Only Pasta

Mama Olga fashions a bowl from a simple mound of flour on the counter. I’m watching her out of the corner of my eye while listening to Gianluca. He’s trying to translate but taking four times longer to do it.

Meanwhile, Mama Olga’s on to the next step—she’s cracking eggs into her ephemeral bowl. If I look away, I’ll miss it, but I can’t ignore the gentlemanly gray-bearded Gianluca, dapper in his concierge suit, who is cracking his jokes with far less finesse. Social grace requires me to laugh, but Mama Olga’s got a fork and she’s beating the eggs now, her hand a blur as whites blend into golden yolks. The flour disappears into the mix and already it has become a dough that she is beginning to knead. I don’t know what Gianluca’s saying to me anymore.

She invites me to knead. I take over, delighted to try out my bread-making prowess. Can pasta dough get overworked, like bread dough? I knead fast, then slow. I try it with two hands, then one, and check to see if I’m meeting her approval, but I can’t tell, because she’s already off to the next step—adding salt. After all, it’s only pasta, made from eggs and flour. And a pinch of of salt. Well, not a pinch, more than that.

Molto di pui che,” Mama Olga demands, when she sees my measly pinch. I add another and she nods, then motions for more, more, more. The trick is a thicker pinch, a hefty grab between my fingers.

Mama Olga is at least a foot shorter than me, and several feet shorter than her spokesman. She’s quiet and she smiles a lot. But she is also quicker and more authoritative than anyone in the room. We may need Gianluca to translate, but we all know she is the definitive source of wisdom.

This fancy hotel’s demo kitchen is its own exposition of ridiculousness and excess, a building unto itself with brand-new oversized sparkling shiny commercial equipment, jars stuffed with useless, extra-long wooden spoons, shelves lined with decorative jars of pickled vegetables and Valrhona chocolates, and oversized pasta-making machines. I can’t imagine what Mama Olga must think of any of this, but especially the pasta making machines.

Nevertheless, this petite Tuscan grandmother rules the space, darting here, then there, like the small black swallow that startled me early evening the night before. Fast and light, like a shadow swooping, down to get the rolling pin, or across like a flash to fetch the olive oil, in and out of the commercial dishwasher (the source of her smiling may be that she that she is getting paid to do something that does daily,  without a thought, while a family of five, from Texas, with even the husband, are here to watch her).

It’s only pasta.

Mama Olga decreases her regular warp speed so we can observe the magic she is making, like a kind indulgence from the Pope. But only just so. She is by nature all-business and it’s clear she’s not going to linger on any one part of this cooking lesson, which is why I have no patience with Gianluca’s expounding on cross-contamination with cooking tools. Can he possibly have missed the point that we did not sign up Cooking 101?

He has. As my daughters politely listen to him teach a knife skills lesson, Mama Olga exercises alchemy with an aromatic blend of garlic and tomatoes. Her sauce is already simmering while Gianluca still chops the ingredients for his own. The decadence of this kitchen allows for a dual demonstration that, performed by Gianluca, becomes a farce. In a failed attempt at élan (a wasteful move that Mama Olga would have nothing to do with) he flips the sautéed tomatoes and they spill out all over the stove and burner.

Meanwhile, the fragrance of Mama Olga’s blend steams out, a Tuscan red liquid sparkling with golden olive oil bubbles. My husband catches her secret—she’s spooning water into the sauté from the giant pot of hot water, to keep it moist.

Now that the sauce is underway, we return to the pasta dough, which has been resting under wrap.

“Mama Olga prefers the rolling pin, but,” says Gianluca, in a grand gesture of apology, “we have these machines here, for the sake of saving time.” With a dramatic flair, Mama Olga grabs a rolling pin out of the bottom drawer, rolls it quickly up and down on the counter for demonstration purposes, and then shoves it back in the drawer and turns on the machine. The dull-sounding, laboring motor moves like a turtle, compared to her whip-like speed.

I realize that our schedule today has nothing to do with the sort of time Gianluca is referring to. Her lifetime of experience is impossible to teach to tourists on one summer morning. We can never catch up with the years she has spent cooking.

So instead, we cut the dough into batches and feed it into the machine. Mama Olga’s no-nonsense, practical attitude overrides any possibility of bravura. She submits to the boring, regulated predictability of the machine and shows me how to let it rest on the shelf as it feeds in; she shows me how many times to tighten the rollers and how many times to feed it through. Even though she clearly would never use the machine, her knowledge allows her to run the pasta through it without a problem; it’s just another, if less efficient, method. She constantly and consistently flours the dough, keeping it a perfect texture—not too sticky, not too dry—with puffs of white flour above, below and all around it. Like the paintings of Christ I’ve just seen in the Uffizi, this dough is undergoing a transfiguration. I try to absorb her intuitive knowledge in these few seconds, how the dough feels in my hands before it’s ready to make into pasta; it must be just thin enough to handle but not tear, taught and thin like the rubber skin of a blown balloon.

The oblong slabs of dough rest on the counter. Mama Olga is showing us how to make rough-cut pasta, pappardelle and ravioli. She gets the pasta cutter out and demonstrates for me, then motions for me to take over and copy her moves.

But I’m not cutting hard enough; I have to press harder, with force. I sense her impatience rush up and subside against the wall of her civility. She shows me by rolling the cutter across the wooden board, leaving a permanent, curly-lined trace in the wood. When my daughters and I spend too much time trying to rough-cut the scraps, there is a burst of explanation from Mama Olga; Gianluca explains that we are overthinking our cuts; they should be quick and thoughtless. Rough-cut pasta is for the extra scraps; it’s an afterthought. By the time we’ve filled the ravioli, I’m starting to get hungry. I can’t imagine how long it will take to measure out and slice each and every long pappardelle noodle, enough to feed a family of five, no less.

I check my patience and watch as Mama Olga selects another oblong slab of dough, thinned by the machine. She folds each side in towards the other until they meet in the middle; then she slices them into perfectly even portions. Then she rustles through the kitchen, searching for a tool. Gianluca proffers several possible options, but she rejects each of them. What she needs is indispensable. She finds it in the dishwasher and dries it off with delight. She runs this thin long spatula, which reminds me of an icing spreader for a cake, underneath the length and in the middle of the dough, and then, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of her hat, she lifts it up and down with quick and decisive downward slap. An entire batch of pappardelle noodles unfold from her wand. It’s a miracle unfolding of delight and surprise. She waits a compulsory moment as we ooh and ahh at her trick, and then slides them off the spatula onto the cutting board, where she dusts them with flour and tosses them like a salad.

We don’t get to see her cook the noodles, because by that time we’re sitting down to our first course of pasta. But when the pappardelle comes and I take a bite, I only want to take another, so I can marvel at the flavors. This pasta comes from the Tuscan region and is appropriately named–pappare means to gobble up. It’s just pasta, but at the hands of Mama Olga, this simple egg and flour dough, coated in a red sauce, becomes something more, something I just can’t quite get at. What is it? The soft chewiness of the pasta, fresh power of tomato, the light hint of garlic, the richness of the olive oil. Or maybe the basil? I take another bite, then another and another, to try to find the secret.

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