Margherita handed me her longest matterello. Shaped like a dowel, it was three feet long and two inches thick. It was made of oak, smooth, very old, and of a deep rich color and patina. One end was shaped like a small doorknob while the other had a gentle taper resulting in a blunt point. I held it with caution. It looked more like a weapon than a kitchen tool.
Susie and I were in Bologna, halfway through a series of pasta classes given by the celebrated Simili Sisters. Fraternal twins in their mid-sixties, neither looked anything like the other. Margherita was short and impish, Valeria tall and elegant. Their courses were taught completely in Italian and consisted mostly of local women.
“A man needs a big matterello, and this is the biggest one I have,” she said to me. “Okay bimbe!” she shouted past me to the rest of the kitchen. “I’m going to teach you how to make the pasta. Come here. Stop talking and come here.”
“Bimbe?” I asked Valeria, who was standing next to me while handing out rolling pins to everyone else.
“It means, ‘little girls,’” she responded. “She should have called all of you bimbi, which means little boys and girls. Margherita is used to teaching only women. Mi dispiace, Marco.”
“We are going to make la sfoglia,” Margherita continued as she pushed her fists into her hips. “But first I must tell you about la macchina.” She pulled a pasta machine out of one her cabinets and slammed it down onto the wood table. She glared at it, daring the thing to stare back at her. She then blinked her eyes rapidly and looked back up at the class of twelve Italian women, Susie, and me.
“You can make pasta with la macchina, but you cannot make la sfoglia,” she continued. La sfoglia is what Italians, particularly those of Emilia-Romagna, call a large, round sheet of hand-rolled pasta. “And we are here tonight to make la sfoglia!”
Egg pasta made by machine can be slick, pale, and insipid. Pasta stretched by hand with a matterello has far better taste, texture, and color. Furthermore, because it has tiny surface pores created by the stretching process, it absorbs more sauce. This further enhances its taste.
We’d been making pasta at home with the matterello for years. Self-taught, we’d come to the Simili school to learn this ancient and demanding craft the proper way and to unlearn any bad techniques we may have acquired. We had come to the right place, for Emilia-Romagna is the world center for handmade pasta.
“Now bimbe, you can use la macchina to make pasta—if you must,” continued Margherita. “But usually only old women with arthritis make it this way. We are in Bologna and in Bologna we roll the pasta by hand—with the matterello.”
“Margherita!” whispered Valeria. “We have Marco here tonight. Don’t use bimbe!”
“Ah hah hah! Yes. Mi dispiace, Marco. You want to come knead the pasta, eh? Bimbe, we have a strong man with us tonight to knead the pasta!” The Italian women giggled and stared at me. Susie poked me with her elbow.
I poured several cups of flour onto the table into a mound. Holding an egg in my hand I hollowed out the mound’s center with a slow, circular motion, turning it into a well. Margherita’s eyes followed my hands as I broke three eggs into the crater-shaped flour heap. The yolks were deep orange, almost scarlet. She handed me a fork. I beat the eggs round and round, blending them together. Then I started to incorporate a little flour with each revolution of the fork, my free hand nudging the flour towards the vortex. The eggs turned to paste. The paste turned to a shaggy mass of golden dough.
“He makes pasta like an Italian woman, no?” she said to the group. The Italian women snickered.
Trying to ignore the commotion, I scraped the wood clean and added some fresh flour to my hands and the surface. I took the mass and started to knead it. Feeling bolder and more assertive with each motion, I attacked the ball of dough with a furious energy. Margherita turned her attention for a few moments to a pot of sauce cooking on the stove. When she returned, the dough I was working with had become elastic but not smooth.
“Marco, Marco! You agitate the pasta. Let me feel your hands.” She grabbed my hands and felt them like a mother would her son’s.
“Poverino!” she said. “Your hands are too warm. Valeria, Marco’s hands are like fire. Poverino!” She patted my hands and looked at the ball of pasta with a forlorn look. “Now I have to relax the pasta. You’ve got it all agitated Marco—you and your hot hands.”
Margherita started to caress the pasta, turning it round and round. Her rough hands transformed the shaggy dough into a soft, elastic ball with a satin finish. She took her index finger and plunged it deeply into the pasta. This final act disfigured the ball and pushed a big dimple into its center. She removed her finger from the dimple and held it close to my face.
