Sissy and I agreed on something that was absolutely necessary while traveling in Italy: cooking lessons. While we both consider ourselves good cooks, neither of us had any experience making pasta from scratch and that was something we knew we would learn best from a classic Italian cook. Our mutual friend had done a class with Taste of Italy in Bologna, so we got the info from her to make our own booking during our stay. When we reached out to Maribel (owner of Taste of Italy and my new favorite person) and told her what we were looking for, she suggested the foodie lesson that included a market tour. It was a bit of a splurge, but I was able to convince Sissy it was the only way to go. And we are both so grateful for this incredible experience, or as we now refer to, “the greatest day of our lives.”
We arranged to meet Maribel at 8:30am near the Bologna food market district. Before going food shopping and exploring the market, we discussed what kind of food we wanted to make that afternoon. Since it was a foodie lesson, we had a little bit more flexibility. We also were able to convince Maribel to let us do more than the typical lesson because we are both super efficient cooks (she later agreed with our testament). So we decided on three pastas, three sauces, and a dessert. Since I am clueless when it comes to dessert and baking, I really wanted to learn how to make a simple panna cotta. Sissy is obsessed with ragu, so she wanted to learn how to make a classic Bolognese sauce. And since we were in Bologna, we both agreed that we must learn to make tortelloni (ideally we would have learned to make tortellini, the smaller kind, but it takes way to much time and expertise), which would be stuffed with a ricotta mixture and served with a butter-sage sauce. Maribel suggested a lemon and speck sauce for the tagliolini (thinner noodles than tagliatelle, which we also made for the ragu sauce), which sounded delicious. Now that our menu was set, it was time for shopping!
With her expert guidance, we navigated the market place and she showed us all the different meat and cheese shops, and what they are known for. We also explored the specialty pasta shops and spice shops, as well as a place that was known for their desserts and vinegars. And of course, all the stands of fresh produce where we learned your not supposed to touch the products, but have the owner of the stand come out and select the items for you. They are very honest farmers and will only provide the best quality ingredients. Maribel told us she was once looking for a pineapple, ad the merchant wouldn’t sell her the one he had because it was not ripe enough. When we were visiting the produce stands, my eye caught some zucchini blossoms that looked beautiful. I asked Maribel if we would be able to squeeze in an appetizer of stuffed blossoms if we were super duper efficient, since I had always wanted to learn to make them. She laughed at us for our persistence, with her kind smile, and said sure! Since we already had purchased the sheeps milk ricotta for for the tortelloni, it wasn’t too much of a hassle.
After hour 90 minute market tour, we had seen a new side of Bologna and purchased all the necessary ingredients for our meal: ricotta and parsley for the tortelloni; cream and sour cherries for the panna cotta; pork sausage, ground beef, onion, celery, carrot for the ragu; Amalfi lemon and speck for the tagliolini, and squash blossoms for my special appetizer, which would be stuffed with the same ricotta for the tortelloni. Maribel teaches her lessons at home in her own kitchen, where she had other important ingredients, such as flour and eggs for the pasta, pecorino, olive oil, butter, sage, etc. We caught a taxi to her house, just outside the old city walls, and got to work on our pasta making!
Pasta making is certainly a labor of love. We started by making a mountain with our flour, and scooping a hole in the middle for our eggs, so it looked like a volcano. We slowly combined the flour and eggs with a fork and scraper, until our dough was the right consistency. Then we kneeded it by hand into a ball until the stickiness was perfect, lightly coated with flour and wrapped it up to sit until we were ready to roll it out.
Meanwhile, Sissy got to work on the Bolognese sauce and I started working on heating the cream for the panna cotta. Panna cotta is pretty simple, actually. You heat the cream, add the sugar, continue to stir, add the gelatin and vanilla, raise the heat and stir some more, blow on it so it doesn’t overflow, and when it reaches the right consistency (about thirty minutes of stirring) you transfer it to ramekins and let cool for about 45 minutes before transferring to the fridge. Presto!
Next we mixed the ricotta and repaired our squash blossoms. Maribel purchases sheeps milk ricotta because it’s richer in flavor and easier on the stomach, and SO DELICIOUS. We blended it with finely chopped parsley, fresh ground nutmeg and pecorino. Reserving some for the tortelloni (and to spread on crackers for an extra snack), we set aside the rest for stuffing the blossoms. Maribel taught us how to trim and cut the blossom to prepare it for stuffing, as shown in this video that I recorded. Once the blossoms are cut, you stuff them with a heaping teaspoon of ricotta and sauté them in some butter. Very simple and so, so delicious! This is what I love most about Italian cooking.
The last things to do before rolling out the pasta were to prepare the cherry sauce for the panna cotta and the lemon speck sauce for the tagliolini. In the interest of efficency, I worked on the cherry sauce between rolling out my dough. You just heat cherries with some sugar over low-medium heat for about 30 minutes. You could also use strawberries or blackberries, whatever is in season!
For the lemon speck sauce, the first thing you do is zest lemon into the olive oil, then let it sit for a while to let the flavors blend. The speck doesn’t need to be cooked because it’s already cured, so when it’s time to make the sauce you just sauté shallots and garlic in a bit of the olive oil, then add the rest of it (with lemon rind) at the end before combining with the speck. Superb!
When the time came to roll out the dough, Maribel made sure to show us the correct posture when rolling out our dough, so we wouldn’t hurt our back or neck. We used long, heavy rolling pins on huge cutting boards, rolling out the dough, rotating it, rolling it again, stretching it, rolling it some more… It was certainly a process! But Maribel’s guidance made us feel confident and composed, and in the end we produced some excellent dough for the pasta making.
Mine was a little dry because I had been by the window, so we used mine for the tortelloni. Sissy had more dough and was thinner than mine, so we used it for the tagliolini and tagliatelle. Maribel taught us to roll the dough to meet in the middle, then to cut it in thin slices, and use the side of the knife to lift up your noodles. Easy peasy!
For the tortelloni, we learned to fold the ricotta into the cut squares and twist them into a tortelloni shape, or which we referred to as baby gnomes. They were so cute! Each pasta was cooked in the same pot of water for the appropriate time, and carefully transferred to the appropriate sauce. We had them in courses with a delicious white wine, and I was sure to pace myself so I could leave room for the panna cotta!
Everything was supremely delicious and fresh tasting, and I loved the wine that Maribel selected for the meal. Other than the squash blossoms, my favorite dish was probably the tagliolini with the lemon-speck sauce, which seems the easiest to recreate and I will be sure to post about it once I do! The meal was made even better by Maribel joining us, and telling us stories of her cooking experience and her life in Italy. She is a very interesting, friendly person with great patience and a lifetime of experience in the kitchen. Sissy and I agreed that not only did we learn to make great Italian food that day, but we both made a new friend!
I chose not to include all the details of each recipe, so that I didn’t give away all of Maribel’s secrets! But I encourage you to schedule a foodie lesson with her if you ever visit Bologna. She also travels to the states occasionally to do group lessons or special events. In the meantime, stay tuned and I may feature some recipes in future blog posts. Special thanks to Maribel for an incredible day and for teaching us the best way to make pasta!