Fiesole and the Art of Making Pasta

I first learned how to make pasta by hand from a wonderful old lady from Arezzo with Popeye sized forearms. We both worked for a Count and Countess on a private estate in Tuscany, just inland from Livorno. I had moved there to nanny their twin daughters, then 5 years old, and by some stroke of dumb luck got to live on the top floor of their castle. Yes, castle. Turrets, tower, and everything. In any case, they discovered I wasn’t useless in the kitchen and I found myself apprenticed to the small staff that ran their restaurant for private events. My maestra could work 30 eggs into a flour well and knead the dough by hand and she was in her 70s. If you have ever made pasta by hand and not with the dough hook on your mixer, you’ll understand my initial frustration when I could barely handle kneading 6 eggs worth. I am of a competitive nature and at 21 years old I couldn’t stand to be so bad at something. Little by little I learned how to patiently knead for many minutes and let the dough rest bathed in the olive oil from the trees outside while drinking yet another coffee. By allowing the gluten to break down and the dough to relax, I learned to roll massive sheets of pasta with a rolling pin, that I kid you not was 2 meters long. I remember the first time that I felt the stubborn, springy ball I was trying desperately to flatten give way and listen – that was a very proud day. And as my arms, wrists, and hands got stronger, I was eventually able to work a dozen eggs worth of dough at once. I will never, ever understand how anyone could do 30. Ever.

I love Fiesole. A charming little town just north of the city of Florence that was originally settled by the Etruscans, then the Romans and the Lombards. The view from Fiesole overlooking the valley and the city are breathtaking. I was lucky enough to rent a little apartment from Anna and Francesco just past Fiesole in the hills first in 2008 and then again in 2011. The months that I lived there were some of the happiest I’ve spent. Living on a property with just the right number of olive and fruit trees and people who love their land and their pets made for more of a friendship than a tenant/landlord kind of situation. Anna, though originally from Germany, is an accomplished Italian cook and a very gracious host. We spent many an afternoon kneading pasta, simmering sauce, and chatting – and the art of making pasta became far less about how many eggs you could manage to work and far more about friendship and hours well spent on making a meal to share.

Anna and Francesco had us up to dinner just a couple of weeks ago – the photo above is the view of our dinner from the loggia at their house over the hills. We made pasta and drank wine and lingered over our meal in the infinitely long Italian twilight.

Tagliatelle with tomato and basil:

Fresh pasta cooks very quickly, so get your salted water boiling, but wait until the sauce is done before cooking it. In a deep sided skillet or pot, heat 3-4 cloves of garlic in quite a lot of olive oil – think a 1/3 inch deep – don’t let them brown. Peel and de-seed the tomatoes and cut in haphazard pieces with a knife right into the hot oil. It will splatter a bit, be careful. The point of this dish isn’t to have a tomato sauce per se, think more of the tomatoes being another seasoning – there won’t be a ton in the pot. Add just a bit of salt and pepper and cook the tomatoes for just a couple of minutes before turning off the heat. Quickly cook your tagliatelle, reserve about 1-1 1/2 cups of pasta water before draining. Add the cooked tagliatelle to the tomatoes, throw a generous bunch of basil leaves in along with some pasta water (not all to start) and a lot of good olive oil. Mix well and serve. I suggest putting the cheese on the table and the bottle of oil, since you can never have too much good olive oil.


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