Gluten is like booze — some people just can't handle it. If that's you, stop reading now. For the rest, I'd like you to meet chef Michele D'Oto. Today, D'Oto is going to introduce us to one of planet Earth's singular pleasures: the fresh, hand-made noodle.
"We have all the different sauces," D'Oto says, with a charming Italian accent. "Mushroom sauce, tomato sauce. And when you take a bite, it's like a little explosion!"
D'Oto ought to know. The 51-year-old was born and raised in Modena, Italy, where he learned to make noodles at his mother's elbow. Since then, he's worked in fine restaurants across Europe: in countries like France, England, and Switzerland. Today, D'Oto is the owner and chef at Pasta Italia in Cordova, where he specializes in authentic Italian food.
When I arrive, D'Oto has arranged his ingredients on a stainless-steel worktable at the front of the restaurant. He's handsome and gregarious and full of great one-liners ("I'm the Italian Jesus," he quips). And I'm thinking, can someone get this man a TV show?
He starts by cracking eggs into a bowl of semolina and all-purpose flour. Getting the dough right takes fresh, high-quality ingredients. But that's not all. A top-notch noodle, D'Oto says, requires a chef with the right frame of mind.
"If you really love what you're doing," he says, "it goes down through your fingers into the dough. You can taste the love.
"But if I'm stressed or in a hurry," he continues, "the noodle comes out sticky. It breaks up in the pasta water. I can prove it."
Fortunately, we're in no danger of sticky noodles today. While D'Oto squeezes the dough, his assistant sings joyfully in the kitchen. The man, who identifies himself as "Lightning King," stands 6'4" tall and wears a cappello alpino — a pointy green hat with a big black feather.
"Even flow," King sings, "thoughts arrive like butterflies. Oh he don't know, so he chases them away. Someday yet, he'll begin his life again ..."
When the dough reaches the right consistency, it rests for 10 minutes in the fridge. Then it's time to make noodles. D'Oto begins by slicing off a chunk and passing it through an electric pasta roller. Each time it emerges from the machine, the doughy sheet looks a bit more like a glider wing: long and slender and oval-shaped at the tips.
Today we're making tortelloni — a stuffed pasta similar to ravioli — so the noodle needs to be a little thicker. To check it, D'Oto intermittently holds the doughy sheet up to the light. When it's ready, he will be able to see the shadow of his hand. After about 20 passes, we're good to go.
"Touch that," D'Oto suddenly says, offering me the sheet. "It's beautiful."
I touch it with my fingers, and something weird happens. Soft and stretchy and lightly dusted with flour, this pasta has almost the exact texture of human skin. It gives me goose bumps and makes the little hairs on my arms stand up.
For the tortelloni, D'Oto has prepared two fillings. The first is a mixture of ricotta and Swiss chard. The second is zucca (pumpkin) with cinnamon and ground-up amaretti (ginger cookies). To make the tortelloni, he slices the pasta into squares and places a gobbet of filling in the center of each.
Then comes the cute part. D'Oto carefully folds each square around the filling and presses its edges together with the tines of a fork. To form dumplings, he wraps each one around his fourth finger, where it sits like a doughy engagement ring.
"Look," he says, waggling his finger. "It's like a little hat."
Ten minutes later, the pasta is cooked, and D'Oto is pouring flutes of sparkling wine. We toast to Pearl Jam and pick up our forks.
Paired with a vodka cream sauce, the tortelloni with ricotta and Swiss chard is scrumptious and well-balanced. But the pumpkin may be the best pasta I've ever tasted. Served with the lightest possible sauce (a drizzle of olive oil, a dusting of Parmesan), it's sharp and savory outside, sweet and gingery within. And the fresh noodles?
D'Oto says it best. They're like a little explosion.
"It makes me think of home," he muses, through a mouthful of pasta. "On Sunday, there is a feast, and all the family is there. Brother is there. Sister is there.
"It will cheer you up," he continues. "It will put a smile on your face for sure."