“Like a baby’s bottom, Marco,” she said. “The pasta must be soft and smooth, like a baby’s bottom.”
“Okay,” she continued. “Marco, go wash your hands and get all that dough off them. Then come back and knead the pasta again. You need the practice. This time keep the dough at peace and don’t agitate it again.”
I went to the big, industrial sink and started to wash my hands. Looking into the back of the kitchen and into a hidden nook I saw Valeria hunched over a table and kneading a mountain of dough. She looked up and saw me gawking at her.
“Thirty eggs worth!” she said to me. “There is enough pasta here for everyone to make their own sfoglia.” Valeria’s giant ball of dough was every bit as smooth and supple as the one Margherita had just coaxed into relaxation.
Back in the center of the kitchen my ball of dough awaited me. The women stood around it, staring at it as if it were a coffin at a wake. Margherita stood at attention with my matterello in her left arm, holding it like a sentinel would a sword.
“Marco, come here,” she said. “Feel the work surface.” I ran my hand across the butcher-block table.
“What am I supposed to feel?” I asked.
“The heat!” she replied. “É caldo. It’s hot from your hot hands. This is my point. You must be very careful, or you’ll ruin the pasta. Povero Marco.”
I touched the pasta ball, afraid to agitate it. I gingerly rolled it, nudged it, caressed it. To my delight it remained calm, its buttocks-like attributes intact. Margherita nodded her approval.
“OK, bimbe,” she said to the group. “Now I will make the sfoglia. Marco, give me back the matterello.”
She took the matterello with both hands, held it parallel to the table’s edge and pushed it down into the dough. Then she pushed the rolling pin away from her laterally, stretching the pasta into a long oval. She rolled the dough completely around the matterello and spun it around 180 degrees and unrolled the sheet back onto the table. She repeated the stretching motion once again, this time stretching the opposite end of the sheet. She did this several more times. By stretching it, then turning it and stretching it again, the pasta disk was transformed into a sheet. Margherita rolled the sheet around the long pin and started to rock the pin rapidly back and forth, while moving her hands from side to side over the sheet. The complex motion stretched the pasta even further and eventually turned it into a perfectly circular disk.
She unrolled the sheet and gave it a quarter turn. She rolled it up again and repeated the stretching process. After several minutes of intense concentration she looked up at the group. No one seemed to be breathing. All eyes were fixed on the sfoglia.
Margherita rolled the sfoglia halfway up and then lifted it to the ceiling lights. She stared into it, looking for imperfections and unevenness.
“One must be able to see through the sfoglia,” she said. “It must be translucent, or it will not be thin enough.” Eyeing a spot that appeared too opaque, she brought the pasta and matterello back to the work surface and stretched it vigorously.
Margherita stopped working after several more minutes. The sheet was starting to dry. It had taken on the quality of parchment and was now almost amber in color. She rolled it up, carried it to a towel and unrolled the sheet on top of it. The towel’s pattern shown through the sfoglia.
“Now it is your turn,” said Margherita to the group, unaware that she had a smudge of flour on her cheek. She turned to me and gave me back my matterello. Valeria scurried out of her hideout and started distributing balls of pasta dough to each student. She plopped a ball in front of me on my work surface. It made a thud as it hit the table.
I looked at the dough as if it were a nemesis. I put my hands on my cheeks to gauge their temperature. They didn’t feel that warm to me. Mimicking Margherita’s motions I started to caress and work the dough. Soon it became a sheet. The wood grain of the surface started to show through the pasta. It was turning into my very own sfoglia.
“Margherita!” I shouted. “Can you come see my sfoglia? I think it’s done.”
On her way over to me Margherita stopped short at Susie’s nearby workstation. She touched Susie’s sfoglia with her hand and then grabbed her matterello. She raised the rolling pin to eye level and started to inspect it, turning it at all angles. After several minutes she threw it down onto the table and frowned.
“Un miracolo!” she shouted to the entire room. “Bimbe, Susanna has made a miracle!” Susie turned crimson. “Susanna, your matterello is warped, yet you have made the perfect sfoglia. Che brava! Che miracolo!” She grabbed Susie around the waist with her left arm and squeezed her. Then, remembering that I had asked for her assistance she came to my side.
“Marco, did you say that you were done?” she asked.
