Making Pasta in Bologna

Fresh Laid Italian Eggs
Fall was the season for holiday food preparation in my mother’s Italian family. Raviolis were the centerpiece. Through October and most of November we made hundreds of them. All rolled, stuffed, and closed by hand on a massive kitchen table.

In 2013, I decided to deepen my childhood ravioli memories during a trip through Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region and registered to attend an official pasta making school in Bologna, the place even Italians recognize as the source of authentic Italian cuisine.

Cooking schools are an industry in Bologna and are plentiful since just offering lunch in a home kitchen could qualify. Visitors looking for particular experiences, especially with time and money constraints, should do as much research as their satisfaction level demands.

Francesca Prepares Dough
Being on a limited budget, value was a significant part of my decision mix. But I also wanted to "live" the culture of an Italian kitchen.  So I chose the Vecchia Scuola Bolognese primarily because of its very affordable five day immersion course, allowing me to spend an entire workweek absorbing the sights, sounds, and sensations I craved.

Minimum research suggestions:
  • Identify your parameters for the experience, including cost, location, and particular food interests
  • Use guide books, magazines, and a variety of Web resources in your research.
  • Pare down candidates using available reviews. Interact with reviewers whenever possible.
  • Correspond directly with the schools by email or even by phone. This can assure you that the school is still operating, will give you a sense of their customer service standards, and help you to better understand important details such as payment options.
  • Finally, as a general rule of travel, be open to making the best of whatever actually happens.

Ancient but Accurate Scale
I didn’t fully appreciate Vecchia Scuola Bolognese as a serious culinary production and training facility until I arrived. They do offer a casual half day tourist course with lunch included, but their primary students are those beginning or extending professional careers in Italian pasta and pastry making.

The five day course I took is actually considered the first step toward earning the school's three month professional culinary certification. Vecchia Scuola is also an ongoing pasta production facility supplying food establishments throughout the region. Students are expected to practice their skills creating usable product. Nothing is wasted. What may not be “beautiful” enough for sale to an outside client will certainly be used in the school's student staffed Trattoria.
Basic Riccota Filled Tortelloni

I paid for the class about six months before my trip. Arrangements such as available course times and dates were made through email in both Italian and English, using Google translate when necessary. Payment was sent and confirmed via an international wire transfer made through my bank.

My hotel in Bologna, Albergo Rossini, was a short portico covered walk from the Vecchia Scuola. Class started at 9 AM and lasted about four to five hours. The only new students on the day I started were myself and a twenty-four year old Israeli pastry chef who had just completed a four month certification in gelato making. He was planning to open his own cafe on a beach in Tel Aviv.

Alessandra Spisni (shown above in a screenshot from their website) is the unifying force of Vecchia Scuola. Though she was traveling outside of Bologna during the time I were there, signora Spisni was none the less a constant presence in the many attractive product displays throughout the school. Alessandra Spisni and her entire family are endowed with an insatiable appetite for life.

Maestro Allessandro
The signora's brother, Alessandro, casually oversees the culinary school by correcting students with warnings lightly disguised as jokes. Much of his work day was spent enjoying food, family and friends. 

Our actual teacher was an impressive twenty-seven year old Sicilian woman named Carla.  She is the real head and heart of day to day pasta instruction and production at Vecchia Scuola. Alessandro even acknowledged this fact by joking about how often he loudly called her name. (CarrrrLLA!!)

Carla Instructs a Student from Texas
Fluent in four languages with a graduate degree in Cultural Anthropology, Carla led an ever changing group of students through various levels of instruction while managing overall production (rolling sheets of perfect pasta herself), quality control, and distribution for Vecchia Scuola.

During a break, I asked Carla how she chose pasta making rather than pursuing a career in her degree. She told me that she came to Vecchia Scuola to do a cultural research project then discovered she both enjoyed the physical exercise of the work and had a natural talent for it. Signora Spisni offered her a job. Carla took it, still loves it, and sees no reason that will change.

