Across Italy, no matter where you travel, you’ll find good food. What’s a little more elusive is the experience of that dish beyond your plate. But there’s one way to guarantee a pasta dough’s freshness, and find that authenticity: by learning to make it, with a local.
LOVENO — Tiny drops of rain cool the sidewalk as I alight from the bus. A gorgeous mist hangs low, shifting under grey skies…Perfect for an indoor cooking class!
Hugo and Eileen, a Dutch couple on holiday, join me for the morning session.
“Today you are making three types of pasta!” Sara beams.
“Who’s gonna eat it all?” I wonder aloud.
Hugo raises his hand. “He loves pasta, don’t worry,” Eileen answers.
Sara leads us into the kitchen. I’d met her years ago when she was launching new initiatives in Lake Como. Born and raised on these shores, Sara’s enthusiasm for travel was matched by her desire to bring deep experiences to foreign visitors. “Experiences on request,” she’d called them.
A delicious scent wafts out as we enter. Hotel manager and resident chef, Paolo, speaks perfect English. He’s already busy in the kitchen, stirring the ragu.
“I started early on the sauce,” he tells us, “Because it’s best to cook for three hours!” He launches into the explanation, hand-gestures flying.
“We start with carrots—cut very small! Then put a bit of oil. …Not too much! Let it simmer, add the wine, let it evaporate, then add the passata and let it cook. …Keep stirring it!”
On the work-table, he hands each of us one-hundred grams of coarse semola flour, a dash of water, and nothing else.
We mix this paste with our bare hands until it forms a strong, shapeable play-doh-like consistency. We continue kneading, like kindergarten tots with all the time in the world.
Our mission is straightforward: Create three types of pasta!
Tagliatelle (from the Italian tagliare, “to cut”) like they make in Emilia-Romagna.
Farfalle (butterflies) found here in Lombardia.
And, Orecchiette (little ears), originally from Puglia.
To shape the little “ears” of orecchiette, Paolo shows us how to slice delicate discs of dough, then slide the knife sideways across it, creating an instant curl. With a careful thumb, we press that curl inside out.
“That’s how you get a bowl shape to catch the sauce!”
Hugo, whom we’ve now nicknamed, “The Machine,” whips them out an impressive rate. Mine, below, could use a lot of improvement!
Presently, company arrives. Rosanna, Sara’s mother, with an adorable old man at her side: Sara’s grandfather. He’s dressed simply, an elegant silk scarf cradling his neck. He smiles broadly, shakes our hands, and watches as we press curves of orecchiette onto a well-floured tray.
Around 1 pm, the table is set. Paolo fills our glasses with a robust Valtellina red and bathes the first servings of tagliatelle with steaming ragu. Sara carries in a chunk of sharp parmesan to shave over our pasta. Rosanna heaps a generous portion of the handmade orecchiette on her father’s plate.
He cautiously rolls up the cuffs of his sleeves, before reaching for a taste.
“Is it good, Papa?” asks Rosanna. “Does it taste like nonna’s?”
One bite, and then another. The smile between his eyes says it all.
“My grandmother made orecchiette every Sunday,” explains Rosanna. “It was the Sunday lunch!
The old man raises his glass to congratulate our cooking.
“Cin-cin!” We’re all relieved.
Paolo has one final instruction. “More wine!”
He refills our glasses—twice, thrice. An hour later, we’re still feasting. With plenty of pasta, good company, and a lazy rain outside, who’s in a hurry to be anywhere else?
Dining this way feels indulgent, not because of extravagant ingredients (noodles, anywhere, are a simple dish). But because today, we have all the time in the world. And what an honor to share a meal with Nonno Ruggero, who turns 83 this year! This is a different kind of art experience. Making nourishing food and the comfort of family there to enjoy it.
Indeed, in Italy, life is a never-ending celebration of the senses. The pleasure of time, the very long lunches, and, on most days, the pasta.
Recipe for Homemade Tagliatelle with Meat Ragu:
For the Pasta:
- Flour 300 g
- Eggs 3
- Salt 1 pinch
For the Ragu:
- Minced Beef 100 g
- Minced Pork 100 g
- Onion 1/2
- Carrot 1
- Celery 1
- Red wine 1 glass
- 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- Salt to taste
- Pepper as needed
Brown meat in a few tablespoons of oil, add the vegetables. Sprinkle with wine, let the alcohol evaporate and add the tomato paste, salt, pepper, and broth. Cook over low heat for a couple of hours. To make the pasta, mix the flour with the eggs and a pinch of salt. Work the dough until you get a mixture of firm consistency. Roll out the dough into very thin sheets and cut into strips about one centimeter wide. Boil in plenty of salted water, until al dente. Drain and season with plenty of sauce.