Summer is officially over.
Summertime – a season truly carefree in character – has ended.
The 90 degree days have faded fast and I have started to feel those fall winds begin to blow. My strappy sandals are quickly replaced by my newly bought boots. Gone are the days of sweltering city walks, dips in my parents pool and trips to the beach – both Long and Brighton.
As the mercury hits the high 50′s for the first time, I turn off my overworked air conditioner and open the window by my bedside, allowing the cool courtyard breeze to enter. I look longingly at my unused fireplace and survey my cabinets for soups, stews – and pastas too. With fettucini in my future, saying goodbye to Summer is suddenly less stressful.
Pasta – the ultimate Italian comfort food – has found its way into my Fall fantasies. But my kitchen survey reveals sad results: one half-full, half-eaten box of De Cecco brand Rigatoni no. 24. My pantry is paltry. My dried, boxed, decade-old pasta leaves me disappointed.
In my quest for perfect pasta, I spent last Thursday learning the art of making and molding fresh pasta at Centro Vinoteca.
It is Noon on Thursday and as I stand on the stoop of my Cornelia Street apartment I can hear the church chimes beckon me towards my next assignment. As the first fall breeze blows, I quickly cross over the cold and congested 7th Avenue to the calm and quiet streets on the other side. Our Lady Of Pompei rings her last bell, and just in time, I arrive at the sleek and stylish restaurant at 74 7th Avenue South.
I round the red brick corner and arrive at the open doorway – the cool, calm, strikingly clean interior draws me inside. The inventively shaped corner building and movie theatre marquis above the front door inform me that I am in store for a show unlike any other. Centro is stylish, swanky and smooth – as are the two brothers at its helm – Enver and Rizo.
Everything is bright and white as the light floods in through the floor to ceiling window panes. Each curve and bend of the oddly shaped bar begs you to join her for a drink. The aromas from open kitchen tease, tempt and toy with you as they urge you order something more. The colorful chalkboard menu demands that you dabble in the dolci of the day: Fresh Ricotta Cheese Cake with Slow Cooked Apricots & Mint. The only thing that would make that dessert more delectable is if Enver or Rizo would deliver it to you.
In here, it’s comfortable but cool. In here it’s classy but casual. In here it’s airy and open and always inviting. In here, it’s almost always summertime. And brothers-in-charge Enver and Rizo would be your ideal beach companions.
As quickly as I arrive I am shuttled to the lower level to begin my pasta prep.
The prep kitchen is as clean as my apartment – only after my parents arrive for a visit. Shiny equipment, stainless steel pasta dough mixers, and enthusiasic workers fill the space. But those cool afternoon winds never wind their way down here. Busy workers and boiling bowls of red sauce raise the temperature by 15 degrees. My only escape is the refreshingly cold but painfully brief breeze I feel from the oft opened freezer door. Despite the heat, I attempt to explore the endless possibilities presented by pasta – which starts so simply with eggs, flour and salt but becomes so much more.
I meet Humberto – affectionately know as the pasta guy – and he talks me through the series of shapes we are about the prepare – six in all. I love the idea that by simply changing the shape of the pasta – the tabletop is transformed. Cavatelli cups its sauces. Papardelle playfully dances with its braised lamb. Ravioli wraps around its ricotta. Same ingredients – yet such dissimilar results. But I am suddenly humbled by Humberto. My formative pasta years involved a battle between Ronzoni brand Spaghetti versus Ronzoni brand thin Spaghetti. There was little diversity in our dishes and I have so much to learn from my new friend.
Humberto explains the seemingly simple steps and the types of pasta we need to prepare for tonight’s menu. There are so many that my mind is racing and I am ready to run home to grab that box of dried pasta from my shelf and dump it into a bucket of boiling water. But I wait, and make an attempt to learn these lessons – with Humberto and his 3 years of pasta prep hovering over me all along the way.
I lay one thin sheet of pasta dough atop my new favorite tool – the italian ravioli maker. The pasta is so thin – so delicate – I can see my fingers clear through the other side and fear I might tear it if I tug too much. Humberto assures me my sheer strength won’t damage this delicacy. I brush the pasta with a light coating of egg mixture and dot each chamber with a concoction of cream, chives and shrimp. I place one pasta sheet on top to cover my creation and our ravioli is mere moments away from being born.
We pinch and seal each side and roll the fluted pastry wheel (also know as a ravioli cutter) along the edges and between each piece. My unsteady hand seems to snag the ravioli ending in an uneven and imperfect pocket. Humberto corrects my work and guides my hand along the way. Making pasta is a delicate dance – a tender twist as I try not to tear or tug the soft sheets of dough. At the end one of session – we have only 12 raviolis to speak of. We’ll need many more if this dish is on the menu tonight. I’m losing hope in my pasta prep but Humberto and I continue to work side by side and make some more. Each little pocket is looking better than the one before: the filling is just right, the sides are sealed tight and the perferations are now perfect.
The word Ravioli is said to have originated from the word Rabiole – meaning things of little value or left-overs. On long journeys by ship, sailors – not wanting to be wasteful – collected and chopped up all the left-overs (the rabiole) from their meals. They stuffed those leftovers into little envelopes of pasta dough.