Filei Calabresi ~ Our First Pasta
Culinary Cathedral
The Israeli pastry chef and I were given official aprons, assigned lockers, oriented to the work space, and began making pasta alongside more advanced students.

We started with a batch of Filei Calabresi, a simple pasta made with just water and flour rolled by hand into a hollow tube that embraces any sauce. Using a classic industrial scale, we weighed rather than measured all ingredients. Weight, even for liquids, makes it easy to accurately increase or decrease the size of a recipe. We got a feel for how to properly knead dough and assess its readiness for rolling.

Tortelloni in Process
The most exciting part of the process was using long wooden rolling pins or poles, called matterellos, to flatten the dough. In the video at the end of this post, Carla uses a matterello to roll a double volume of dough into a translucent gossamer sheet, closely resembling fine cloth, in less than five minutes.

Both the matterello and table must be made of wood. Marble and stainless steel are too cold for pasta making. In contrast, wood warms the dough as it is worked and the grain imparts a surface texture that better holds sauces and condiments to the pasta.

Dried Spinach Tortelloni
At the start of this post I mentioned that making ravioli was my reason for taking the class. And we did make one batch of ravioli at Vecchia Scuola. But what we produced every day in quantity was tortelloni, the much larger version of tortellini.

Bologna is known for its tortelloni, pasta with a big stuffed "belly" that brings to mind the city's Medieval nickname, "La Grassa" (The Fat).  Of course tortelloni is much more popular than ravioli in Bologna!

One fundamental variation between types of stuffed pasta is the thickness of the dough. Tortelloni requires pasta that is as thin as possible because of its many layered folds.  On the other hand, ravioli doesn't have any folds and needs to be slightly thicker to hold stuffing in place with just crimping around the edges. I may not have made many ravioli at Vecchia Scuola, but I did gain a deep reverence for the skill and talent of handcrafting this seemingly simple food.

For those wanting to experiment for themselves, we used the basic recipe below for all variations of stuffed and flat pasta. A large wooden rolling pin can sufficiently flatten the dough but it's actually the length of the mattarello that makes it fun (and an art) to use.

There are no handles on a mattarello.  It moves with pressure applied from the palm of your hands, pushing and pulling like a massage as they move back and forth across the entire length of the pin. Yes. It is sensual. Lacking a real mattarello, a two inch diameter dowling, thirty-six inches long, sanded and bleached, will work.

Have fun making pasta! Even the mistakes are edible.

Basic Filled Pasta Recipe for +/- 100 Tortelloni

Ingredients are measured by weight so the recipe can easily be scaled for quantity.
Ingredient Ratio:
100 grams of "00" Flour
per 50 grams of liquid.

Liquid can be water, egg, broth, or a cooked vegetable such as spinach or mushroom.

One shelled egg = 50 grams
(Should be weighed if very large or small)

50 grams of cooked spinach = one egg.

 The following mixtures allow for additional
50 grams of flour during kneading.

Plain Pasta
6 eggs and 550 g flour

Spinach Pasta
6 eggs, 50 g cooked spinach, 650 g flour

 To Mix
Form the flour into a bowl shape on the table.  
Place liquids in the center of the flour.
Gently blend flour into liquid.
Knead until dough forms and stickiness is gone.
Add flour as necessary.
 Wrap kneaded dough in plastic.
Let dough rest at least one hour before rolling.
Quantity Ratio:
 Filling Weight = Dough Weight

1.5 kilos Ricotta (cow)

200 grams grated Parmesan cheese

20 grams salt (to taste)

 1 Egg

Nutmeg to taste
Roll dough into a sheet carefully but quickly to avoid drying.
Cut rolled sheet into one inch squares.
Place a dollop of filling into the center of each square.
Fold dough corner to corner into a triangle over the filling.
Squeeze the bottom tips of the triangle together to form a tortelloni shape.
Practice often and eat your work!