It’s hard to imagine that Italy — a country thoroughly explored, not to mention plundered, by warriors, historians, artists, scholars, tourists and food lovers — has secrets left to yield.
And yet, that must be part of the allure. Every time I return, I am struck by something that eluded me before: a hidden garden or fountain or an unfamiliar cobbled back street in an otherwise familiar town. Down such a street, you can hear the clatter of plates and cutlery, and smell the afternoon meal wafting from someone’s kitchen.
My food discoveries there are ongoing, even where I spent the summers of my youth. Abruzzo is a ruggedly beautiful, diverse region of craggy mountains, soft hills and coastline in the middle of Italy’s boot that extends from east of Rome to the Adriatic Sea. It is famous both for its superior dried pasta and for its maccheroni alla chitarra — the long egg noodles cut square on a wood-frame “guitar” strung with metal wires.
But it wasn’t until I was doing cookbook research a few years ago that I came across one of the most spectacular pastas I’ve ever encountered, in a corner of the region I’d overlooked.
Maccheroni alla molinara (maccheroni alla mugnaia in the Abruzzese dialect) is an ultra-long, fat, loopy noodle that is rolled and shaped by hand. It is fantastic in the true sense of that word.
I found it entirely by accident; in fact, I nearly missed it.
My family and I had rented a small house in the hills beyond Teramo, one of Abruzzo’s four provinces. It looked to be in a great location: not too far from the seaside where I had spent my summers, and also close to the mountains and to neighboring Le Marche, another region I wanted to explore further.
Our little place was situated halfway up a sparsely populated hillside. The only way to get there was to leave the paved road and drive deep into a valley along a rutted, gravel strada bianca, or white road, and up the other side of the hill. By the time we arrived, late at night, it was pitch-black (no street lamps, of course), and rain was pouring down. The valley looked as if it might flood. The power was out.
My husband and kids seemed to take the situation in stride, but I was ready to ditch the place immediately in favor of more familiar territory. How, I wondered, was I going to be able to do any research when it took us nearly 20 minutes just to drive out of the valley to the main road, and another 10 minutes to reach Bisenti, the nearest small town in the Fino Valley — which didn’t seem to have all that much to offer?
We arranged to meet the caretaker in town the next day. I looked forward to handing her the keys. Instead, after listening to my concerns, she flagged down a friend who was walking by, who flagged down another friend. And within a few minutes we had been introduced to Marcello De Antoniis, a local real estate agent and Bisenti native who turned out to be an authority on the area’s culinary specialties.
Over the next week, Marcello acted as our guide and quickly became a friend. It was through him that I learned of the vibrant food scene in and around the Fino Valley, much of it happening in small agritourism restaurants, places where old culinary traditions are being preserved and new ones are being born.
When he first described maccheroni alla molinara to me, I thought for sure something had gotten lost in translation because of my rusty Italian. The name translates to “the miller’s wife’s pasta” and dates back to the mid-14th century, when flour mills were introduced to the valley. The elaborate pasta was presented to King Robert of Naples, the region’s ruler, although I imagine that the millers’ wives also made it for their hard-working husbands.
Still, I just couldn’t picture such a noodle.
So Marcello took me to see Rosa Narcisi. She and her husband, Domenico Degnitti, run Domus, a small, family-style restaurant high in the hills beyond Bisenti. It has a spectacular view across the valley to the dramatic Gran Sasso mountain range, and almost everything that Rosa cooks comes from their farm.
That afternoon, Rosa gave my daughter, Adriana, and me an impromptu lesson. Maccheroni alla molinara requires only flour, eggs and tepid water. When kneaded together, they yield a soft and supple dough that stretches beautifully.
The noodles are made by hand. You take a bagel-size piece of dough and punch a hole in the middle, then stretch it into a fat ring. You keep working your way around the dough with your hands until the ring is a loop. When the loop is too long to pull with your hands, you place it on a work surface and work your way around it, rolling it into an ever-larger loop. Your aim is to end up with a loop of pinkie-finger thickness, about five feet long (twice that length if it were stretched end to end).
The loop is then wrapped into a loose coil and dusted with flour to keep it from sticking. Once all the dough has been shaped into coils, the noodles are immersed in salted boiling water. As they cook, they often break on their own into fat strands of manageable lengths. The cooked noodles are dressed with an Abruzzese ragu.
After our lesson, we got to enjoy the fruits of our labor, along with more of Rosa’s wonderful food. We all marveled at how tender the noodles were, despite their girth. That, Rosa told us, was due to the amount of water kneaded into the dough, and also to an extra resting period that the dough is given before it is shaped.
I knew I had to shine a light on this pasta in my book. I think of myself as a curator of such recipes: noble ones, from a time when 30-minute meals were not the norm. And I know there are more than a few of us out there who can’t resist a good DIY kitchen project.
In spite of my enthusiasm, I was, once again, skeptical that I’d be able to reproduce maccheroni alla molinara back at home. But my daughter and I managed to roll out those loopy loops successfully on our first try. The process has gotten easier with each subsequent batch. There’s something immensely satisfying about making these perfectly imperfect noodles.
I should have known; if I have learned anything from working on an entire book devoted to pasta, it is this: The key is to relax. Nothing chases away kitchen fears like rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty. Making pasta is an intuitive process; it is also imprecise and, most of all, fun.
If you can let go of your skepticism, the secrets are there, waiting to be revealed.