Food

The Loving Language of Pasta

Through the words of her family, a cook discovers hidden flavors.

It still hovers in my dream, the villa outside Perugia where I grew up and my mother chirping “Ciriole….” while her steps echoed along the hallway that divided our bedrooms from hers,  shortening the distance to the start of the day. And then there was great-aunt Clara from Trieste who tenderly termed my sisters and me chiffelette, or the Lucca family contingent acquired through my youngest sister’s marriage who described a chubby child as a tordello, or my Roman grandfather — whose career brought him to Abruzzo for some years — who suffered fools with difficulty and dismissed inanities as fregnacce

Throughout my childhood, I was sure that these words were products of my family’s fruitful imagination whose meaning belonged exclusively to the context within which they were used. It wasn’t until I stepped outside the walls of blood and love that I discovered they were cleverly extrapolated and used figuratively from the other language that has always tied us together, food. In fact, each and every one of those names refers to pasta dishes with a regionality so narrow that few people even know they exist.  

Those figures of speech are still part of the colorful dialect of my large family, a verbal imprint moving from one generation to the next. My family is not unique in either regard. Food terms woven into the language of love are common in Italy, as are dishes so tied to a specific area that they don’t even taste right eaten elsewhere. I am lucky that this marriage — language and food — is between two of my favorite subjects to explore.  

This is a journey I am still on, as the world of pasta is infinite. I have been lucky to have prepared and/or eaten many of these pastas, some I even teach in my cooking class, a few I have found and researched during my never-ending studies of Italian food. These discoveries are the lanterns I use to plan my travel.  

Starting with one from my very own region, Umbria, and arranged in almost accurate  alphabetical order, here are some of the jewels in my growing collection.  

Ciriole are hand rolled toothsome spaghetti made with a mix of soft wheat flour and semolina. The length is graced by a barely there cleft obtained by pinching the end of the dough strip before rolling. Kneaded with water or a mix of mostly water and some egg, ciriole are the glory  of the province of Terni, Umbria’s second largest city, where they are traditionally served with a horse meat ragù. In Perugia, Umbria’s capital city, they are known as umbrici, or in shorter versions umbricelli or stringozzi. The Perugia versions meet their best end with either a black truffle, anchovies and garlic sauce or with sugo di rigaglie, a chunky sauce of all the bits of chicken one often misguidedly throws out — liver, heart, etc etc.  

Chiffeletti are a specialty of Trieste, their dough is a mix of potatoes and soft wheat flour with butter, eggs and a touch of sugar fluffed with some baking powder. They are deep fried and part of a small number of pasta found in this area that are served as a side kick to sop up the  sauce of a rich roast. Chiffeletti are a vestige of austro-hungarian influence on the cooking of this area. 

Offelle are square pockets from Friuli Venezia Giulia unremarkably filled with meat, cheese and  greens. What is however remarkably unusual about them is the potatoes incorporated in the dough to make it tender, almost slippery. They are simply topped, with butter and one of the milky cheeses from the area. The addition of potatoes to dough is not unusual in this corner of Italy. 

Cordelle – little ropes – come in 2 versions, calabresi and sabine.

Cordellle calabresi are unexpectedly made with rye – segale in Italian – a grain which finds a hospitable home in the mountainous and isolated Aspromonte in South Eastern Calabria. The rye is mixed with eggs and milk and hand rolled in one long continuous coil, then cut in 4 wedges before cooking. Garlic, the fiery chili of the region, extra virgin olive oil and local cheeses are the preferred condiment. 

Cordelle sabine live in Rivodutri, a tiny town outside of Rieti in the hills of the Sabina area. The peculiarity of this long thick spaghetti is fresh starter yeast in the dough. They are daughters of ingenuity and poverty. After weekly bread making, women scraped the bottoms of the madia – a wooden box on legs used to knead and rise bread – and recovered every scrap still clinging to the sides. They rolled it into strings, boiled it then topped it with tomato sauce and the assertive sheep cheese of the area. Rivodutri, by the way is home to La Trota one of Italy’s first restaurant to receive a Michelin star. The cordelle sabine have a shorter relative in cecamariti -husband blinders- spindle shaped yeasted pasta made by rolling a small piece of dough under the outer part of the palm of the hand. They are supposed to be so good they will dazzle the husband coming home after a hard day of work. Versions of cecamariti are also found in Abruzzo and Molise. 

Cresc’tajet or patacuc come to us from Marche. Made with varying percentage of wheat and fine corn flour kneaded with tepid water, they are a somewhat thick rolled pasta cut in squares or diamonds. It is found in a local version of pasta e fagioli, or often served with sausage ragù. I  also found an old recipe that recommends tossing them with lard that has been heated with a garlic clove then dusting them with a mince of wild herbs and a grated young, melty sheep cheese. 

Fettuccine di azzime is a specialty of Italian Jewish culinary tradition made for Passover. Made with matzoh meal and eggs or water, they are typically boiled then served in broth made with goose, an ingredient often seen in the cooking of Italian Jews. While they are attributed to the Jewish community of the town of Ferrara, in Emilia Romagna, they are found throughout Italy. 

