CE: Tell us about your first pasta memory.
EF: My earliest pasta memory, or any culinary memory, was with my adopted grandmother, JJ. She was from Bologna and her husband was from Genoa and they lived in San Francisco. You’d walk up the stairs in this old flat and you’d smell the simmering ragu wafting down the stairway. She would hand make pasta in the apartment and serve it with pesto Genovese [basil pesto]. I was seven or eight years old then, but it really struck me – this is something really special.
CE: What do Italians really think of whole-wheat pasta?
EF: If you go to Bari and suggest using whole-wheat flour, they are going to say no f-----g way; they would never use anything but semolina and water because that’s what they’ve been doing for generations. There is really such a small number of people in Italy that would even think about using the extruded dried whole-wheat pasta. But if you go to Trentino, you find a fresh buckwheat pasta called pizzoccheri, and in the Veneto you find fresh whole-wheat bigoli because that’s what is traditional there. If the tradition calls for buckwheat, then you’re going to find buckwheat. There’s no universal rule; it’s all very regional.
CE: What whole-wheat pasta grains do you recommend for home cooks?
EF: I love Blue Beard durum and Red Fife winter wheat. Farro is great too, and Kamut. I also like buckwheat when it's mixed with a little soft 00 for strength. [“00” is a finely milled wheat flour.]
CE: What shape is the easiest to start out with to hand make pasta?
EF: Cavatelli. Once you've made your dough and allowed it to rest, simply roll out a snake about as thick as your pinky. From the snake, cut small pieces about the size of the width of your index finger. Using your thumb, horizontally apply direct and even pressure to the piece as you push away, releasing upward. The pasta should magically curl around your thumb. Repeat as necessary.
CE: The custom of pairing sauces and shapes is practically a science in Italy. How do Italian chefs approach pairing?
EF: For me, it’s really about guidelines and knowing that what’s authentic in one region may not be authentic in another region. What should go with what all depends on whose grandmother you’re talking to. Tradition is deeply rooted with very little culinary crossover. Obviously, there are the standbys – like ragu Bolognese should never be paired with spaghetti, only Bolognese pastas such as tagliatelle, pappardelle, tortelloni and in some cases tortellini.
CE: What should every home cook know when cooking pasta?
EF: [Adding] pasta water is an amazing tool to help create silkiness in your sauces due to the starch released from the cooking noodles. For dried pasta, taste several pieces throughout the cooking process to ensure they are perfectly al dente. Once you feel it's perfect for you, take it out of the pot with a basket or strainer instead of draining the entire pot and add it directly into your piping hot sauce.
CE: What is your best advice for making a perfect bowl of pasta?
EF: Don't over-salt your water! The old wives’ tale that your pasta water should taste like the ocean is ridiculous. Season the water so that it tastes good, like a highly seasoned soup. This will ensure that your finished dish isn’t too salty when you add a touch of water to your sauce.
Katie Parla is a cookbook author, journalist and Italian-food expert. Check out her website at katieparla.com.