It’s often argued that handmade pasta, with its toothy texture and rich flavor, tastes infinitely better than the dried stuff. For Italians, who do actually consume untold kilos of dried, store-bought pasta every year, pasta “fatta in casa” is a hallowed culinary event that is increasingly rare in modern Italy, where families are less nuclear and less likely to gather around a communal table, and where home cooking is giving way to convenience.
But homemade pasta still commands attention, and for Italians, it demands that they show up for Sunday lunch because they know it will be something special.
Does making handmade pasta really require supernatural skills? Ostensibly, it’s just dough made of two ingredients: eggs and flour. It does require correct ratios and a deft hand to keep it from turning into a gummy mess. Yet, with some patience and willingness to screw up a few times, DIY pasta is within anyone’s reach. And as demonstrated by the Notorious EFG (Elide, Franca and Graziella), our revered pasta nonnas, it’s all in the hands.
Franca, 73, her aunt Elide, 94, and her sister-in-law Graziella, 71, gathered in Franca’s kitchen in Allerona, a hill town of around 400 residents in Umbria, central Italy, to show us how it’s done. The F-bombs start flying when one of the nonnas suggests using a machine.
Graziella: Liz, write down the measurements, otherwise how the fuck will these people understand how to make it?
To begin, the ratio is 1 raw egg per 1 etto (100 grams, or 1/2 cup) of 00 flour. Finely milled 00 flour is the consistency of baby powder. If you can’t find a type marked 00, go with the finest milled flour you can find. The rule of thumb is one egg per person. Pasta dinner for six calls for 6 eggs and 600 grams (3 cups) of flour.
Graziella: Be sure to clean the eggs. They came out of a chicken’s ass.
A neighbor provided a bottle of wine ― homemade, naturally.
Graziella: [To Elizabeth] That dress looks cute on you. You can’t see your thighs.
Franca: Graziella needs a bigger apron.
Pour the flour on a wooden work surface, and make a shallow well in the center. Crack the eggs into the well. Once they’re all added, use a fork to lightly beat the eggs. When the flour starts to attach and form a paste, ditch the fork and start mixing with your hands. This will be a sticky mess at first, but keep at it, peeling the paste off your hands until the dough starts to amalgamate.
Graziella: Franca, what do you say? We make some pizza, a little pasta, some other shit and start selling it? You wanna tell me we wouldn’t earn a few bucks?
The dough is starting to firm up, and Graziella begins kneading it, pushing it with the heel of one hand, then the other.
Franca: Why don’t we use the pasta machine (a hand-cranked extruder)? It’s faster.
Graziella: Fuck the machine.
Franca: Take a break and let someone else do something.
Franca starts kneading the pasta, periodically lifting it and slamming it onto the board to work all the air out of it. Graziella has another glass of wine.
Elide: What am I going to do?
Franca: Graziella wants to show everyone else how it’s done.
Elide: I used to make pasta for 40 people at a time. I know how to do it.
The pasta is kneaded abbastanza (enough) when air bubbles start to work their way out of the dough — not active, rising bubbles like those that appear in yeast doughs, but shallow air pockets that emerge from the stretched surface. Then it’s time to start rolling. Graziella and Elide still hand-roll their pasta with a mattarello, an extra-long wooden rolling pin. If you have a standard-size rolling pin, divide the dough into two or more batches and roll one at a time.
Graziella — who wants to do everything — starts rolling the dough on the floured surface. As it begins to spread out, she rolls, rotates the dough, then rolls some more. The trick — one of them, at least — is to keep the working surface and the dough dry enough that it doesn’t stick to the surface or the roller, but elastic enough that it doesn’t start to crumble. It means rolling, rotating, rolling, rotating. Shake some flour onto the surface or the disc of dough as needed, but not so much that you’re adding any volume to the dough—it’s just to keep it from sticking.
Elide takes over and starts pushing the rolling pin with her forearms.
Elide: It’s good for your arm muscles.
Franca: Do a good job then.
Graziella: If [the pasta disc] isn’t perfectly round, it makes no fucking difference. We need to teach this [skill] to the kids. We can’t lose this tradition.
Franca: If you used the machine, you’d be done in 10 minutes.
Graziella: The machine is fine for ravioli. For tagliatelle? Never!
Franca to Elide, who is still rolling: Are you tired, Zia?
Elide: No. It’s not like I’m Graziella.
As the sheet gets thinner and drier, they let it wrap around the rolling pin, quickly rolling and unrolling. The rolled sheet of pasta is as now a large, thin oval, with a uniform thickness of about 1 millimeter. It’s left to air-dry about 15-20 minutes. When the sheet can be folded without sticking to itself, it’s ready to be cut.
Franca: I’m making a snack, some pizza.
Graziella: Good, that way I can have another glass of wine.
Franca to Graziella: You get orange soda.
Once the pasta is dry, Graziella starts to fold it onto itself, adding a little flour between each layer to keep it from sticking. She repeats this until she has a long, narrow rectangle, sort of like folded sheets of tissue paper. With a sharp, non-serrated knife, Elide begins slicing thin slivers, which she quickly unfolds ― and voila, individual strips of tagliatelle are born. Franca sets aside what she’ll cook later that day. The rest gets gently set onto a flour-dusted tray, formed into birds’ nest shapes and dusted again with some flour. It’s loosely covered and put in the freezer. As throughout the whole process, the pasta needs to be kept dry. Moisture is the enemy here.
To cook the pasta, boil salted water as you would for the dry stuff, and gently drop the pasta in by the handful. Homemade pasta cooks a lot faster than dry pasta, so keep an eye on the cauldron When it starts to float to the surface —probably after no more than 5 minutes — it’s done. Keep in mind that homemade pasta is always going to have a more al dente texture than store-bought, which is part of the reason it pairs so well with a robust sauce. When it’s cooked, drain it — but for the love of God, don’t rinse it — and serve it right away with sauce.
Graziella: When we were young, the women would make this for their families every day. Every day. They’d take their wheat grain to the mill and exchange it for flour. They kept chickens, so they always had eggs.
Franca: But now we have the machine; it’s faster.
Elide: I’ve never used a machine. It doesn’t give the same texture.
Graziella: Fuck that machine!
Under the circumstances, I have to concur.