172. The Shape of Pasta

Busiate. Strangulet. Rasccatieddi di Miscchieddu.

They’re all types of pasta. In America, most people can rattle off maybe five: spaghetti, linguini, penne, tortellini, rigatoni. In Italy, there are hundreds of variations, many particular to a specific region or even a tiny hamlet. But as culture and customs become more homogenized, and as the remote villages are on the verge of disappearing as young people move to the cities, these forms of pasta are dying out too.

In a pasta-making kitchen I visited in Bologna, everyone has their favorite matterello

Not, however, if Evan Funke has anything to say about it. This twice James Beard-nominated chef at Felix Trattoria in Venice, California, would say, “I have my family, and I have pasta.” And his personal mission is to travel around Italy and learn the art of making these creations at the feet of the masters, or perhaps I should say, the hands of the mistresses, as the keepers of the knowledge are all women, who Evan refers to as “the nonnas,”or grandmothers. (Never mind that they are portrayed as ancients, when in fact most are at least a decade younger than I am.)

Evan Funke and his matterello

The Shape of Pasta, an eight-part documentary series on the Roku channel, follows along on his quest. His ultimate goal is to bring the range of pasta varieties to a wider audience through his restaurant, and the final episode of the series is a special pasta night at his trattoria back home where he carefully trains his staff and serves four of his favorite kinds to his special customers.

Tortellini-making in Bologna

The series consists of seven gorgeously-photographed and produced nine-minute episodes as Evan travels with his matterello, or pasta rolling pin, to seven different villages and learns to make their signature pasta. In some cases, the ingredients are distinctive, like the nearly-extinct tumminia grain in Sicily or the fava bean flour in the village in Basilicata or the chestnut flour used in Liguria. For others, the shape is distinctive — spirals, ribbons, ribbed shells — or disks like the corzetti of Liguria, formed by a stamp of one’s distinctive family markings.

Learning to make corzetti in a cooking class I took in Liguria, just outside Cinque Terre

But more than the shape, it is the know-how used to produce it, scraping and rolling the dough with just the right part of the hand, using just the right pressure and speed. The testaroli, thought to be the first form of pasta dating back 6000 years to the Neolithic age, looks more like a crepe, cooked on a 700 degree wood stove and then cut into squares. The nonnas make it look simple; they’ve all been doing it since they were preschoolers a half century ago and could do it blindfolded just by touch. But take it from me, getting even the simplest shape right is a craft and an art that takes practice, even for an experienced chef like Funke. He would say it’s well worth the effort of learning, because “If there’s a shape that dies because no one’s practicing, a bit of the world dies.”

Ben learns to make orecchiette, or “little ears” pasta, in the beautiful kitchen at Francis Ford Coppola’s Palazzo Margherita in Basilicata.
Not so easy, is it?

Evan claims not to have a drop of Italian blood. I find that hard to believe, watching him get choked up at both the finished product and the generosity and encouragement of the nonnas instructing him. When one gives him a pettine, a comb-like device used to make strangulet, that had been in her family for generations, this big burly guy begins to weep. And so do we.


2 thoughts on “172. The Shape of Pasta

  1. Oh Gigi, I love this article on pasta. Just reading it made me cry. It’s so beautifully written and it touched my heart even more since Evan (like me) is not Italian but still has so love and passion for Italy. Can’t wait to set aside some time to watch the video.

    I checked back to see when we had last corresponded and it was November. Gosh, time just isn’t flying, it’s on some supersonic jet speed.

    We celebrate our 40th on April 1 with a gathering of friends and neighbors at our home in Beaufort. Then we leave for Palermo on April 5. We’ll stay a week there and then drive down to our friends in Marina di Ragusa and celebration our actual anniversary on April 15. On May 4 we fly to Puglia. I was finally able to find the owners of the apartment in Otranto–the one I rented in Solo in Salento. We’ll be staying there and I’ll do a couple of small book events. We return home on June 7.

    BUT the real news that has me dancing on rainbows is I was finally picked up by a small publisher in New York. They were looking for a three-book mystery series and I’m thrilled they offered me a traditional contract. The Red Starfish is scheduled for a September 2023 release with the second book Moringa ~ Tree of Life scheduled for release in the spring of 2024 and the third book, The Night of Andrea Bocelli in the spring of 2025. These are all working titles although so far they’re keeping The Red Starfish. You can imagine what I’m doing non-stop now.

    After so many years (I’m well pass 70), I’m truly being the creative person I was meant to be–late bloomer–but so happy to bloom. I hope my age is an inspiration to others who might think age in a deterrent.

    When do you go back to Italy? Any plans? I trust you and Ben are well and not snowed in. We are enjoying temps in the high 70s and low 80s and we’re covered in yellow pollen as spring decided to come full force in February this year. The yellow Lady Banks roses are bobbing their heads outside my window and one single Gerber Daisy (red & yellow) has appeared out of nowhere. It’s amazing after the heavy freeze we had for days (a very unexpected and unusual event in December) which killed most everything in our courtyard.

    Wishing you a grand spring!




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