The first time I tried making homemade pasta I was sure I was going to break it, drop it or roll the delicate sheets so thin that I could barely lift them without poking finger sized holes into the pliable dough. I wish I could finish this anecdote with a heroic tale of how I hit my linguine out of the park but actually? I did all three of those things and at the end of my class, still ate some magically delicious pasta. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that I was cooking the pasta with a dozen other people considerably less clumsy than I am in the controlled environment of a recreational cooking school, so please try not to kill my fantasy. Despite plenty of bumps in the road (and in the dough) I can crank out a halfway decent sheet of lasagne and make just enough not-screwed-up wontons to stuff a melt-in-your-mouth ravioli, but I’m far from a master pasta maker.
Enter, our friend Phil Rubino, former sous chef at Cicchetti Restaurant in downtown Chicago, now helming the kitchen at Dusek’s in Pilsen. Rubino has just a tad more experience handling fresh-Italian focused ingredients than I do, as a chef for the past 10 years and previous to that, assisting at his father’s family-run bakery from a very young age.
Rubino, the 31-year old Chicago native and culinary school graduate at Illinois Institute of Art, has worked his way up from a line cook at BIN 36 to a sous chef position at acclaimed Chicago restaurant Acadia before landing in the kitchen he currently calls home.
So, yeah. This chef knows a little more about pasta than I do. He has some tips for those of us who can handle ourselves in the kitchen, but could use a little of his finesse.
Back to The Basics
“A lot of cooks in my generation have begun leaning more toward handcrafted food with a slightly rustic feel,” said Rubino. People in my age group are starting to recognize that old recipes and traditional dishes are just as difficult and can be just as exciting as making a fluid gel or freezing something with liquid nitrogen.” While Rubino is at the helm of Cicchetti’s pasta program, he is quick to explain that each recipe is a working collaboration between himself, executive chef Michael Sheerin and Cicchetti’s co-sous, Sarah Jordan, who actively incorporate each of their respective areas of expertise.
The Absence of an Extruder Amplifies Flavor
It’s a rarity for a high-volume Italian restaurant to operate without the use of a pasta extruder, which us laymen refer to as a “pasta maker” or “the thing that flattens the pasta.” Not only is there a marked difference in texture, there’s also a distinct flavor and mouthfeel experience associated with handmade pasta. While cooking, starch from the fresh pasta thickens and emulsifies whatever sauce has been paired with it. It even absorbs some of the sauce into the noodle, so the pasta-sauce taste combination is amplified when it arrives at the table. Hello, delicious.
The Stories Behind the Shapes
Though a lot of us know all about spaghetti and linguine and whatever and whatever, Rubino’s menu offers a plethora of options that you might not find in your grocery store. To make whole wheat chitarra, Rubino toasts whole wheat flour in an oven to produce a golden brown color and nutty, aromatic flavor similar to fresh baked bread. The dough is then cut into long, square strands which are laid out over a wooden frame with steel wires (hence the name Chitarra, which means guitar in Italian).
Another such pasta, strozzapreti is a pasta you don’t often see made by hand because of the time-consuming nature of the process. These hand-twisted noodles are formed by placing a 1/2 inch flat piece in your palm and rolling your index finger up from the base of your wrist, thus “strangling” the noodle and giving it its name. Finally, the corzetti also involves many intricate steps: not only must the pasta be formed into a round, disc-like shape, but the coins are then hand-stamped to give them their signature pattern.
When making pasta by hand, there are some tools that no kitchen should be without. The aforementioned corzetti stamp is a valuable tool for bringing a unique visual element to the dish. The handled stamp has a pattern hand-cut into the wood at its base. Additionally, Says Rubino, the wooden box used to make chitarra is an indispensable kitchen accessory.
While traditional corzetti is served with ricotta and pesto, the Cicchetti team brings an unexpected twist to the dish in the form of pickled ginger and reinvents the sauce (while keeping with the green color) by using a pea puree instead of pesto.