The famous holiday cookie, the winter stew, the hearty lasagna—most families have at least once recipe that’s been passed down from generation to generation and subsequently imprinted in everyone’s memories. Think about it: Few meals in life are as special as the ones our grandmothers taught us how to cook.
These dishes didn’t require Instant Pots, ready-made dough, or ingredients that traveled the world over; everything was lovingly prepared from scratch. In Italy, this involved hand-rolled spaghetti and slowly-simmered ragùs topped with a sprinkle of local cheeses or porcini mushrooms foraged in a nearby forest.
A few years ago, one food writer was determined to honor the time-tested traditions of Italian nonnas with a YouTube channel called Pasta Grannies. It gained instant acclaim, quickly gathering more than 400,000 followers. Today, 75 of these recipes—tagliolini with pancetta, spinach and ricotta gnudi, corzetti with pine nuts and sage—are immortalized in a new book of the same name. And it comes just in time to curb our comfort food cravings.
Franco and Alessandra’s Corzetti With Fresh Marjoram Dressing Serves 6
In Chiavari, there is an open-air market with banks of newspaper-wrapped posies of Genovese basil and crimped tomatoes smelling like they had been grown in soil and sunshine—for me, it’s a dusty, herbal, hazy afternoon version of geranium leaves. We had been given a tour of the town by the totally charming Franco Casoni and his wife, Alessandra. Franco is an acclaimed wood sculptor specializing in figureheads for boats, with a sideline in making stamps for coin-shaped pasta called corzetti.
For the pasta
3 ½ cups flour or plain (all-purpose) flour
5 egg yolks, plus 1 whole egg, beaten
2/3 cup dry white wine (enough to bring the dough together)
For the dressing
½ cup Ligurian extra virgin olive oil or other grassy-tasting olive oil
4 oz Italian pine nuts
1 oz fresh marjoram leaves
2 garlic cloves
First, make the pasta. Tip the flour onto a pasta board or into a bowl and make a well in the middle. Add the beaten egg yolks plus the whole egg. Use a fork to mix the flour into the eggs and then gradually pour in the wine. Bring the dough together. Knead until it is smooth and silky. This will take around 10 minutes. Cover the dough with a tea towel (or put it in a lidded bowl) and leave it to rest for at least 15 minutes.
Keeping the board, pin, and dough well floured, roll out the dough until it is about the same thickness as a foil-wrapped chocolate coin (3 mm). As Alessandra explains, if you roll the dough too thinly the patterns from the two sides of the stamp will cancel each other out.
If you have a stamp, use the cup end of the cylinder block to stamp out the circles in the dough with a twisting motion—it’s the same as cutting scone or cookie dough. Place the disc on the engraved end of the stamp block and press down with the handle. The result will be a double-sided embossed corzetto. Repeat until you have used all the dough. If you don’t have a stamp, use a small glass or cookie cutter.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, add a teaspoon of salt, return the water to a boil and shovel in the pasta. Cook for 4 minutes, until the pasta tastes cooked and feels firm and not soggy to bite. Drain.
While the pasta is cooking, warm the oil in a small pan and add the pine nuts, marjoram, and garlic. Leave them to bathe in gentle bubbles for 4 minutes. Keep a close eye on the pan, as you don’t want the pine nuts to burn, but they can turn a little golden. Remove the garlic cloves and pour the dressing over the pasta. Eat immediately.
Ada’s Taglioli and Bean Soup Serves 6
Sugo finto means “a sauce without meat,” but Ada likes to make a semi-sugo finto sauce, as she fries pancetta with a little garlic and adds the fat along with the beans. Ortavio, Ada’s husband, then has the pancetta for his secondo (main course). Ada’s other secret ingredient is powdered rosemary. She dries twigs of rosemary in the sun until they’re snappy and crisp, then strips the leaves and blitzes them in a spice blender; no more needles!
