by Candolin Cook
photo by Stephanie Cameron
“Can I get woo-woo for a second?” chef and pasta maker Michelle Michelotti-Martinez asks me, leaning over her steaming plate of roast chicken pappardelle with creamy porcini sauce. “I believe that love transfers onto things. If you don’t have the time to put the love, patience, and intention into making your pasta, don’t bother.”
I’ve asked Michelle to join me for dinner at M’Tucci’s Twenty-Five, one of the locally owned Italian restaurant’s three (soon to be four) Albuquerque and Rio Rancho locations, to discuss the art of the Italian pasta noodle. M’Tucci’s pasta is made fresh and by hand, something Michelle, a native New Mexican of Italian heritage, knows a lot about. In 2006, she and her friend / Italian teacher, Luisella Corbellari-Hunter, co-founded Pasta Divina, New Mexico’s first organic fresh pasta company. “It was a hard sell in the beginning trying to get [locals at the farmers market] to pay six dollars for fresh pasta, when they were used to the cheap dry stuff from the store.” Thankfully, it didn’t take too long before Burqueños came to appreciate their noodles’ superior taste and quality—and the business enjoyed a devout following until it closed a few years ago. More recently, Michelle has developed a new loyal fan base as a private chef and caterer for boutique events, for which customers often request her fresh pasta specialties.
As our waiter sets down my plate of rich and cheesy capicola carbonara fettuccine, we are both hit with an appetizing whiff of applewood-smoked pork shoulder and prosciutto. Michelle then takes a sip of her pinot noir and enthusiastically dives into the intricacies of creating a superior pasta noodle.
“Making fresh pasta is simple,” she assures me, “but it’s not easy.”
It all begins with the flour. While you can make pasta using North American all-purpose flour, Michelle doesn’t recommend it. She procures imported Caputo’s semola rimacinata flour made from hard durum wheat. This Italian flour is higher in gluten, and milled multiple times to achieve a finer grain, which makes for a sturdier, more elastic dough. “The flour should also be fresh,” she advises. “Some people don’t realize that flour goes ‘bad’ and doesn’t taste as good after a while.”
In addition to fresh flour, Michelle only uses good-quality olive oil, salt, and rich egg yolks from local farmers, to give her pasta a luxurious texture and fuller flavor. “Let the eggs come to room temperature,” she instructs. “Temperature is very important in pasta making—the dough doesn’t want to be cold, like with baked goods. That includes the ambient temperature, your hands, and your work surface, which should be wood.”
When it comes to kneading the dough, Michelle says don’t be afraid to get in there. “It’s yoga—stretching, resting. . . . You ever notice how Italian grandmas have those big wrists? You need to knead for a good fifteen minutes. It should feel like Play-Doh—smooth and not sticky,” she explains. “Pasta making is both a science and an art, and pasta [dough] has a personality.”
We are still slurping down our pappardelle and fettuccine when our third noodle dish arrives: spaghettini with just the right amount of red sauce; juicy Tuscan beef, veal, and pork meatballs; a dusting of pecorino; and a chiffonade of fresh basil. It looks wonderful and I mention that if I had to select a last meal, it would be a cozy plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Michelle, however, says while the dish brings back great memories of Sunday suppers growing up, she generally finds the American pantry staple to be the most overrated noodle. “People drench it in sauce, it gets gummy, and lacks individuality.” She prefers bucatini, spaghetti’s thicker cousin with a hole running through the center. “It’s more versatile,” she says, explaining that the cylindrical noodle can both stand up to a heavy marinara or is great with a thinner, lemony white wine sauce that can run through the interior. “Biting into it feels like a surprise!”
While more complex pastas like bucatini require a pasta maker, Michelle says she also loves a rustic noodle that can be hand-rolled with a pin and cut with a sharp knife. “I love thick, wide noodles, like pappardelle. The sauce coats the surface area but you get more of the true experience and flavor of the noodle.”
Perhaps it’s because I generally buy the cheap dry stuff, but I don’t find most pasta to be particularly flavorful in and of itself. “You need to add more salt to the cooking water,” advises Michelle. “I’m talking as salty as the sea. People are afraid, but it really doesn’t permeate the noodle that much.” She also often flavors her noodles by incorporating pureed local vegetables into the dough. I’ve always been intrigued by the brightly colored vegetable pastas I’ve seen displayed at specialty shops, but have felt somewhat intimidated about what to pair with them. “Think about what you would pair with that vegetable normally,” suggests Michelle. “A creamy goat cheese sauce would taste great with a beet noodle. Sage pasta? Make a brown butter. Get creative and have fun.”
But maybe not too creative. As we wrap up our carb-decadent dinner at M’Tucci’s, Michelle has one last piece of advice: “Keep it local, seasonal, and simple. We [Americans] do too much with our sauces. In Italy, there is a passion for simplicity. If you take fresh pasta noodles and pair them with some baby tomatoes and basil from the farmers market, and drizzle it with good olive oil, it’s magic.”
Creating that magic may be simple, but it’s not easy.
Candolin Cook is a PhD candidate in history at the University of New Mexico, freelance writer, editor, and former co-editor of edible New Mexico. She lives in Albuquerque, where her husband owns Vida Verde Farm, and believes in supporting local agriculture and food businesses whenever possible.