Flour + Water + Eggs + Salt + a pinch of magic = True love! I absolutely love making pasta from scratch. How can something so simple be so delicious?! I find it remarkable that you can make one of the most adored and delightful foods in so many different varieties of texture and flavor from just a few simple ingredients and a little bit of “elbow grease”.
My love affair with handmade pasta started nearly a decade ago when I got my first pasta roller and began making ravioli for my private clients as one of the courses of their in-home dinner parties but my true obsession didn’t begin until I moved to Tuscany for a summer in 2011. It was there that I realized how integral pasta is to Italian culture and the impressive diversity of pasta shapes that exist throughout Italy. It’s difficult to tally an exact number of shapes but according to The Geometry of Pasta, there are at least 300 types of pasta throughout the different regions of Italy. Italians take their pasta and shape/sauce pairings very seriously and are fiercely loyal to the particular shapes created in their local region. A local nonna from Bologna would never dream of pairing a rich, meaty Bolognese sauce with a delicate capellini. Pazzo! It just isn’t done. Period.
When I moved to Tuscany, it was to work in a small rustic Slowfood restaurant in a little Tuscan town in the province of Siena. One of the most loved pasta shapes created in Siena is Pici, a rustic hand-rolled rope-shaped pasta similar in shape to spaghetti but much thicker. Few restaurants, even in Tuscany, still roll their Pici by hand (preferring the much quicker and easier extrusion method) but I was lucky enough to work for a restaurant that still practices that dying art and I learned to meticulously roll each strand of Pici by hand.
Matteo, the maestro di Pici (“Pici master”) at the restaurant, taught me to mix the Pici dough by hand, knead it until it achieved just the right texture which, incidentally, was just about the time when my arms were ready to fall off, give the dough (and myself) a rest, and then cut it into strips to individually roll out each strand of Pici. It certainly took me awhile to get the hang of it but by the end of the summer of making Pici from start to finish EVERY. SINGLE. DAY., I had increased my speed three-fold and Matteo just narrowly won our Pici-rolling race by 1 single strand on my last day of work!
Aside from the fact that it’s nostalgic for me, Pici is also one of my favorite shapes of pasta because it is “perfectly imperfect” with slightly thicker and thinner sections along each strand due to the hand-rolling.
Pici’s inherent variability in texture, ranging from tender to chewy, changes the diner's experience from bite to bite. It is typically paired with a hearty sauce like a pork or wild boar ragú or the super simple cacio, pepe e briciole (cheese, black pepper, and toasted bread crumbs) to truly let the pasta shine.
Now, I only make handmade pasta a few days per week rather than every day but whenever I dig my hands into that simple dough, it takes me back to my time in Italy. It really is therapeutic and incredibly satisfying to see a mound of flour magically transform into a delicious plate of pasta using your own two hands while your mind wanders to visions of rolling Tuscan hills and a cute little Italian nonna covered in flour making a big pasta feast for the whole family. Handmade pasta is definitely a “labor of love” but if you’ve never tried your hand at it, I would encourage you to give it a try!
Join us for The Chopping Block's next Pasta Boot Camp this Sunday at the Merchandise Mart at to learn the tricks of the trade, pick up an Atlas pasta roller from our retail shop, and you’ll be making your own ravioli, pici, farfalle, tortellini, fettuccine, tagliatelle, pappardelle, gnocchi, (am I missing about 293?!) . . . in no time!