I’ve written about ravioli on this site before, specifically my grandmother’s dedication to the art of making it– and it is an art. I recently found out from my mother that Nonna got her recipe here in the United States, probably in Chicago when they lived there in the early 1920’s. In those days, groups of Italian immigrants from common areas would settle together in neighborhoods in a sort of support system. My grandparents were kin to a group of ceramic artisans who manufactured decorative statues–” figuristi–” in their Italian home villages, and they brought these skills with them to America. The Fontanini family, who to this day makes creche figures, are based in Bagni di Lucca, which is where my Tuscan grandparents grew up close to. In America, after arriving here in 1920, they designed plaster detailing for the old movie palaces in the Midwest, eventually moving to Brooklyn to manage a factory that manufactured mannequins. (But they never talked much about the failed wax fruit business they bought into previously.)
And everyone had to eat !
I’d never tried making ravioli myself, but today was cold enough (in the mid 30’s) and I was sick of being sick with the creeping airplane sludge all week; the antibiotics had run their course and I felt good enough to run up the to Publix for the ingredients I needed.
The recipe had been dictated to my mother by my grandmother on small sheets of looseleaf, and the cover letter– in Italian– updates me on the family doings sometime in the early 1980’s: news about new babies who are now adults, and people who are no longer with us. That letter and attached recipe (complete with my mother’s added wisecracks) belongs in a safe deposit box, I think.
What goes into the ravioli stuffing is this: ground pork; ground veal; large onions; carrots; celery; parsley; spinach; mushrooms; grated cheese; rosemary; allspice; bread; and tomato sauce. Ground together after the meats are browned, you get a bowl of what looks very much like a pesto sauce on steroids. The aroma is indescribable, and my house smelled just like my grandmother’s all day: I could close my eyes and picture her little kitchen in Brooklyn with the flour all over, the filling waiting inside the ocher-colored earthenware bowl she always used.
The pasta dough is made differently from the standard way I do it; she used a mixture of water into which butter had been melted, and this is poured into the flour, followed by eggs. The measurements depend on… what? The instructions call for about 4 cups of flour to start, ending with “then you add flour until right texture. I guess maybe 4 to 6 cups? You see!” That little directive– “you see!–” is Brooklyn dialect for “you’ll know what to do when you’ve done it.” And it’s true– you add flour until the dough feels right.
You mix and knead and let it rest in damp towels for a half hour, and then you divide and roll out the dough as flat as you can. I was trying to remember how Lucy made the pizza-dough on her show, or even how people do it in restaurants, but there’s so much else to do that you don’t worry about being a dough impresario: you just roll it out (I use my grandmother’s wooden rolling pin) until it’s thin enough. You roll out two large roundish sheets and spoon your filling onto one sheet every few inches– then you place the other sheet of dough atop the whole shebang, and with a water glass you cut circles down through the two layers of dough that have formed a little round envelope stuffed with filling. Then you get Kirk to “fork shut” the edges all around the 127 ravioli, and you place them on a floured tablecloth to dry. (If you don’t have a table clear and free, use a bed covered with a floured sheet.) “Make sure you fork deep enough,” I ordered. “Make sure the filling doesn’t seep out. Sprinkle more flour! But don’t sprinkle any on the new floor! And line them up neatly so we can COUNT them!” And, while forking, he asked if there weren’t any machines to do these tasks; I almost threw the mortar and pestle at him.
We made sauce too, though nobody had my grandmother’s recipe for that. I remembered that my sister Lois and her husband Mike often make sauce for the week, so I called and got their recipe. My sister is hysterical, with her mixture of Brooklynese, Italian dialect, and Florida WASP:
“In a crockpot– do you have a crockpot?!– put some olive oil in the BOTTOM, and add garlic. You can use fresh garlic or that paste kind that comes in a jar, right? Then chop a large onion up and put it in next. Then some Italian seasoning. A bay leaf which you fish out later– it’s just for flavah. Parsley– you can use dry. And Mommy puts in Gravy Master for a little brown color, but you can skip it. [I did.] Then some zazeech– maybe five or six? You know, like what comes in a package. So first you brown the SAH-sidges, then drain them, then add them to the crock. Right? Okay. THEN finally three cans of crushed tomatoes– we use Tuttarosa. Let it cook for like five or six hours.”
(Did I just hear someone ask why we didn’t put in any sugar?!?! Don’t make me come over there!)
Lois and Mike: it was PERFECT. Almost looked like Nonna’s sauce, but in a different way. Excellent!
We heated up two large pots of water until the kitchen looked like Yellowstone National Park, and then cooked the ravioli in batches until it was just past al dente. This is important: you cook and stir them carefully because you don’t want to knock them around so that they open and disgorge their contents into the hot water. You drain them and place them all in a bowl– we used a brand new Fiesta Tangerine pasta bowl, which comes with its own matching cheese shaker. You can mix the sauce in but we let people apply their own when it was time to sit down and eat.
Five of us sat down to dinner, and we each had two giant plates full, but there was still plenty left over. What do you expect when you make 127 of these things, each of them at least three inches in diameter? (Guys! You forgot to take some home!) And red wine, chocolate candy, and homemade Italian bread supplied by the guests…
What a meal, if I do say so. Not bad for a first attempt! I realize now why she only made it three or four times a year, because it takes hours and hours. My back felt it from all the standing, and the place where my right thumb meets my index finger was rubbed red by my left hand during the kneading process. But do I complain? I’m just saying. There’s nothing I like better than feeding people, and I thank them for being my guinea pigs. (We weren’t planning to have anybody over, really, but all that filling and dough cried out for diners.)
For Mary Ann DeStefano http://www.madaboutwords.com