In my family, fresh pasta is for special occasions. Be it a holiday like Christmas or Easter, a family gathering, or a big dinner with friends, this is when we take out the wooden board, the rolling pin, and the pasta machine to make mounds upon mounds of golden, silky sheets of dough.
Once you learn the basics of making fresh pasta, there are potentially endless possibilities. Tagliatelle, tagliolini, lasagne, pappardelle, tortelli, ravioli, maltagliati … you name one, and you can make it. They all start with the same versatile dough; what changes is simply the shape you cut your pasta into, and the ingredients you use to cover it, fill it (if you’re making a stuffed pasta), or layer it (if you’re making lasagne).
Making fresh pasta is usually a family tradition, passed down from generation to generation. I learned to make it by spending hours with my grandma.
She had her own rituals, a set of treasured tools: a worn-out tablecloth she would dust with semolina for arranging sheets of pasta; a large wooden tray, built by my grandfather, for collecting ravioli; and even a long reed, cut years ago from along the nearby stream, that she would suspend between two chairs for hanging tagliatelle to dry.
I watched her every move, the precision with which she measured the flour, the rapid motions of her hands as they pulled, folded, stretched, and rolled out the dough with the pasta machine my granddad gave her years ago.
I learned the recipe by heart: flour, eggs, a drop of olive oil, a pinch of salt. It’s like the beginning of a spell, a magic formula that brings together the humblest of ingredients and transforms them into a masterpiece.
I also learned from my grandma that patience is one of the key ingredients. Kneading fresh pasta is relatively quick once you get the hang of it, but then you have to wait while the dough rests. This makes an incredible difference later in the process: The dough will be softer, more relaxed, thus making it easier to roll it out, whether with a rolling pin or a pasta machine.
Fresh pasta has a very short list of ingredients, the essential one being flour. Then you can opt for a dough with eggs or without; in the latter case, the binding element is simply water. Additions of salt and a drop of extra virgin olive oil are regional or family preferences; they usually will not affect the proportions of the other ingredients, nor the final result of the recipe.
The kind of flour used to make fresh pasta differs enormously according to where you are in Italy.
In the North of Italy, and especially in Emilia Romagna, they usually make fresh pasta with 00 flour. This is the finest-ground flour, the most common type in Italian supermarkets, and the all-purpose, go-to option for most of our recipes. It gives you a soft, silky, elastic dough, perfect for the delicate works of art that are tortellini, cappelletti, and anolini. These tiny stuffed parcels need a dough that is elastic and pliable, to easily embrace their filling: neat, dense little balls of meat, cooked in lard and mixed with breadcrumbs and Parmigiano Reggiano.
When you move to heavier, wetter fillings, such as potatoes or a mixture of ricotta and spinach, as is common in Tuscany, you’ll need a sturdy pasta dough that can contain the filling and its higher moisture level. This is when you’ll want to mix 00 flour with semolina flour.
The ratio of 00 flour and semolina flour in pasta changes from family to family, with a 50–50 proportion being the most common rule. While 00 flour comes from soft wheat, semolina comes from durum wheat. It is coarser, with a yellowish color and a rough texture, similar to corn flour. When used in pasta dough, it not only enhances the color and taste of the pasta, but also gives it a more rustic, porous texture. This kind of fresh pasta is therefore ideal for wet or heavy fillings, as well as hearty sauces like pork and beef ragù or game meat sauce.
In the south of Italy, meanwhile, fresh pasta is typically made with just semolina and water: poor, simple, but with an incredibly intense flavor and color. This is the dough made for curling into orecchiette and cavatelli, or rolling into thin sheets to make the typical southern lasagne, layered with a rich meatball sauce, cheese, boiled eggs, and salami.
If you don’t have Italian 00 flour, you can use all-purpose flour instead. If you feel like experimenting, you can of course use less traditional flours, such as whole wheat or spelt, for more rustic, nuttier pasta. It is important to remember, though, that these recipes only work with flours that have a good amount of gluten. A rice flour or a corn flour, for example, won’t work in traditional recipes.
If you have never made fresh pasta before, this could be one of your 2021 projects. It just takes some practice, and then the movements will become natural. Making fresh pasta from scratch will become a soothing activity, or a creative endeavor for a cold winter Sunday morning.
Begin with the following recipes. They will give you the chance to experiment with the basic dough and three of the most classic ways to use it: tagliolini, tortelli, and lasagne, in a crescendo of deliciousness.
Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan born and bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com