For the pasta
2 ½ cups flour or plain (all-purpose) flour
1 egg, beaten
3 fl oz water
For the sugo finto
5 oz dried borlotti (cranberry) beans or 10 oz cooked beans
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely diced
14 oz passata (sieved tomatoes)
3 bay leaves
1 tbsp powdered rosemary leaves
2 thick-cut rashers of unsmoked pancetta (optional)
1 garlic clove (optional)
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)
If you are using dried borlotti beans, place them in a bowl and cover with enough water to submerge them by several centimeters (at least a couple of inches). Add a teaspoon of salt and leave them for at least 8 hours, or ideally overnight. Drain them of their soaking water, place them in a pan with fresh water, and simmer them until cooked. How long the beans take to cook will depend on their freshness, but it will be around 45 minutes to 1 hour. Drain and set aside.
Tip the flour onto your pasta board in a heap. Make a well and add the beaten egg. Use a fork to mix the flour gradually into the egg, followed by half the water. Start forming it into a dough, and if it feels a bit dry, add a little more water. You want to end up with a firm dough that holds together easily but is not sticky. Knead for 10 minutes. Cover it with a tea towel (or put it in a lidded bowl) and leave it for 30 minutes.
On a floured work surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of about 2 mm. You now want to make short ribbons of pasta around 10 cm (4 inches) long and 5 mm (¼ inch) wide—it doesn’t have be exactly this, just be consistent so they will take the same amount of time to cook. Ada has a good trick to speed up the process: Roll the dough around your pin, take a knife and slice lengthways along the pin to create wide strips of pasta. If these pasta lengths are too wide, slice them again in half lengthways. Then assemble the lengths one on top of the other. Slice across them at 5 mm (1/4 inch) intervals to create short ribbons.
Let the pasta rest while you make the sugo finto. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan and fry the onion and carrot over a medium heat until they are soft but not caramelized. Add the passata, bay leaves, rosemary, and beans. Season with salt and give everything a good stir, then reduce the heat and leave to simmer for 10 minutes.
If using pancetta, sauté it in a small pan over a medium heat along with the whole garlic clove, long enough for the fat to be released. Remove the garlic and pour the fat into the beans. You can keep it to one side to sprinkle over the final dish.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil, then add the pasta. Cook for 2 minutes—test for doneness—then remove about half to two-thirds of the water (depending on how chunky or thin you like your soup). Add the bean mixture, stir it through the pasta, and sprinkle with cheese (if desired).
Rosa’s Spinach and Ricotta Gnudi Serves 2
Rosa is the matriarch of the pasta-making Martelli family, and she shared her recipe for gnudi after we had visited their factory. Gnudi means “nude,” and it alludes to these dumplings being pasta-less—they are ravioli without their coats. Gnudi is typical of Tuscany, where the Martelli factory is located. Rosa says it’s important that the spinach and ricotta are as dry as you can make them, otherwise they will disintegrate in cooking.
For the gnudi
9 oz cow’s milk ricotta, drained weight
1 lb 5 oz spinach
¾ oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 large egg, beaten
Plain (all-purpose) flour, for rolling and dusting
For the dressing
1 oz unsalted butter
5 sage leaves
Several scrapes of nutmeg
2 tbsp grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Place the ricotta in a sieve over a bowl and leave it to drain for an hour or so, then weigh out 250 grams. Meanwhile, place the spinach leaves in a saucepan, turn the heat up to high, and add 2 tablespoons of boiling water. Cover the pan with its lid and steam the spinach until it has collapsed. Drain the spinach through a sieve and leave it to cool. Squeeze out as much water as possible and roughly chop. You should end up with about 300 grams (10½ ounces) cooked spinach.
Mix the spinach with the ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and beaten egg. Season to taste. Make sure the ingredients are all playing nicely together.
Pour some flour into a bowl. Pinch off 20-gram (¾ ounce) pieces of the mixture (about the size of a large walnut) and toss each one in the flour before rolling it between your palms to create a nice little ball. Dust off any excess flour. Place on a lightly floured board, away from one another so they don’t stick.
Have a frying pan (skillet) on one side of your stove and a sauté pan on the other. Melt the butter in the frying pan with the sage and nutmeg and keep it warm while you cook the gnudi.
Fill a sauté pan with salted water and bring to a gentle simmer. Lower the gnudi gently into the pan and let them tremble in the water for 5 minutes, or until they bob to the surface. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the butter in the frying pan. You may have to cook the gnudi in batches. Spoon the butter over the gnudi, then serve them with a shower of grated cheese over the top.
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