There were red and white-checkered tablecloths and dripping, wax-covered candles sitting in old Chianti bottles. The lazy, lingering music of an accordion played off in the distance. A stack of menus sat tenuously perched atop a small glass table, hand-written in a language I knew I loved but couldn’t understand. Actually, the part about the accordion might have been a figment of my imagination … I can’t really say for certain.
We’d arrived late to the restaurant, scooting our metal chairs out from underneath the charming table for two and taking our seats. The official lunch hour had come and gone and, it being a summer Saturday and all, the previous patrons had presumably retired home to their beds and couches, to the quaint apartments and flats that lined the narrow, cobbled streets that stretched out around us for as far as the eye could see. Most of the homes on this particular day had their windows thrown wide open, beckoning the sweet midday breezes right into their living rooms. If you close your eyes and concentrate, you can pick apart a summer breeze the way you can a good glass of red wine, the different notes each making themselves known if you give them the chance. I closed my eyes, and could distinctly pick out the jasmine and oleander, the clean linens drying out on the lines that stretched high overhead, and the pasta. Oh that pasta; it gave off aromas that were pleasantly impossible to ignore. That is, to me, one of the fortunate inevitabilities of a trip to Italy. At least so far as its summertime breezes are concerned.
I opened my menu and couldn’t understand a word of it; not a single, solitary word. This really shouldn’t have come as such a surprise – I was in Italy after all – but there I sat, mouth agape and head shaking back and forth in surprise over how very awkward and wholly unfamiliar I felt with everything. Up until that point, I’d done quite well with my culinary translations, taking a sort of pride in my crude ability to navigate the Italian menus with some sense of know-how. But this, this little trattoria in this little town, had thrown me. It was another thing entirely.
I ran my finger up and down the single-sided, slightly worn page upon which the day’s offerings were scrawled. Simple, basic and to-the-point, the conservative nature of this menu gave me the distinct impression that there were maybe only one or two people working hard in the very tiny kitchen that sat just inside the window to my right.
Our waitress did not speak English – not a lick – and I made my choice that day by simply bringing my destinationless finger to a hault on something entirely random. I kind of counted to three and just picked something. Like menu roulette.
Si? she’d asked, gesturing to my choice with her own finger. I nodded and, happy that the ordering had concluded, I began to revel in the fact that I’d be receiving a plate (or bowl?) of food whose contents were almost entirely a mystery to me. It suddenly all seemed very exciting. Our waitress smiled at my choice, giving me a hopeful sense of confidence in my decision. In my finger’s decision, rather.
After we’d managed to successfully order and receive two still waters, my husband and I realized that we’d left all of our cash back in the hotel room, which was in Rome and really quite far from where we sat at that lunch table … the lunch table at the restaurant that had a menu we could not decipher, a charming and friendly staff whose language we did not speak, and that apparently only accepted cash.
Lucas excused himself and walked off down the aforementioned cobblestone streets in search of an ATM. So there I sat, eagerly and curiously awaiting my food.
It was the best plate of pasta I’d ever had. This truth, incidentally, was a product of genuine merit, not the drama of the mystery involved nor the charm of my situation or exotic location. It was the food and the masterful cookery that had just gone into it only moments before that made my heart sing and my palette swoon that day. The tangle of freshly made noodles were wrapped around a collection of ingredients whose exact makeup I can’t quite pinpoint. But there was pancetta, crispy and salty and singing with flavor. There were sweet green peas (piscelli dolci). There were chopped toasted walnuts and a creamy sauce made from them as well (noci testate).
I will admit to having taken a bite (or two) before my husband made it back to the table. It was rude yes, but almost impossible to help. The way that simple but perfect plate of pasta smelled beckoned to me like a siren song, I kid you not. I had to do it.
By the time we were finishing up our lunch, local diners had started to meander their way into the restaurant again, taking their places at tables it was clear they’d all been seated at many times before. The familiar and familial nature of the scene was almost tangible. I did not speak the language, but I understood. This was THE place – the local spot where everybody knows your name. I suddenly felt special being there, privileged almost; like I was part of a club of sorts. People began placing their orders casually, telling the waitress what they wanted without ever giving the menu so much as a glance. It all seemed like a big formality, though. She appeared to already know just what everyone wanted … what wine they needed on their tables, what dish to set in front of each patron. A truly neighborhood establishment, this out-of-the-way trattoria seemed to exist solely for the enjoyment of those who call that tiny corner of the world home, and luckily for us on that breezy summer afternoon, for the fortunate few who happen to stumble upon it in their wanderings.
We toasted our time in Italy. We toasted our perfect plates of food, our wine, and we toasted the fun in being just a little bit lost. And not necessarily in that order.
Homemade Chocolate Pasta with Pancetta, Sweet Peas & a Creamy Toasted Pecan Sauce RECIPE
for the pasta:
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 – 4 tablespoons water
1 cup sweet green peas
8 ounces pancetta, diced, cooked and drained (cook like bacon, in a pan over medium-high heat until crisp), or if it is ready-to-eat style, you can slice it into small pieces
for the sauce:
2 cups whole pecans
1.5 – 2.5 cups chicken or vegetable stock (this is to your preference)
1 small clove of garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
for the pasta:
Combine the flour and cocoa powder in a bowl, whisking well to combine. Make a well in the middle of the flour, and crack the eggs into it. Scramble them with a fork, adding the olive oil as you do so.
Begin mixing the flour/cocoa mixture into the egg mixture, adding water as needed to moisten. You will need to finish bringing the dough together by hand, on a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough for 10 minutes, and then leave it to rest, covering it with the bowl (it needs to be covered). Let it sit for 30 minutes.
Divide the dough into four portions, set one aside for use, and cover the remaining three portions again so they do not dry out while you’re working. Using the pasta attachment on your mixer or, if you have a pasta maker you can use that (of course), feed the portion of dough through the attachment per the manufacturer’s instructions. In my case, I put it through setting 1, three times, setting 2, two times, and then once through setting 3.
Lay out the dough sheet on a lightly floured (or cocoa powdered) work surface and either cut them into equally-sized strips by hand with a pizza cutter, or send them through your pasta cutting attachment on your mixer or pasta maker. Up to you here! Lay the cut noodles on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet to dry out slightly, about 30 minutes. Repeat with the remaining portions of dough.
To cook, bring a large pot of water to a rolling bowl. Once it boils, salt it generously (think seawater) to flavor the pasta. Add the pasta and cook for about 3 1/2 minutes. Drain and return to the pot (or a smaller pan, if you prefer). Add the peas, cooked pancetta, and your desired amount of sauce (I usually don’t use all of the sauce at first, starting with some and then adding from there. Or you can keep some to serve on the side as well). Serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
for the sauce:
Toast the pecans in a shallow pan over medium heat, takes about three minutes (you’ll smell them when they’re ready). Add the toasted pecans and the garlic clove to a food processor and process until smooth and creamy. Add this creamy mixture to a pot over medium heat and thin out with the stock (veggie or chicken) until it reaches an almost alfredo sauce-like consistency. Or, you can serve it as thick or thin as you like. Heat the sauce through and season with salt and pepper to taste.