Sensing a baited question, I refused to answer in the affirmative.
“Well, what do you think?” I said.
She rolled my sfoglia halfway on the matterello and held it up to the light. With the light shining through it, it became obvious that my pasta was unevenly stretched.
“I think you need to practice your stretching, Marco. And I think you need to be more patient—more patient like Susanna. Susanna has made a miracle, and you have more work to do.”
I shot Susie a look so only she could see me. She was still beet red from Margherita’s attention. She pretended not to notice me, so I turned my attention to the sfoglia and sneered at it. I wrapped the sfoglia around the matterello and started to caress it, giving it more loving attention than I felt it deserved.
Fifteen additional minutes of exertion gave me a sfoglia that was thin, even and translucent. I called Margherita over for what I hoped would be the final inspection.
“Good boy,” she said.
Relieved to be exonerated, I rolled my sfoglia onto a towel and gave it a gentle pat.
Margherita thrust her right arm into the air. In it was a long, skinny, cleaver-shaped knife. She waved the knife to get our attention.
“Bimbe, come here. You too, Marco.”
“OK,” she said. “The sfoglia is dry enough for us to cut it into the pasta shapes.” She squinted at the sfoglia and then rolled up like a jelly roll. She started to cut it crosswise into thin little strips.
“Tagliarini,” she said as she opened up the folded strips to reveal tiny ribbon noodles.
After a few cuts she started to cut the noodles wider. “Fettuccine,” she said.
A few more cuts later she widened her cuts to about 3/8 of inch. “Tagliatelle.”
The next cuts were even wider, perhaps an inch thick. She looked directly at me and smiled. “Pappardelle,” she said.
The sheet was halfway consumed when she took her pasta knife and made one, large two-inch cut. “Lasagne!”
Then she took her knife and made wild angled cuts. She unfolded the pasta, showing their rustic, triangular shapes. “Maltagliati,” she said. “Susanna, that means miscut pasta.” Susie nodded in the long slow way that I’d grown so accustomed to seeing her do when she is intently listening to someone.
“For soup,” Valeria added.
Only a little of the sheet was left, so Margherita’s cutting style became more careful. She cut the pasta into 3/8-inch slices and then cut those crosswise into little squares.
“Quadrucci,” she said as she grabbed them and sprinkled them onto the table. They cascaded down like confetti at a parade. It was a dramatic and fitting end to the demonstration.
“Okay,” Margherita said, wiping the flour from her hands onto her apron. “Let’s cut your sheets up. Cut them into tagliatelle.” Like a charging army, the students dispersed to their stations with pasta knives in hand. Soon mounds of tagliatelle were growing everywhere.
“Take the tagliatelle by the handful and coil them into little nests,” Margherita shouted over the clamor of chopping knives. “Place them on towels and carefully bring them to Valeria.”
In the corner of the room Valeria had covered a large table with towels. Next to the table was a portable fan—the kind that reciprocates while operating. A procession of students brought their pasta nests to her. She accepted them with both arms and transferred the nests to paper trays. She had one tray per each student. She covered the table with trays and pointed the fan at them so that the pasta could dry evenly and thoroughly.
Soon she was wrapping the pasta in white paper, securing it with a red ribbon. She curled the ends of the ribbons with the edge of her scissors. She wrote our names on the packages to be sure we received the exact noodles that each of us had made. She handed them out like diplomas.
“Gabriella . . . Veronica . . . Valeria . . . Maria,” she began reciting each name. Each woman raised her hand in turn and Valeria rushed around doling out pasta packages.
“. . . Susanna and Marco!” she finished.
Valeria then ran to get everyone’s coat and cheerful good-byes ensued. Everyone kissed everyone else on both cheeks and the happy noise spilled out from the school and into the street.
On our way back to our hotel we stopped into a bar for a grappa. Inside, I sighed as I fell into a chair. Susie gingerly placed our packages on our table. A large woman with short, black, pageboy hair approached us.
“C’è una festa?” she asked. “Is there a party?”
“Si, una festa della pasta!” I responded. “Yes, a pasta party!”
“Is that a gift from the party?” she continued, pointing to my package.
“It’s pasta I made myself, with the matterello,” I said, poking myself in the chest.
“A man making pasta. That I would have liked to have seen,” she said.
“A man with hot hands!” said Susie.
