Even though I was delirious with overseas flight fatigue, my first meal at our friendsâ€™ home in Bologna, Italy remains vivid, one of those high points in epicurean experiences: Heather served up bowls of handrolled tortellini filled with ricotta, puddled in an herbed brown butter sauce. The pasta was paper-thin, tender; the ricotta creamy rich. And the butter sauce! Brown butter can elevate cardboard to a lofty state; in this case, it took an already sublime dish into the gastro-stratosphere.
Soon, my brain, beleaguered from a navigation of the hopeless maze of terminals in Charles DeGaulle airport followed by a frenzied search for a missing boarding pass, hit alpha-wave calm as I immersed myself in the comfort-coated bowl. I was in Bologna, home of Europeâ€™s oldest university, stronghold of the Italian Communist Party and center of a culinary tradition that earned it the name La Citta Grassa .
Oh, Learned-Red-Fat City, I slumped into a chair, bowl in hand, I have arrived.
I felt certain that in the time she had lived here, Heather had immersed herself in Bolognese ways and had crafted these impressive stuffed pastas.
â€œWell, I had considered it, of course,â€ she said. â€œBut then I realized, why bother? We have the ladies.â€
â€œThe ladies?” This sounded intriguing. “Who are these ladies?â€
â€œThe pasta ladies,â€ she said. â€œWeâ€™ll go visit them.â€
A couple of days later, I accompanied Heather on a shopping trip. After perusing the open produce standsâ€”where I learned that One Mustnâ€™t Touch; the vendor selects the veggies for you—Heather introduced me to the ladies of Le Sfogline.
Run by Renata Venturi and her two daughters Daniela and Monica, Le Sfogline is regarded as the best pasta shop in Bologna, perhaps all of Emilia-Romagna province. Itâ€™s small. In the front room, you may find Signora Venturi presiding over the service counter: a glass display case filled with the creations of the day. Behind her, an open door reveals the pristine kitchen where the women, with long, tapered rolling pins, turn out pasta sheets that are both massive and impossibly thin.
We studied the case contents: tagliatelle, papparadelle, varieties of stuffed tortellini, lasagne. Everything beckoned; it was so hard to choose.
Tutto Bene, Si!
We decided on a pan of lasagna Bolognese:layered with meat in a milky brown sauce, and two dozen pieces of what fast became my favorite: plump ravioli di zuccaâ€”pumpkin.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the ladies and their fine work as I’ve noticed changes in my Volunteer pumpkin. The jarrahdale blue that so valiantly grew in my front yard has been occupying a place of prominence on my dining room sideboard since I harvested it last fall. Over the winter, its blueness has unexpectedly given way to light peach. I decided that meant it was time to cook it. It deserved to be prepared in a Bolognese manner.
Now, in no way do I have the deftness of hand-rolling that the ladies of Le Sfogline employ, but I do have a bonafide hand-cranked made-in-Italia pasta machine. I chose to make lunette–little moons–circles of pasta, filled with roasted pumpkin, folded over and gently crimped.
My little moons were not so perfectly plump and lovely as the handiwork of the ladies, but I believe they would have approved of my results.
Mine had a kind of haphazard look to their craft, but were nonetheless delicious. My Volunteer Pumpkin had roasted up sweetly, and required little more than salt, pepper,nutmeg, and parmesan to enhance. To the brown butter sauce, I added coarsely chopped toasted almonds: a crunchy counterpoint to the smooth dish. And, borrowing a Mario Batali trick, I grated an amaretti cookie over the top right before serving, for a pleasant little candied shock.
Lunette di Zucca (Little Pumpkin-filled Moons with sage brown butter)
3 cups Flour
2 T. Olive Oil
2 t. Salt
Waterâ€”1-2 Tablespoons, if needed
In a food processor fitted with a pastry cutter, pulse the flour with the eggs, olive oil, and salt. Add water if it seems too dry. As you pulse, the texture will change from coarse cornmeal to a smooth, collected mass.
Remove,form into a ball,and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator for at least one hour. The pasta can be made in advance and allowed to rest overnight.
4 c. Roasted Pumpkin
Â½ t Salt
Â¼ t. Black pepper
1/8 t. Nutmeg
Â½ cup grated Parmesan
Puree the pumpkin with the seasonings. Add the parmesan last. Note: Pumpkins vary in water content. Some â€œpie pumpkinsâ€ are dense; my heirloom pumpkin was a little watery. If the mixture seems a loose, place in a strainer lined with cheesecloth (same method used when making mascarpone) over a bowl. That extra liquid will separate quickly.
Slightly flatten the doughball and cut into 4 wedges. If you are using a pasta machine, start with setting 1 and roll the dough through. Repeat. Then move to setting 2 and roll. Repeat the process until you reach desired thinnessâ€”at least at setting 6.
Cut out round shapes–about 3″ diameter. (I used a drinking glass as my template.)
Place a small amountâ€”about a teaspoon—in the center of each circle. Fold over, press ends together and slightly crimp. Makes 3 dozen.
Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil. Drop in the stuffed lunette, a few at a time. Gently boil for about 5 minutes—the lunette will float to the surface when done. Remove, drain, and dress with butter sauce. Top with toasted almond pieces and grate a little amaretti cookie over the dish.
Sage Brown Butter Sauce:
1 Â½ sticks Unsalted Butter
4 heaping Tablespoons chopped Fresh Sage leaves
Salt to taste–about Â¼ teaspoon
On medium heat, melt the butter and add the sage leaves and salt. Increase the heat. The butter will begin to bubble; the milky solids will begin to brown; the sage leaves will crispen.
Stir well. Once the mixture has a toasty brown color, remove from heatâ€”it will continue to cook from the residual heat and you donâ€™t want this to burn!
After Saucing the Pasta:
Â½ cup Toasted Almonds, coarsely chopped
Amaretti cookie, to grate over the little moons (optional)
The seeds from this Volunteer have been saved. We’ll plant these pumpkins purposely this year!