THE STORY STARTS WITH BRUNO'S GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, a proud Southern Italian woman who had only one arm. No matter, it didn't keep her from being an excellent cook, or even from kneading and rolling out the pasta dough for her pillowy ravioli. In fact, she taught her daughter, Mary, how to knead dough one-handed, and Mary, in turn, taught each of her four sons how to knead one-handed "until one day one of the four Bruno boys realized they could use both their hands," says Debra Bruno, shaking her head and laughing at the favorite family tale.
Bruno, 50, an editor at Legal Times in the District, grew up in Athens, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, where her grandparents had settled when the family emigrated from Italy. Her grandmother had four sons, three of whom lived with their families in the same town.
"The big family meals were at Easter and Christmas," Bruno recalls. "There'd be one huge, long table where everyone sat, and my grandmother would serve this incredibly heavy meal." First would be cheese ravioli with homemade red sauce, followed by braciola (beef rolled around a filling), baked eggplant, meatballs, sausage and peppers, and cavatelli. "And when it was over, she'd start cooking for the next holiday."
Bruno's great-grandmother rolled out the pasta dough by hand, using a long wooden rolling pin and laboriously sealing the edges of each ravioli square with the tines of a fork. In the early days, says Bruno, her grandmother also used a rolling pin, but she eventually switched to a hand-cranked Atlas pasta machine.
Her grandmother never wrote down any of her recipes, says Bruno, and she wasn't big on teaching her family how to make the dishes. "She was all about serving us. I think she worried that if someone else knew how to do it, what would she do?"
But her grandmother's sons (including Bruno's father) got interested in cooking, anyway. They all taught their wives how to make pasta. Her uncle Pasquale "Pat" Bruno Jr. is the author of several Italian cookbooks and is the restaurant critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Bruno acknowledges that she wasn't really interested in cooking as a teenager, but once she was living on her own she began trying to duplicate her grandmother's recipes. Now married and the mother of two, she gets together with her siblings every Christmas for a big Italian meal. Using a pasta machine just like her grandmother's, she makes bags and bags of ravioli, freezing them in preparation for the holiday.
Bruno follows the family recipe her uncle included in his 1982 cookbook, Pasta Tecnica, and everyone agrees that the ravioli taste like her grandmother's. But Bruno and her siblings are still working on some of the other dishes. "Every year someone tries to make her braciola. And it's good, but we all agree it's not Nana's."
(Adapted from Pasta Tecnica by Pasquale Bruno Jr.)
Makes 24 ravioli
To use up all the filling, double the dough recipe. Otherwise, Debra Bruno says, the leftover filling can be refrigerated for up to 3 days and used in lasagna or stuffed shell recipes. Bruno acknowledges that 24 ravioli can easily be eaten by just 2 people in her household, although others might want to serve them as an appetizer course for 4 guests.
You'll need a pasta machine, like an Atlas, for the dough, and a ravioli tray to form the pasta.