There was unfinished business the first time we went to Bologna. My goal on that trip was to see a Parmegiano producer, a prosciutto producer, a balsamico producer, a mortadella producer, and a pasta producer. Though our tour covered a lot of ground, we never did visit a pasta or mortadella factory. The trays of fresh tagliatelle and tortellini in the display cases of all the gourmet shops around town captured my imagination, and over the years my desire to see where the pasta comes from only grew stronger. So I was drawn back to Bologna to finish the food tour I had started.
Once I had my husband on board for another trip to Italy and our plane tickets booked, I arranged a visit to L’Arte della Sfoglia. Of all the pasta producers I contacted, only Claudio seemed to get it when I said I wanted to watch the masters at work. He didn’t try to redirect me into a regular cooking class. And he promised lunch.
On the appointed day, I jumped out of bed as if there were no such thing as jetlag and, with my husband in tow, into a taxi for a quick five-minute drive west of the Bologna city center.
Claudio gave us a warm welcome. We hardly had a moment to look around the storefront.
Or check out the menu.
He whisked us into the pasta laboratory and introduced us to Ida the sfoglina. And then they spent the day teaching us everything they could about pasta. They made us feel right at home and like no questions were off limits.
The pasta begins with eggs with yolks as golden as the sun.
The egg farmer, who happened to stop by while we were in the kitchen, explained that the color of the yolks comes from the corn diet he feeds his hens. The other ingredient is finely milled 00 flour. It looks similar to cake flour but is closer to all-purpose flour in its gluten content. They use 10 eggs for every 1 kilogram of 00 flour, or 1 egg for every 100 grams flour (my recipe is about the same). A bit of water can be added “for humidity” during the hot months. Claudio employs the help of a machine for mixing and stops it frequently to test the dough for the right texture: smooth, silky, and elastic.
I gave the dough a poke at this point, and it felt barely sticky. Claudio mentioned that it’s important to avoid mixing air into the dough. The next step is to portion the large mass of dough into workable pieces.
The portions rest under plastic as he works.
Each one gets rounded.
And then they get wrapped and refrigerated overnight. Just look at the color of that dough!
After an overnight rest in the refrigerator, the portions are ready to be sheeted.
This is where Ida steps in to do her magic. Working on a bench made of what I understood to be Canadian pioppo, or poplar, and using a pin that’s nearly as long as she is tall, she rolls the dough out in one direction.
Then rolls it up on the pin.
Picks the whole thing up.
Gives it a quarter turn and unrolls it on the bench again.
All in one fluid motion.
Then she proceeds to roll out the dough in the other direction.
And she repeats this process until the sfoglia’s so thin you can almost see through it. She makes it look absolutely effortless. Pasta machines? Those are for chumps.
That’s what some fifteen years of owning a pasta shop in Bologna will do for you. Ida and Claudio ran a small pasta shop in the center of Bologna for eleven years before moving to their current location in 2011. They made the change because they were looking for a larger kitchen and because it was increasingly difficult for customers to reach them in the Zona a Traffico Limitado. They said that business was better than ever in the new location.
Ida’s assistant does a lot of the sheeting as well, but somehow it doesn’t look as graceful and effortless when he does it.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what the difference is, but brute force seems to be more at play.
Ida sent him back to the rolling board when his sfoglia was uneven and too thick in some places, too thin in others.
Once the dough is sheeted, it can be used immediately to make pasta shapes such as tortelloni and tortellini or wrapped up and cut into noodles later.
Claudio stressed that the sfoglia will last for several days in the refrigerator if it is dried on a towel-lined board for a short time and then wrapped in the double thickness of paper from the bag the flour came in and plastic.
Next up: L'Arte della Sfoglia, Part 2: Tortelloni.