A Taste of Italy

Food & Wine, Italy — By on November 4, 2011 at 11:59 am

By Jessica Slizewski

traditional italian ravioli recipeItalian cuisine is world famous not only as delicious food but as a window into the culture of Italy. In spending a day making ravioli with my grandmother, I found that the process reflected the strong family culture, the hardworking spirit, and the patience of the Italian spirit. I find that more and more frequently, people have no idea what constitutes good Italian food. Some think it can be found in a chain restaurant, or a frozen dinner, or in a jar. Those of us who have been to Italy know better. And those of us who have slaved away in a kitchen making pasta from scratch know that real Italian food requires serious work. There truth to the old Italian proverb that translates to “Bread that comes from sweat tastes better.”

My father’s family traces its roots back to Aosta, in northern Italy. Food in this region differs greatly from food traditionally cooked in southern Italy or Sicily. Northern Italy is infamous for fresh pasta, while areas in the south tend to use more dried pasta. Both regions, however, generally have five courses within one meal. It begins with an antipasto, or light appetizer. Next is the primo, which is usually pasta. One must not fill up on the primo, because il secondo, the main meat dish, is served next. The contoro is served alongside the meat, and is most often a vegetable dish of sorts. And if that wasn’t enough, dolce (dessert) is not far behind. A meal like this is a unique cultural experience within itself, and it’s not meant to be undertaken alone. An important aspect of Italian dining is being surrounded by friends and family.

My Italian grandmother is one of the hardest working people I know.  Therefore, it was utterly unsurprising that she was willing to spend almost eight hours making enough ravioli to feed nearly twenty people for Christmas Eve dinner. Eight hours to make a dish that is technically considered a first course might seem rather extravagant. Since my two brothers and I were enlisted to help, we did not think that with eight hands the ravioli process would be a 9-5 affair. With four people, we thought, this should take a few hours, at most. Grandma knew better, and had even scheduled a lunch break halfway into our day.

With three types of ravioli to make (cheese, meat, and mushroom), we got started early. My brothers hauled the “ravioli board” (which is basically a giant cutting board) into the room, and we began making the fillings under Grandma’s careful supervision.  I washed and cut the mushrooms, Zach mixed the cheeses, and Max added seasoning to the meat. The thing that struck me about my grandmother was her complete lack of any formal recipe. She knew exactly how something should look, feel, and taste without measuring. While grabbing something out of the fridge she might look over her shoulder and say, “add another handful of parsley,” or “that looks like it could use another egg.”  She was the Mozart of the kitchen, a true master of her craft.

traditional italian ravioli recipeLike everything else cooked that day, we prepared our dough from scratch. Grandma did permit several shortcuts (lest we be rolling out dough until midnight), but commented that these new-fashioned ways would have appalled her mother. Traditionally when making pasta dough, one puts a mound of flour on the ravioli board, then creates a small hole (or “well”) in the heap and cracks a few eggs into it. You then knead the dough by hand. I was surprised that we were permitted to use an electronic mixer instead of creating the flour well and mixing by hand. But that wasn’t the only update in the process.

“My mother would have never used this pasta machine,” she said, as we used it to create long, thin strips of dough. My great-grandmother preferred using an old table leg like a rolling pin to flatten the ravioli dough, a backbreaking process that my grandma loathed. Thankfully, this table leg from generations past was thrown out a few years ago when it started leaving splinters in the dough. As two people manned the pasta machine, the others began dropping scoops of filling onto the doughy, papery ribbons. We’d then seal another sheet of dough to the one with filling on it, cut the individual ravioli apart, and squeeze out any excess air to prevent the pasta from falling apart when boiled. “Count them,” my grandmother said as we carefully cut and squeezed out air. “There should be between 96 and 100 ravioli of each filling.” We counted as we dropped them into boiling water, and she was exactly right. Her years of experience cooking are evident in her ability to eyeball everything and rush nothing.

In this age of instant gratification, most people think faster is better. Sometimes it is; even my grandma’s ravioli recipe from generations ago has recently gotten some upgrades to speed up the process. But there is nothing wrong with hard work, and sometimes doing things the old fashioned way makes you more appreciative of the result. So instead of microwaving some Chef Boyardee tomorrow night, use this ravioli recipe and try some homemade pasta. Not only will it taste better, the process allows you to travel through generations of Italian traditions without the price of a plane ticket.

traditional italian ravioli recipe

TRADITIONAL ITALIAN RAVIOLI

-DOUGH-

4 cups flour
5 eggs
6 tablespoons olive oil

On a pastry board, pile flour and make a well the size of a small plate in the center. Ass the oil and eggs to the well. Beat oil/egg mixture, then start taking flour into the well, being careful not to break it. When all flour is mixed in, knead the dough until it is smooth, Cover the dough with a bowl and let it rest 20-30 minutes.

If you have an electronic mixer, you can use this to create the dough instead of the well.

-CHEESE FILLING-

1 ½ pounds ricotta
½ cup shredded mozzarella
1 egg
½ cup fresh parsley
½ cup grated parmesan
¼ teaspoon dried oregano

Place ricotta in a bowl. Add all other ingredients and mix well. Put in a covered container and refrigerate until ready to use.

-FILLING THE RAVIOLI-

Sprinkle flour on the pasta board. You can use a pasta machine, if available. If not, you will need to roll the dough into a large, thin circle. It’s very hard and time-consuming to get right! Make sure it is thin enough. Beat an egg and brush it on the dough once it is fully rolled out.

Take small scoops of filling, and drop them onto the dough in orderly lines. Continue until half of the dough is covered with rows of filling. Carefully lift the other half of the dough and use it to cover the rows of filling. Use your fingers to press down between the rows of filling. Cut the ravioli along the lines you pressed down once the top and bottom of the dough are stuck together. Sprinkle flour on a board or baking sheet and place the cut ravioli there. Gently squeeze out excess air so the pasta doesn’t fall apart when boiled.

-COOKING THE RAVIOLI-

Use a large kettle with water ¾ of the way to the top. Bring the water to a boil and drop ravioli in one at a time. Cook for about 10 minutes. When they rise to the top, they’re done. Use a hand strainer or slotted spoon, not a colander; the ravioli must be handled gently or they will break.

If you are not serving the ravioli immediately, put wax paper in a large dish, and place the ravioli on the wax paper. Continue to layer ravioli and paper. Cover and refrigerate dish until ready to serve.

If reheating refrigerated ravioli, drop them into boiling water for 5-7 minutes.

Images from the author’s family collection.

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    4 Comments

  • Liz Coup says:

    OMG love this!! Wish I could cook like this…

  • Linda Winkleman says:

    This is truly a heart warming piece. This is how I remember Great great grandam Maria Felicione, Great grandma Dora Felicione, Grandma Pat and I make ravioli. Pat and I now use a few short cuts–no table leg rolling pin, and of course the pasta machine. I am so touched that the three of you were able to share this truly unique experience. It will be a topic of discussion for many years. Tastes really special with some homemade wine!!
    Cousin Linda

  • Wonderful experience. It made me really hungry–and wanting to go to Italy.