rolling pin in hand, while Chef Francesca watched, with a smile on her face. She quickly stepped in to show me “no, it’s like this.” Eric asked whether anyone would be eating this pasta, or whether it was stunt pasta. I hoped it was stunt pasta.
It was hard. I was not a natural. I could not come even close to getting the rhythm right. No wonder, as I have no rhythm when I dance either. I could not expect that I would get it right my first shot, where as Chef Francesca has been rolling pasta like this for almost 40 years, but I did not think it would feel as awkward as it did. I am generally a pretty confident person, but that confidence dissipated quickly in these surroundings.
After the rolling process was complete, Chef Francesca carefully folded the pasta into layers and cut it just perfectly to make a light and fluffy tagliatelle. Yeah, just that easy. She’s a natural. It’s in her blood.
I looked ahead though, knowing we had other cooking courses on the schedule during our time in Emilia Romagna. I hoped that I could redeem myself by doing a better job learning to make pasta in Italy, to get over my stage fright, and just jump in with both feet.
For me, one of the most exciting things was just being in the kitchen, as prep was finishing for the evening’s meal. The hustle and bustle. The chopping. The smells. To see what goes into preparing an evening of dining at a Michelin star restaurant. That, and knowing that a fabulous meal was waiting to be eaten. After all, eating pasta is what I am truly good at.
Planning a Trip to Emilia Romagna?
Looking for more travel tips on Emilia Romagna, and how to eat the best food in Italy? My book The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, is available on Amazon now. If you are a NOOK reader, it is also available for download on Barnes and Noble.
Located on Via Marconi in Savigno, Emilia Romagna, the restaurant suggests not using your GPS to find them, because the GPS is wrong! Just call ahead, or look just off of the main square in Savigno for the store front. Open for lunch, only with reservations.
Yummy Italy organized our class on how to make pasta in Italy, and they can organize similar but unique experiences at Amerigo or other locations in Emilia Romagna.
For more about the food in Emilia Romagna, check out our Emilia Romagna Food Travel Guide.
Amber is a recovering attorney, yoga teacher, writer, social media consultant, and eater, traveling With Husband In Tow