101. Little Ears

The New York Times, which seems to share my obsession with all things Italian, published an article this week about the city of Bari cracking down on its handmade orecchiette makers, older ladies who set up shop outside on the narrow streets in front of their houses, and make orecchiete by hand on large tray tables. Orecchiete, one of hundreds of pasta varieties in Italy, is named after its shape — “little ears” is the translation — and is characteristic of the south, Puglia in particular. Officials have various predictable concerns — hygiene standards, untaxed commerce, etc. — that have led them to prohibit their sale to restaurants.

To make orecchiette, one forms a “cigar” roll of pasta dough in the way an American child would do with Play-Doh, and then form that distinctive shape with a knife and a flick of the thumb. To see it done by the “pros” is to see centuries of history and tradition embedded in muscle memory. Flick, flick, flick — they can produce hundreds within minutes and could surely do it in their sleep.

Orecchiette-making is often a feature of the cooking classes tourists take in their travels through Italy, often in the vain hope that they will be able to reproduce the cuisine when they get back home. Sure enough, we took such a class when we stayed at Francis Ford Coppola’s hotel in Basilicata in 2014. The other students were a German couple, forever memorable to us because the man told us he has all of his clothes, including polo shirts, handmade by a tailor nearby. But I digress.


Ben, using all his powers of concentration.
Our instructor trying her best to school us.

The ladies creating orecchiette on the street make it look easy. But I can tell you it’s not. The best we could do were misshapen lumps of pasta dough, vaguely resembling the little ears we were aiming for. It’s truly an art, or at least, a craft.

It just so happens, when we were in Bari in early November, we ordered orecchiette with turnip greens, a local specialty. I don’t know if the pasta was handmade by one of the ladies, but I sure hope so.

Orecchiette, turnip greens, and lots and lots of olive oil at a trattoria in Bari

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