As someone who eats pasta on a daily basis, I always look forward to the opportunity to try my hand at preparing one of my favorite foods from scratch. Isn’t there a certain kind of romance to being part of the entire pasta-making process, from shopping for seasonal ingredients at the local market to dutifully kneading and working the dough and then waiting for it to rest before slicing, rolling and twisting it up into an infinite number of shapes before tossing it with your favorite sauce? There’s something cathartic about working with dough and taking the time to slow down and focus your attention on the deceptively simple, and enormously important, art of cooking.
My favorite thing about homemade pasta (apart from eating it) is how imperfectly perfect it is: the dents, curls and shapes are all so delightfully made by hand, a real demonstration of the care put into a dish. It always tastes better than store-bought and it usually tastes better than what you get in the restaurant, no matter what the restaurant tells you about it being homemade. I also have to admit that there are few things as satisfying as enjoying a meal you’ve prepared from scratch: noodles and sauce included.
During a recent visit to Florence, I had the chance to make fresh tagliatelle, ravioli and gnocchi when I joined Massimiliano (Max) for a pasta workshop. We met at the historic Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, a short walk from the Basilica di Santa Croce, and perused the colorful fruit and vegetable stands to pick out ingredients for our sauces. The market has been a mainstay in the city since 1873 and has dozens of vendors selling everything from seasonal produce, herbs and spices, freshly baked breads and pastries. There is also an indoor section with beautiful delis selling cheeses, meats, pastas and more. The market is open Mon – Sat from 7am – 2pm and also has a few eateries you can enjoy for a local experience.
We picked up juicy red and yellow tomatoes, fragrant basil and pine nuts for pesto, and some sage to sauté with butter for a simple sauce. Then we made our way to Max’s home restaurant, located in a leafy residential neighborhood with countryside views and lots of fresh light (perfect for food styling and photography!). We whet our appetite with a glass of wine before rolling up our sleeves to being preparing the dough for our pasta.
The main ingredients for fresh pasta are generally semolina flour, a high-protein flour made with durum wheat that lends the dough a more pliable texture, and egg. Both tagliatelle and ravioli require egg and it’s important to knead the dough until all the ingredients are well incorporated. Then an important step is to let the dough sit! It should be wrapped up in plastic and remain at room temperature for one hour to give the gluten a chance to rest. When the dough is ready, you can roll it out to make flat pastas in dozens of shapes. We also learned how to make gnocchi, a mixture of flour and boiled potatoes which we cut up into tiny pillows and topped with pesto we made the old-fashioned way, with a pestle and mortar.
Italy has hundreds of regional pasta shapes and sauces are carefully matched to each one based on texture, size, fillings and more. For the tagliatelle we prepared a sauce with fresh cherry tomatoes that were sautéed and stewed in a pan with garlic, olive oil and a pinch of salt. For the spinach and ricotta ravioli, we simply tossed sage leaves in a pan with butter. In Italian cooking, simplicity is best and even just a few ingredients can make an incredibly delicious sauce!
To book a pasta workshop or cooking class with Max, visit his website Cuoco A Domicilio or sign up through Airbnb (and stay up-to-date with his latest recipes on Instagram). Max also offers cooking classes and cake design workshops for children and collaborates with his team to offer private dining experiences at home or for events.