When Bill and I were in Rome last month, the weather–by Roman claims–was unseasonably cool and somewhat rainy. We decided, at a certain point, to rent a car and follow the sun. That trip took us first down to the Sorrento Peninsula, to a sleepy cliff town called Vico Equense. Brilliant sun, a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, Mount Vesuvius looming in the distance–it was a lovely place to be. After two days, the rains came, so we headed east over the Apennines and then south—way south—to the heel of the boot.
We ended up in Lecce, a beautiful city sometimes called “The Florence of the South.” Particular to the region is a sandstone that is easily carved when first quarried, yet hardens over time. Lecce is replete with its own form of Baroque architecture made from this stone. The structures, churches and building facades, exhibit a more refined sensibility in their exuberant ornateness.
Ten kilometers inland from the Adriatic, Lecce also has a wilder feel to it–and I mean this in the sense of less traveled, less touristy, less sophisticated. Maybe bohemian is the right word. The pace is very laid back. The vibe is very friendly and welcoming. Perhaps because of its proximity to Greece and North Africa, it benefits from a confluence of cultures.
We became quickly captivated by the place and the people. We stayed in the centro storico-historic city center, in a flat on the Piazza Sant’Oronzo. Within the piazza confines is an amphitheater, circa 200 A.D. On the perimeters are numerous coffee bars, gelateria, and eateries with outdoor dining, where you could just sit in the breezy sunshine and soak up the beauty.
Cars are not permitted in the center; we could walk the maze of cobbled streets and discover what the old city had to offer.
In our meander, we found a restaurant that we loved: i merli
Contemporary in look, intimate in size, fresh and seasonal in menu offerings–it suited us. We snacked on delicious fritto misto di verdure–tempura-like fried vegetables, including the delicate zucchini blossoms—and petite mussels with pungent aioli. Bill enjoyed a risotto, creamy green with fresh asparagus, but we were both crazy for my pasta dish–a housemade tagliatelle tossed in good olive oil, sweet Sicilian cherry tomatoes, zucchini, mint, and ricotta salata.
All of the ingredients tasted so fresh, prepared with such care and immediacy, that it was a pleasure to eat. It was that touch of mint that elevated the dish from something predictably good to something unexpected and wonderful. I knew that I would try to recreate it after I returned home.
Rounding up the right ingredients would not be a problem: John and Tally at Fresh Harvest Co-op have their terrific Sun Gold cherry tomatoes and Zephyr squash, and fresh mint is everywhere! I located ricotta salata, the aged, salted, and pressed version of ricotta at Whole Foods.
But, making fresh egg pasta was another key piece.
I experimented with a couple of fresh pasta dough recipes–seeking that golden yellow I had been served on countless occasions.
In my research I found a winner by Lydia Bastianich, made—improbably–in the food processor.
She calls it “Rich Man’s Golden Pasta.” Five egg yolks whipped with olive oil and water are poured into the processor already filled with flour and salt. I was skeptical–shouldn’t the dough be diligently hand-kneaded for at least 8 minutes?
But Ms. Bastianich knows her pastas.
The dough comes together in a blink.
After you remove the doughball from the processor, just lightly dust it with flour, knead it 5 times, form a disc and seal it in plastic wrap. The dough should rest a minimum of thirty minutes at room temperature–and if it rests longer, so much the better.
I rolled the dough seven times—through settings 1-7 on my machine—before rolling it through the ribbon cut. The dough remained supple and elastic. It was easy to make, and easy to cook: scarcely two minutes in the boiling water.
The flavor of the pasta alone was incredible, and the texture light. Yet, it stood up well in the toss of vegetables, mint and cheese.
The recipe makes a big batch of pasta–enough for 8. You can cut the dough into half, reserving the other piece for another pasta dish, if you like.
“RICH MAN’S GOLDEN PASTA” from Lydia Bastianich, for Cooking Light
2 level cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 egg yolks
6 tablespoons water
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Place flour and salt into food processor fitted with the swivel blade and briefly pulse, mixing the two together.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks with the water and olive oil.
Turn on food processor, and slowly pour, in a steady stream, the egg yolk mixture into the flour. As the flour absorbs the egg yolks, it will begin to form a ball. Once the ball is formed, cease processing. Remove and gently knead ( 30 seconds, that’s all) forming the dough into a disc shape. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough sit for a minimum of 30 minutes.
When you are ready to roll, remove the plastic wrap and cut the dough into quarters. Dust with flour, and run each piece through the pasta machine, starting with notch 1–and go through notch 7 before using the fettuccine slicer. Don’t be afraid to use a bit of flour to dust the dough as you work with it. You don’t want it to get sticky!
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 lb. “Zephyr” summer squash (zucchini works well too) cut into julienned strips
3/4 pint “Sungold” cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 handful fresh mint, finely chopped
1/2 cup ricotta salata, shaved or cut into thin batons
1/2 cup reserved pasta water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper, to taste
Heat a large pot or saucepan on medium and add olive oil. Add julienned squash and saute for 2-3 minutes. Stir in halved cherry tomatoes and mint. Cook for another couple of minutes and remove from heat.
Bring lightly salted water to a rolling boil and cook the pasta. The strands should only take a minute or two to cook.
Drain, reserving some of the starchy water.
Toss the pasta into the pot with the vegetables. Season with salt and black pepper, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Pour in the pasta water, tossing and folding, so that the squash strips become enlaced with the pasta ribbons. Sprinkle in the ricotta salata as you fold.
Mound into bowls. Garnish with extra cheese and mint. Makes 2 huge bowls, or 4 small bowls.