The hand-cranked pasta machine was supposed to be the centerpiece of many romantic noodling sessions. My wife, Jen, and I would sip Chianti, roll out homemade dough side by side, and lovingly assemble mouthwatering ravioli to rival those we made in a Tuscan cooking class during a backpacking trip to Europe before we got married.
But spaghetti from a box is just so much easier. So for more than a decade, the pasta machine has been relegated to our kitchen’s Bermuda Triangle. However, unlike the breakfast sandwich maker and Himalayan salt block, the bright red box with the “Made in Italy” insignia has always held a sentimental sway.
While digging out the fondue pot one recent afternoon, I stumbled upon it in the far reaches of the cupboard and decided to take it out for a ride. I watched a couple of foodie-friendly YouTube tutorials but got sidetracked by all the videos of cute Italian grannies rolling dough by hand. I wanted a real mentor. Amazingly, Sarah Grueneberg, the James Beard Award–winning chef-owner of the West Loop pasta temple Monteverde, agreed to take me on as a student. (Did I mention she was also a runner-up on Top Chef?)
It’s a few hours before dinner service on a Friday when Grueneberg, in jeans and a little ponytail, joins me in the pastificio, her restaurant’s elevated pasta-making stage. She introduces me to Besa Xhemo, a 50-ish Bolognese woman with short chestnut hair. Xhemo, who moved to Chicago two and a half years ago and fell into Grueneberg’s lap just before Monteverde opened, hand-forms much of the 40-plus pounds of tagliolini, gnocchetti, and other adorably named pastas the restaurant serves nightly. She’s so good that Monteverde hung a 10-foot angled mirror above the station so diners can watch her roll dough and twist tortellini.
“Besa is the one who taught all of us,” says Grueneberg. And now she is going to help teach me to make ravioli.
According to Mama Besa, proper Italian dough consists of just two ingredients: flour and eggs. What about oil or salt? She looks at me as if I just suggested we go to Olive Garden. She pours a massive amount of eggs, plus some extra yolks, into a mixer. The dough hook does its thing, and the eggs transform the flour into a vibrant yellow oblong. Then, while that dough rests, Grueneberg cuts another hunk she mixed earlier into four small balls. She hands me one.
“This is how it should feel after it rests,” she says as she shows me how to flatten it with a rolling pin. “If you add too much liquid [when mixing], it will get soft and could get stuck in the rollers.”
She lets me pass one through the pasta machine—a mechanized version of the ancient one I have at home. As we gradually tighten the setting, which presses the dough thinner with each pass, the sheets start to become unwieldy, and I struggle to hold them flat. Luckily, Grueneberg steps in just in time to save me from crinkling the dough into a ball. Within about a minute, we have two long, uniform pieces. Beautiful.
“Look how thin it is,” she says. “You can see through it. That’s what we’re looking for.” Nailed it.
We move on to the fillings, squeezing Superball-size ricotta dollops onto one sheet of dough and covering them with another. I gently turn a small metal ring that resembles a medieval torture device on each ravioli-to-be to push out air, minimizing the chance these precious pillows will burst while cooking. Finally, I use a hand press to cut a dozen or so squares. I feel downright artisanal.
Grueneberg leads me to the kitchen. Standing over six pots of boiling water, she tells me not to be shy with the salt. Her recommendation: half a cup for six quarts of water. It sounds like a recipe for high blood pressure, but Grueneberg says it’s crucial: “It adds a layer of seasoning to the pasta. When you don’t salt the water enough, you tend to compensate with the sauce. Then you have bland pasta and salty sauce.”
Next we make a simple mushroom sauce with chicken stock and white wine. Once it reduces, Grueneberg tosses the partially cooked ravioli right into the pan.
“This is called the pasta marriage,” she says. “You could cook them all the way in the water. Or you could finish them in the sauce so they will absorb all of those flavors and be much more delicious.” My licking the plate clean a few minutes later indicates I concur.
The next day, I set out to re-create the dish at home. Armed with some extra-fine Italian flour Grueneberg provided, I’m feeling confident. Then I dump a chicken coop’s worth of eggs into the mixer. That can’t be right. It looks like a lot of eggs.
“Didn’t you write down the recipe?” asks Jen. Recipe? This is Italian cooking. We’re supposed to wing it.
But things are not coming together. Nearly an hour later, the mixer appears ready to overheat, and our precious dough is as sticky as taffy. I consult the chicken scratch in my notebook. Is that a three?
After another hour, we add in flour until the dough is dry enough to be workable. Grueneberg told me to let it rest in the fridge for at least an hour, but screw that, I’m hungry and the buzz from my martini is starting to wear off.
Jen takes control, and soon it feels like we might salvage things. The pasta sheets don’t look as pretty as those at Monteverde, but we push them through the machine in a semicontrolled frenzy. I madly blob down ricotta balls, blanket them with another layer, and create a platterful of puffy disks.
I quickly sauté some mushrooms and garlic and briefly boil the pasta before tossing it into the pan. And I’ll be damned, the whole thing melds just like at the restaurant. (Granted, the Monteverde version was delicate, while my ravioli has the consistency of Chinese dumplings.)
All told, it takes us more than five hours from start to finish, compared with less than an hour at Monteverde. But the ravioli tastes nearly as good, IMHO, mostly because of the sauce.
Joy! Now we get to clean our flour-bombed kitchen. Still, the warmth in my belly reminds me of that magical trip to Tuscany years ago—or maybe it’s heartburn.