One day, my sister gives me a call out of the blue and starts going on about how she’d recently discovered the show Kitchen Nightmares (for those unfamiliar, it’s where Gordon Ramsay yells struggling restaurants into either profitability and success, or demise). She was calling to say how irate she was about how some restaurants don’t make their own pasta.
She was less than thrilled with my response, which went something like, “It’s actually a pretty common practice. I’ve only worked in a few places that did it, and some only for special occasions. It’s very labour-intensive and takes a reasonable amount of skill if you’re going to hold it in a fridge for any length of time, or dry it, which is hard to come by these days, especially for what most cooks get paid. Most places just focus on the sauce, and jam packing in a bunch of ingredients.” Needless to say that this welcomed a barrage of comments about how it’s absurd to go to a restaurant to get something that she could just make at home. So on and so forth.
Now, my sister may not exactly get how a restaurant works, but this conversation does strike a chord, which for me gets to the very nature of Italian food. What’s more important: the sauce or the noodle?
If you ask me, it all comes down to the noodle and the quality of the ingredients you use. Annie (our wonderful new driver and longtime coworker) is a proud Italian. She would always have the best produce for her snacks at work. It was like magic. After the third or fourth day in a row of stealing perfect slices of oranges and grapefruits from her, I had to ask for her secret. Her answer was simple: her Nonno (grandfather). From a young age, he taught her exactly what to look for in the food she was buying.
Picking through the fruits and vegetables of a produce stand may seem really foreign to us during the time of Covid, but when you’re taught to start at the ingredient level it makes all the difference in the world. Fresh sun-ripened tomatoes sliced over fresh cheese, drizzled with oil and vinegar, sprinkled with salt, and garnished with basil leaves torn by hand. It’s heaven, and to me it’s something that’s at the heart of Italian food. Cooking with your senses before you even set foot in the kitchen. This is something we often lose track of when everything comes pre-packaged, pre-bagged, and even now pre-prepared.
Italian food is very linked to Italian culture. Eating isn’t just fuel for your body—it’s a way of life. I look at the families of my Italian friends growing up, and families like Annie’s who do so much from scratch, including (but not limited to) making their own wine, sausage, prosciutto, salami, canned tomatoes, canned sauce, pickled eggplants, homemade pasta… the list goes on.
But why do it? Why take the time? I like to believe that it’s partly due to the energy you put into your food, the time, the care. There’s a feeling of satisfaction in sustaining yourself on that level that just doesn’t come from buying a box of dried wheat sticks and a can of chemically stabilized sauce that’s sitting on a shelf. Granted, we don’t have time to eat like that always. But when we do find the time there is nothing like making it yourself.
Let’s get things straight. I’m not Italian. My last name is Franz, I’m a ginger, and if I even think about the sun I get a burn. But the first restaurant I worked in was a Sicilian kitchen in Toronto. When I say Sicilian, I mean that I got yelled at in Italian a lot. I was a minority strictly due to language. I started as a dishwasher and delivery driver, but was quickly thrown a knife and told to start chopping. It was a quick move up the line from there. Before I knew it, I was calling the board in Italian, and yelling for gamberi instead of shrimp. I loved the atmosphere in that tiny, cramped, loud Sicilian kitchen.
I learned a lot there. In terms of cooking, but also culture. It’s also where my deep love affair with Italian food started.
From there, it’s been a rabbit hole of research and practice. The one thing that I’ve found is that while a good sauce is good, great pasta takes things to a whole other level. I would rather eat a handmade noodle with olive oil, garlic, and fresh basil, than a store-bought pasta with an elaborate sauce any day of the week. The simpler the better. There’s something mesmerizing about the whole process. The kneading, the rolling, drying and hanging. I can’t get enough.
No matter how many times I make it, it’s still like magic.
Until next time.
P.S. I haven’t had a chance to write up the recipe and instructions for making pasta by hand. But I do have the recipe for homemade ricotta (and paneer) from the last time I typed it up for a friend. So I’ve included it in the new subsection of our blog called “The Recipe Tin”. So give that a go next time you’re looking to buy a tub of ricotta. I promise you it’s worth it. You’ll find the exact same homemade ricotta in this week’s lasagna Love Box.