Family, Friends, Romans and Countrymen…
OK forgive me but we just returned from a recent trip to the hills of Tuscany Italy and one of the highlights was our preplanned cooking lesson with the world renowned head chef Massimo, who luckily for us, had a minor command of the English language. Midway into our eight-day stay at Il Poggio, just outside the medieval town of Celle sul Rigo, we enjoyed a personalized one-on-one (actually a two-on-four), hands-on session making three types of homemade pasta, gnocchi and biscuits (cookies.) I won’t lie, I was really hyped up and Russ was thrilled that we were making homemade pasta, the recipe of which was incredibly simple: a ratio of 100 grams of 00 flour*, 1 egg and about 1/4 teaspoon of salt; we multiplied that by 5. The success is knowing how to incorporate all of the ingredients and getting it to just the right consistency — and with the assistance of Massimo, we were triumphant!
* 00 flour is hard to come by in the States. Instead you can mix 1 part pastry flour with 3 parts all-purpose to make a substitute, or just use plain all-purpose flour.
Upon entering the commercial kitchen, and after introductions were made, Massimo split us up into two groups. Our traveling partners, Mike and Paula Graham were assigned the task of making Italian biscuits under the guidance of sous chef Simone, who by the way, spoke no English at all. The first task for Russ and me was to make the pasta dough. Once we achieved the correct texture (with a lot of support from Massimo), we were instructed that the dough should sit for an hour before rolling it out. To our collective surprise, Massimo waited about 10 minutes before he demonstrated the art of shaping it with very, very long rolling pins.
Once we had it rolled out to the perfect thickness of about 1/16″ (no easy task and taking close to half an hour), Chef Massimo sliced off a portion from our somewhat misshapen 3 1/2-foot diameter circles to use for the raviolis. The stuffing of fresh mozzarella, eggplant and basil was pre-made by Simone. From there, Massimo showed us the technique of making tortellinis using the same ingredients — well, let’s just say, we won’t quit our day jobs just yet 😉 Both Russ and I each had a large portion of dough left, so the follow-up lesson was how Massimo folded each end into the middle creating a very long rectangle with several layers.
Next he demonstrated the proper way to cut the pasta depending on how wide you wanted the strips to be (i.e. linguine, tagliatelle, pappardelle, etc.). I was doing fabulously well with my knife skills with an extremely sharp knife (notice that giant knife on the cutting board), so much so that I realized my middle finger knuckle was bleeding before I ever felt any pain. So I stopped immediately before I tainted any of the pasta dough, and Massimo quickly went into nurse mode and attended my cut.
The technique of sliding the knife under the cut strips, sliding them off and twirling them into your other hand in preparation to be dropped into baskets of boiling water was extremely impressive. By the way, any left over bits of dough were finely chopped to be used in pasta fagioli or some other soup (I guess that’s another tutorial.)
After our pasta lesson, we switched places with Paula and Mike, and learned the art of Italian biscuits, a recipe that contained no eggs. Once the ingredients of flour, sugar, olive oil, white wine, baking powder, lemon and orange zest were properly combined, Simone instructed us on how to roll out the dough into long tubes about 16″ long. After the strips were cut into about 4″ pieces, we then pressed our three middle fingers into the strip to lift, turn upside down into a tray of sugar, and then place sugar-side up onto a baking tray. Simone placed them into a 185 degree celsius oven (about 365 degrees fahrenheit) and the kitchen filled with the most wonderful aroma!! I must confess, both Simone and Massimo scolded each couple as we made our biscuit strips too long, too fat or too uneven… well practice makes perfect, right? … Between the two couples, we had to have made approximately 300 cookies. Next lesson, making gnocchi dough.
When we first arrived in the kitchen, there was a huge pot of potatoes gently boiling on the commercial stove. While we were all busy making pasta and biscuits, Simone riced the potatoes in preparation for making gnocchi. Massimo slapped a large mound of the cooled riced potatoes, along with 3 eggs and an unidentified amount of flour on the board and proceeded to teach us the fine art of making perfect gnocchi. My take away? Keep adding a lot of flour! All four of us got to roll out tubes of the dough, then cut into about 1/2″ pieces, while Massimo made a few choice comments on our culinary skills, or lack there-of. Earlier when Paula and Mike were doing their pasta lesson, Massimo assessed their skills and declared going forward, Paula should make the pasta while Mike should do the cutting!
The grand finale was pairing the sauces with the pastas. In his unassuming way, Simone had been quietly working in the background crafting three sauces: a marina for the raviolis, for the tagliatelle I can’t exactly remember, and a meat ragout for the gnocchi (our pathetic tortellini attempts seemed to have disappeared.) We watched in wonder as Massimo magically flipped the pasta with the sauce — magnifico! And finally, with panoramic views of the Tuscan hills on a beautiful spring afternoon, we all sat down to enjoy our simple, yet elegant lunch with the chefs sipping Proseco and fabulous red wine. On the table was a shaker of Massimo’s special hot pepper mix which he advised against using more than a smidgeon because it was extremely intense. And you know how I love spicy food, but I allowed him to add just the right amount — and yes, it was perfect.
It really couldn’t have been any better
…well maybe our prepping techniques…
A few notes on Chef Massimo:
During our lunchtime conversations we found out that 37-year-old Massimo has been head chef at Il Poggio for 10 years living in an upstairs apartment. He works 10 months out of the year, 12-14 hours per day, six days a week with Tuesdays off (when he usually goes fishing.) His vacation time is January and February during which he travels for one of those months exploring exotic locales like Thailand, South America, the Carribbean… On at least three occasions, he has also visited the United States journeying to New York City, Miami and Los Angeles. Before working at Il Poggio, he spent 6 months in Moscow helping to establish a restaurant that was 80% Italian and 20% French. He has one 18-year-old son who is a commercial fisherman on the Mediterranean.