Fregnacce or frescacce were words used interchangeably in my family to dismiss useless or inaccurate background chatter. As it turns out, they are also a specialty of Abruzzo. Irregular quadrilateral pieces are cut out of a sheet of pasta using a fluted wheel for added frilliness.  They don’t require particularly precise expertise or much attention and they’re dressed with whatever is available. 

Filindeu – filo di Dio or God’s thread is one of many breathtakingly beautiful Sardinian pasta. The dough is hard wheat flour and water. Spun by salted damp hands into an almost imperceptible thread, subsequently folded and stacked it forms a delicate lacy basket weave. Once it is dry it is broken into a broth of sheep and dusted with the local pecorino. The art of making this incredible pasta is left with only a few people, who are working hard to make sure it is maintained by generations to come. 

Ladittas, another Sardinian pasta, is made with hard wheat flour, water and lard and it is one of the reasons I must go back to Sardinia. It is a thickish disc imprinted with a thumb, typically served with layers of tomato sauce and topped with a brined, tangy sheep or goat cheese called viscidu.  

It should be noted that the pastas of Sardinia are really quite original and a world all to  themselves to which I intend to dedicate a separate article.  

Gnoc de schelt are a delight never seen outside of the Val Camonica, a historically isolated valley in Eastern Lombardia. They are a mix of buckwheat and chestnut flour with just enough wheat to hold them together. Kneaded with eggs and milk they are a disappearing heritage harking back to when little outside foods were available to populations who where surrounded  by mountains. They are in the shape of tiny dumplings, with a texture somewhere between pasta and gnocchi. 

Lenzolere e cuscenere – sheets and pillows in the dialect of Molise – take their name from their white color and their white color from a dough made with water, flour and egg whites only. A  good way to up-cycle albumens left from using yolks elsewhere, they are rolled to just about  1/2 centimeter and cut in slanted pieces in sizes smaller – the pillows – and larger – the sheets. Their best incarnation is with a bright tomato sauce and some fresh basil. 

Piccagge are a green specialty from Liguria whose name means ribbon in some parts of the region and napkin in others. They can be shaped like either of their local acceptation but are always rolled and cut from a soft wheat and egg dough enriched with wine, extra virgin olive oil  and a mince of wild herbs that can include borage and marjoram and a myriad others. This being Liguria they’re often served with pesto. I learnt them from a genoese friend who topped them with tocco di noce — a walnut sauce with spring garlic and buttermilk. 

Testaroli are native to Lunigiana a region encompassing the cultures of the cities of Massa Carrara in Northern Tuscany and La Spezia in Southern Liguria. A loose batter of soft wheat flour and water is cooked on a testo – a large circular mold similar to the one used for crepes  but with the addition of a top disc that creates a somewhat spongy circle about half a centimeter thick. The giant pancake is cut in diamond shaped pieces, boiled and served  traditionally with pesto, though I prefer it with slightly browned butter and a snowfall of parmigiano. Some recipes call for a small portion of chestnut flour. Hardly anyone makes testaroli at home anymore, but vacuum sealed artisanal ones are a common sight in the food  markets of Norther Tuscany. 

Tordelli and I first found each other when my youngest sister started dating then married a man from the province of Lucca. These dumplings are shaped like a coin purse and stuffed to the gills with a mix of veal, Tuscan sausage, chard and cheese. Even after sealed, they look like  they’re always about to burst. The filling is wonderfully moist but ground more coarsely than  most meat ravioli. My love story with tordelli outlasted my sister’s marriage, and convinced me that marrying one’s favorite pasta should be legal. 

Triddi are a specialty from Puglia made with semolina, eggs, sheep cheese and parsley. The rich ingredients in a historically poor region tell us that these pasta was reserved for special celebrations. Thin sheets of hand rolled dough are dried and broken in tiny irregular trilateral  bits that are cooked in hen stock and dusted with even more cheese. Most other pastas out of Puglia are made with semolina and water, including the world famous orecchiette and cavatelli. 

 

 

Acknowledgements 

I wish to thank the following sources for guiding me in the deeper understanding of the historical, geographical, cultural and gastronomical contextualization of the subject of this article. 

  • Enciclopedia of Pasta – Orietta Zanini De Vita – UC Press 2009 
  • Ricette Antiche e Moderne di Trieste, dell’Istria e della Dalmazia – Iolanda de Vonderweid –  Edizioni LINT Trieste 1982 
  • La Cucina Ebraica Tripolin – Linda Guetta Hassan – Carlo Gallucci Editore 2006
  • Odori, Sapori, Colori della Cucina Salentina – Lucia Lazari – Mario Congedi Editore 2019
  • Sfida al Mattarello. I Segreti della Sfoglia Bolognese – Margherita e Valeria Simili – Antonio  Vallardi Editore 2001 
  • The Eternal Table – Karima Moyer Nocchi 
  • Labna – Benedetta Jasmine Guetta and Manuel Kanah 
  • Pulcetta – Simona Carini