I, too, have found myself feeling much like the ravioli I have just crafted. On my best days I feel firm and presentable on the outside. And on the inside – and on my worst days – I have felt glimpses that are reminiscent of that ravioli: that I have little value or that I have been passed- or left-over. Chalk it up to those unpopular junior high school years. Or maybe it was that moment, when one year ago I sat down across from my live-in boyfriend of two years and by the end of the evening I was not only short the $25 dollars for the cost of the meal, but I had to subtract one boyfriend and one apartment from that scenario. Homeless, aside from my sisters couch, I started to feel a bit like those ravioli of yesteryear.
Ravioli, however, has come a long way. Gone are the days of leftovers encased between two thin sheets of pasta dough. No longer are they filled with things of little value. Now their inner workings are so precious and filled with such worthwhile ingredients – think: shrimp, chives and cream at Centro Vinoteca – that our main task (Humberto’s and mine) as it relates to ravioli is to be sure that those insides don’t escape their safe shell and find themselves floating around a hot pot of boiling water. After we fill the ravioli we press the edges to ensure they are sealed. We press. And we seal. And we press again. This small task is life or death for our dish. And we learn that even though something starts out being undervalued or looked over, the world eventually comes around to getting it right. We are no longer in high school and gone are the days of that disasterous Greek meal on Amsterdam Avenue. Our ravioli is sealed with goodness inside. No shrimp will dare swim away. And your tastebuds will be the better for it.
Humberto and I continue with Cavatelli. We slice our pasta dough into a long sections about 1/3 of an inch thick. After a quick lesson, I begin to roll the dough gently through the italian imported cavetelli maker and spin out a series of shapes that are ripe and ready to be joined with broccoli rabe. This task is remarkably easier than the one before. And while cavatelli is traditionally made by hand (think southern italian or sicilian grandmother cooking in her home kitchen) I have a newfound appreciation for the tools of the trade.
The word Cavatelli is derived from the Latin word cavum. Cavatelli means a hollow or cave; a hole, a cavity or a depression.
In my hometown of Hampton Bays the day after Labor Day was referred to as Tumbleweed Tuesday. It was always a sad day. A sense of loss prevailed – a loss of the freedoms that summer afforded us. Summer has indeed ended and a palpable shift has take place – here in NYC and in Hampton Bays too. And with its passing I am left with an empty space, a deep void — a cavum. But within that loss there is now a space for something more to enter in. In that cave – that hole, that depression – enters something new: new friends, new classes, new goals and a new space and clean state to begin again. In that space of our cavatelli – in that soft and subtle void of our pasta shape – there is space for sauces: for pestos, for browned sage butter and for bolognese too. I am beginning to rethink the very definition of depression.
With ravioli and cavatelli completed, we move on to long strands of papardelle and pici, to roasted mushroom stuffed cappellacci and spin out some beautiful black tagliatelle.
My arms are getting tired and my fingers are freezing up from all this pressing and pushing and molding and manipulating of these pasta shapes. I will never look at a plate of pasta without imagining the hours of labor involved. I run upstairs to take a breather. On my way, I hesitate for just a moment and stand in awe of the hundreds of bottles of wine that line the walls – all Italian and from regions of Italy I have yet to discover. I imagine a warm red would be the perfect pairing for the pasta I have just prepared. I must admit my wine knowledge is a little lacking and standing there with these bottles towering over me, wondering what I would choose - my confidence is shaken and my knees are feeling weak.
Enver leans in close and whispers wine to me. He enthusiastically explains how he chooses his wines from lesser know regions, like le marche, based on its agricultural advantages. Speaking of advantages, Enver is an expert with his wines and you’d be remiss to not mark your calendar and schedule your own private tutoring session.
And if there is anything to get you out of your cavatelli cavum, your depression – it’s brothers Enver and Rizo, a seat at the bar and a glass of my favorite – and house favorite – bubbly: prosecco di valdobbiadene, terra serena.
After my lesson in libations, I turned my attention to Greg Pollio for the final phase of my cooking class. Greg, the former student of ornithology (think birds) and herpetology (think reptiles) turned Sous Chef, guides me as I plate my well-made papardelle. Greg’s study of the sciences makes him a master in the kitchen as he teaches me about the subtleties surrounding pasta shapes and their contrasting cooking times. My pasta hits the hot water and hovers there for mere moments. All the while I am sauteeing Greg’s braised lamb bolognese and seasoning it with white wine and mint while my pasta cooks for what seems like a split second. Before I plate the papardelle I stop and perform my most important task: The taste test. I bring the sauce straight from saute pan to the spoon and into my mouth before it ever reaches the dish. There is nothing quite like that first forbidden kitchen bite – and the assurance that you did everything just right. Greg’s bright eyes, even brighter smile and his easy and natural way around the kitchen make you want to take him home along with your leftovers. If you visit Centro Vinoteca I’m sure you’ll agree that Greg only adds to the atmosphere inside. And I’m doubly sure you’ll understand the sentiment: Thank you open kitchen.
When I left Centro Vinoteca I noticed a few leaves had fallen and the winds began to pick up and swirl around the sidewalks. I held a sense of renewal in my heart and a flutter inside for what might be to come. With these fall winds beginning to blow and the new year upon us, I have started to feel far away from any resemblance to those left-over filled ravioli. I’m not sure if it was the change of seasons, or the bright and futuristic chandeliers floating overhead at Centro Vinoteca or the smiles on the faces of Enver and Rizo and the regulars than dine there, but now I am feeling much more like the one pasta I didn’t even prep: farfalle, and its literal translation: butterflies.