Chickpea Soup with Tiny Pasta Squares
Zuppa di Ceci e Quadrucci
1 1/2 cups dried chickpeas
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig Italian parsley
salt and freshly ground black pepper – to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 tablespoons imported Italian tomato paste
6 cups homemade Italian meat broth
salt and freshly ground black pepper – to taste
quadrucci (recipe follows)
3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
To Cook the Chickpeas: Rinse and pick over the chickpeas. Put them in a bowl and add water to cover by at least 3 inches. Let them soak overnight.
Drain the chickpeas and put them in a medium saucepan. Add water to cover by 3 inches. Add the garlic, rosemary, and parsley. Bring the water to a slow simmer over medium-low heat and cook the chickpeas uncovered until they are tender but firm, about 1 hour. Add salt and pepper to taste. Drain, cool, and remove the hard, transparent skins that might be attached to the chickpeas by gently squeezing them between thumb and index finger. Set aside.
In a soup pot, melt the butter with the oil over medium heat until the butter melts. Add the onions and sauté gently until the onions turn golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the celery and sauté for 3 minutes.
Add the meat broth and bring it to slow simmer over medium heat. Turn down the heat to low to maintain the simmer and stir in the tomato paste. Add salt and pepper and cook the soup at for 30 minutes.
Add the chickpeas and cook for 10 minutes. Remove one-third of the chickpeas and mash them through a food mill back into the soup. Stir the soup to blend the mashed chickpeas into the soup.
Bring the soup to a vigorous boil and add the quadrucci, stirring constantly for about 1 minute. Cook the pasta until al dente. This will take only about a minute if the pasta is fresh, longer if dried. Remove from heat and stir in the parsley and cheese. Serve immediately.
Quadrucci Fatti a Casa
You can make these tiny pasta squares with a pasta machine or a matterello. If you wish to make them by machine, follow the recipe below. The story La Sfoglia explains, in detail, how to make them with the matterello.
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 large egg
Pour the flour onto a work surface, preferably one made of wood. Turn the flour into a crater-shaped well by placing the egg into the center of the mound and hollowing it out with a slow, circular motion. Break the egg and add it to the well.
Beat the egg briskly with a fork, being careful not to break the walls of the well. Gradually incorporate the flour from the sides of the well into the egg. When the egg and flour mixture becomes very viscous, add the rest of the flour more vigorously and mix it into a shaggy mass.
Clean the surface of any loose crumbs and wash your hands. Start kneading the flour by taking the mass and pushing it away from you with the meaty part of your palm. Turn the mass one-quarter turn clockwise and push into it again. If the dough is sticky, add a bit of flour with each motion until it no longer adheres to your hands. Repeat the kneading motion until the dough is silky and smooth, about 10 minutes. Test the moisture content of the dough by pushing your index finger deeply into it. The dough should be tacky but not stick to your finger. If it does, gradually knead in more flour until it no longer sticks to you.
If you are rolling out the pasta by hand, cover the dough with plastic wrap, let it rest for at least 15 minutes and refer to the instructions in La Sfoglia. If you are rolling it out by machine, divide the dough in half and cover one half loosely with plastic wrap. Take the other half and pat it lightly with a little flour. Brush away any excess. Roll it through the widest setting of the rollers on your machine. Fold the pasta in thirds, like a letter, and insert it into the rollers again, the folds perpendicular to the rollers. Repeat this step two more times.
Decrease the roller gap by one notch. Send the pasta through again, in the same direction as the last pass. Repeat this step, each time reducing the roller gap by one notch, until you have rolled the pasta with the narrowest roller setting. If the pasta sticks to the rollers, add a little flour and brush away the excess. Repeat the entire process with the second piece of dough.
Let the pasta sheets dry on kitchen towels. Once they are no longer sticky but still supple, fold the sheets up like jellyrolls into rolls about 4 inches wide. Cut the rolls, perpendicular to the folds, into ribbons about 3/8-inch wide. Cut the ribbons crosswise, again at 3/8-inch intervals into little squares. Separate the squares with your fingers and spread them out on the towels.
If you are cooking them immediately, add them to the soup according to the recipe for Chickpea Soup with Tiny Pasta Squares. If not, you can dry the quadrucci completely on the towels by turning them frequently in a well-ventilated area. Once dry, they will keep for several months in a container.