Fresh pasta is made with very few, simple ingredients: flour, water, and sometimes eggs. Varying these ingredients (type of flour, size of eggs, adding a little oil) enables you to create heartier or softer versions of the combination. Pasta dough is very forgiving. The basic ratios and workflow—mix, knead, rest, roll, cut, boil—allow patient cooks to achieve springy, light, al dente pasta nearly every time.
Omaha diners are fortunate to have access to fresh, handmade pasta at several Omaha restaurants. Recently, three local pasta makers met on a brisk morning at Avoli Osteria in Dundee to roll pasta, plate dishes, and share experiences.
The pasta bench at Avoli is clean, inviting, and rustic, adorned with gorgeous Italian tools and cookbooks. Each chef took a turn rolling out premade doughs into traditional shapes designed to make the most of accompanying sauces.
“It’s incredible how something simple like flour and water becomes pasta,” remarked Jordan Reed of Avoli Osteria. Reed didn’t know how passionate he would feel about pasta until he watched others do it. He started showing up early, off the clock, to learn and experiment. “Chef [Dario] Schicke opened my eyes to new ways to think about pasta.” It took Reed several months to really get a “feel” for the pasta—hydration of flour is key and weather can be a contributing factor.
Tweaking the formula to adjust for ambient temperature and humidity changes is a fun challenge for an analytical brain, and developing fresh colors, flavors, and researching interesting shapes feeds a creative mind. Cameron Lee, the pastaiolo from Via Farina, shared, “The math needed to craft pasta dough fits my brain well: all hydration and ratios.” Onsite at the restaurant, the hot oven also affects air temperature and humidity, adding additional variables.
You can make pasta with nothing but a counter, your hands, a rolling pin, and a knife, but some tools make it easier. Pasta sheeters such as countertop hand-crank units, or the ubiquitous Kitchen Aid attachment, make even rolling a breeze, and different pasta cutters encourage creative, yet even sizes.
Shapes are not just for visual effect; they are traditionally designed to make the most of accompanying sauces. Heavier noodles with ridges stand up to hearty sauces, and light noodles perfectly accentuate lighter fare. Varying dough formula according to desired shape can also provide the necessary resilience and texture for extruded (think macaroni) or intricately folded shapes.
Garganelli is a shaped pasta that resembles penne but is formed from flat squares rolled around a thin dowel and pressed down a ridged board to make perpendicular indentations. This makes the shape perfect for trapping meatier sauce such as the speck, blistered tomato, parmesan, and garlic sauce presented by Reed.
Corzetti is an ancient pasta shape hailing from medieval times. Pasta dough is hand-rolled, then cut and embossed by wooden stamps, often depicting coats of arms. The flat, mildly ridged shapes are wonderful with basic sauces such as brown butter parmesan. In this case Reed paired the shapes with a salumi ragu tossed with fresh arugula and sprinkled with raisins and toasted pine nuts.
Dave Smyrk of Dante started making dough in the very early days of the restaurant, rolling a basic egg yolk dough with a simple hand roller, then cutting pappardelle and tagliatelle noodles by hand. Smyrk recommends yolk dough for beginners because it is forgiving, soft, and pliable, and works beautifully with a home hand crank sheeter.
Smyrk rolled a perfectly thin dough sheet, then folded, filled, shaped, pinched, and cut beautiful agnolotti with a braised meat filling. When asked how long it took him to achieve this level of ease, he shared, “I learn best by doing, and after a few weeks, I got very comfortable with this fold.” In the end, a little flap is created at the top, providing the perfect little grabber for the savory sauce.
Basic tagliatelle noodles were quickly created by rolling and cutting using the sheeter, then dropped in the boiling water bath before finishing in Bolognese and resting under a dollop of burrata.
Inspired by the Slow Food movement (driven by a group whose mission is to protect diverse culinary traditions before they are lost forever) to preserve historical pasta shapes, Lee carefully braided and shaped delicate lorighittas, named after the iron rings used to hitch horses and oxen in Sardinia, and served them en brodo (in broth) with octopus, speck, and Grana Padano. For a second dish, Lee served trofie, a short, twisted pasta hailing from Genoa with a bright and earthy pesto.
Lee also demonstrated the effect of rolling multicolored dough by putting two strips (one colored with beet juice) through the sheeter, cutting squares, and forming farfalle (butterfly) shapes. The same squares could be folded in another way to make sopressini (little surprises).
Simple ingredients, prepared with care, often make the best dishes. Try fresh pasta at home, register for a pasta making class, or visit one of the local eateries that take the time to craft beautiful, tender pasta highlighted by flavorful sauces using the best ingredients. Buon appetito!