My brain swells with a week of pasta tips and tricks, my duffel bag bulges from newly purchased pasta tools, and my tummy protrudes over my apron from too many carbs…three signs of a successful trip. It’s time to bid arrivederci (for now) to Manuelina Culinary and CAST Alimenti. I’ll miss Italy, yet I’m eager to sleep in my own bed again, dreaming of uovo in raviolo with freshly grated parmigiano, of course.
Thursday is a potpourri of pasta and pasta alternatives; we prepare little-known fresh pasta, dried pasta, hand-rolled pasta (at my request), and risotto. For me, there are two standouts – gnocchi and Curligiones. Not surprisingly, potatoes star in both recipes. I’m convinced I’ve reached my flour and water quotient for the week.
I’ve prepared and eaten gnocchi; I know delicious gnocchi and ghastly gnocchi (and I’ve made both). Thursday’s gnocchi is heavenly. Seriously, like little angels came down and blew kisses into a pot of boiling water. They are pillowy soft without the slightest bit of gumminess. Is it the Italian potato variety (which is unavailable in the US) that produces the lightness, could it be the flour (also not available in the states) that ensures their fluffiness, or is it technique? I’m counting on technique since I’m serving these in two weeks for the family. We’ll see if my technique will be enough.
Gnocchi with Porcini Mushrooms
Curligiones, on the other hand, are a new discovery to me. Their name and flavor has never crossed my lips before. These are savory, hand-made pasta from Sardinia, elaborately folded and filled with potato, pecorino and a bit of mint. They tastes more like an Eastern European dumpling than Italian ravioli and look similar to Japanese steamed potstickers. My fork pierces a chubby pillow to reveal a pocket of steamy, cheesy mashed potatoes. A fresh tomato sauce and the dash of mint curb the richness. This is comfort food on steroids. I stab another from the platter with my fork. These are sure to appear in my repertoire as well.
I waddle into class on day 3 – pasta (and Italian pastries) can take their toll on a girl. This morning, we shift from hand-shaped pasta to watch a machine-extruded pasta demonstration. There’s not much art in pasta prepared this way, but it’s a necessary evil, I suppose. After the demo, we resume our hand work and finish our training in classic shapes. Below is Maestro Walter’s version of Brescian style meat casoncelli. Can’t you envision these gondolas of goodness with sage butter pooling in those divots? Nom. Nom.
Next, we prepare cappelletti and tortellini, starting with the largest at about an inch and moving towards the teeny, tiniest Barbie-doll version for brodo. So cute.
After lunch, we work on innovative, modern pastas like caprese ravioli (one of my favorites) with a filling of candied tomatoes, basil cream and mozzarella, as well as chocolate toblerone-shaped pasta with ricotta, and squid ink tortelli with baccala, capers and a ginger oil drizzle. It’s only day 3 and I’m already pondering a pasta business for my future.
Day 2 begins with a hasty espresso from the cafeteria. When I return to the states, I’m lobbying for an espresso bar and barista in our office. That little cup is more effective than Wellbutrin when an instant attitude adjustment is needed. Today, we’re tackling colored and filled pasta in countless varieties. Our first assignment involves producing the raw material needed for today’s class – colored pasta dough. My classmate and I are assigned yellow and green. Do you need turmeric or saffron to get that highlighter yellow color shown below? Neither, that’s just yolks from hardy, free-range Italian chickens. The other teams contribute dough in red, hot pink, cocoa, black, and chestnut.
Our instructor, Maestro Walter, is the most immaculately clean chef I’ve met and we tease him about his tidiness. He’s not a stereotypical, hot-blooded throwing pans chef. He exhibits an unruffled manner and quiet sense of humor. Melina, Manuelina’s Director, stands at his side, on hand to translate any tricky concepts. Maestro’s lessons are easy to follow except for an occasional and endearing confusion between the translation for “red” and “green”, which could result in a perplexing Paglia e Fieno (straw and hay pasta).
Tagliatelle paglia e fieno with fresh porcini
While the dough rests, we shift to producing a plethora of pasta fillings including pumpkin, pork and two versions of spinach. After lunch, we’re rolling, cutting and filling pasta for the balance of the afternoon. We request risotto for dinner.
My lodgings are in the unsavory part of the city, across from the train station, on the wrong side of the tracks. This isn’t the famous and distinguished grit of LA or NY. The hotel itself is clean, modern, and utilitarian. My bathroom is equipped with one smallish towel, one bathmat and a bidet towel. Nothing to wash my face with, but my caboose will be squeaky clean. Outside my window is the local kabob grill and bar, its patio populated with old, hairy, pot-bellied men smoking and drunkenly singing Italian love ballads at 3:00 p.m. at the top of their lungs. Welcome to Brescia. At first glance, it’s disappointing.
On my initial venture outside, I skirt past the pot-bellies, homeless and graffiti (I later discover a better route) for a hopeful investigation of the central Old Town. One should not judge a city by its train station. Brescia’s old town doesn’t disappoint. I find a center filled with narrow, cobbled lanes, many for pedestrians only, winding around picturesque piazzas, two Duomos (one dating from the 11th century), Roman ruins and even its own hilltop castle. Brescia is charming. Better yet, with its moat of unappealing urban sprawl and neighbors like Lake Como, Milan, and Venice, Brescia has been forgotten in most guidebooks, ensuring there’s nary an American accent to be heard.
I’m enjoying my Aperol Spritz aperitivo and nibbles on the Piazza Paolo VI after my stroll, listening to the Italian chatter punctuated by the clock tower clanging the quarter-hour. The sun paints long shadows over the pink café umbrellas and focuses its golden eye on the Duomo. I recall my gelato school classmate proclaiming that he shunned café locations in central piazza locations, adamant that these attractive, central old town destinations are mere tourist traps for the ill-informed. I’m now convinced he’s an idiot. There is nowhere else I want or need to be at this moment. Brescians know how to live “la dolce far niente” and this city is lovely.