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Food | Travel

Making pasta by hand teacher’s Bolognese art

Her classes cook basics in the style of the region

By Gillian O'Callaghan
Globe Staff / July 26, 2011

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BOLOGNA, Italy — A three-course pasta lunch may not sound like the perfect meal for a 100-degree July day. But when you have prepared the pasta dough by hand, cut out the shapes yourself, and worked on the sauces for hours, the occasion could not be more perfect.

My daughter Shannon, 17, and I spent a week traveling through Tuscany, then ventured north to a pasta cooking class in Bologna, capital of Italy’s most famous food region, Emilia-Romagna. Early one morning we meet Maribel Agullo, owner of Taste of Italy cooking school, at her apartment in a quiet neighborhood. We are the only students that day. The cost of the class is 95 euros (about $135) for two to eight people. We found her after searching the Internet, and all our e-mail correspondence is in English (Agullo was raised in the United States).

Topping the agenda: breakfast, then marketing. We sip cappuccino standing at a cafe bar alongside the locals. The next hour we spend walking through the city’s arcaded porticoes adorned with intricate carvings. Embedded in the marble sidewalks are fossils of shells and plants. Then to the city market, with stops at various stands tucked into winding alleys. Agullo’s basket is brimming with meats, cheeses, and vegetables.

Back at her apartment, she shows us the equipment for making pasta: a massive board as wide as the kitchen table, and an imposing 3-foot-long rolling pin.

We learn the specific ratio per serving is 100 grams of flour (about Πcup) to one egg. We heap flour onto the board, use our fingers to make a well in the middle, then crack into the well eggs with yolks as bright as sunflowers. Then we slowly mix the flour into the eggy center.

While we work, Agullo shares her story of how she came to teach. Her heritage is Puerto Rican; she met her Italian husband, Enrico Lucarelli, in Washington, D.C., and moved with him to Bologna almost 15 years ago. After falling in love with the food at her in-laws’ table, she asked her husband’s grandmother to share her recipes.

The process took longer than expected as nothing was written down and a ‘‘little bit’’ of Parmesan could actually mean more than a cup. We are following precise recipes, which Agullo worked out from the ones she was given. She reminds us that amounts can vary depending on the weather. Today, our dough needs additional flour, which is not surprising; it feels as if the humidity is 110 percent.

After a 30-minute rest, our dough is ready. We use an ordinary kitchen knife to cut tortellini, tortelloni, tagliatelle, and strichetti. We begin with pasta pillows, whose size is measured by our fingers, stuffed with ricotta and basil. ‘‘‘Ini’ means little, so tortellini should be a square just two fingers wide,’’ Agullo says. ‘‘‘Oni’ means big, so tortelloni are bigger, three fingers wide.’’ Tagliatelle comes from the Latin word ‘‘to cut,’’ so we roll the dough like a jelly roll and cut long strips. Strichetti are bow ties, known in other regions as farfalle, but since it is made by pinching small squares, the Bolognese named it after the local dialect’s word for pinch, ‘‘strichett.’’ We spend time perfecting pinching with both hands at once. This ambidextrous method is critical when trying to feed a large Italian family.

Agullo teaches us a classic ragu, or meat sauce. In 1982, the Bologna chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina proclaimed the recipe we are using to be the official one. Agullo scoffs at American versions, which include tomato sauce and are served with spaghetti. A true ragu, she insists, has just a few tablespoons of tomato paste for color and is only served with pasta wide enough to support the meaty sauce.

Our tagliatelle fills this role perfectly. For our sage sauce, she warns that the butter is never browned. ‘‘In Italy, if you brown your butter, you don’t know how to cook.’’

As we sit down for lunch, even in the unbearable heat, we dine the way Italians do: with a little exquisite sauce on silky homemade noodles. Agullo passes the crusty bread.

Taste of Italy via Gustavo Modena 37, Bologna, Italy. 011-39-347-1550-839, taste-of-italy.blogspot.com

Gillian O’Callaghan can be reached at ocallaghan@globe.com.