Marc Vetri, chef owner of Vetri, Osteria, Amis, Alla Spina, Pizzeria Vetri, and Lo Spiedo, recently was nominated for a James Beard award for best chef in the country. He recently discussed his new book Mastering Pasta (Ten Speed Press) at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Below is a condensed version of our conversation.
When was the first time you made pasta? When did you know this is what you wanted to do?
Wow. I don't even really remember. My father's family, they're from Italy. They lived in South Philadelphia, and we used to head down there Sundays and have the large family meals, the meatballs and the lasagna and all that stuff. And I always loved that. I remember heading down there early and working with them, and learning, but I don't really remember it as being, like, wow, this is what I have to do for the rest of my life. . . . I actually think that happened when I went to live in Italy. It was almost instant. I arrived and started to watch them make things and I realized: This is what I want to do.
When did you know you were a great talent?
I don't think that I am. I think that I am one of the lucky ones who loved something and I get to make a living doing what I love. I don't look at it like I'm doing anything that is really mind blowing. I'm just making ravioli. It's just eggs, some flour, some ricotta. It's not rocket science.
What set you on this pasta quest, researching this book?
I went to this conference and heard a talk by Dr. Steven Jones of the Bread Lab at Washington State. . . . I never really thought about flour and wheat the way that he was discussing it. Then I went to Italy to research this book, and everybody was talking about the wheat, saying you have to use fresh wheat. In Northern Italy, there were these old ladies making everything with their hands, and they were saying you have to use stone-milled wheat. And I was, like, wow, what is happening here? The reason is, and this is what was so eye-opening for me, fresh wheat is used for the actual flavor. To understand that wheat has flavor is something that is really new to all of us. And I thought it was something worth looking into. And that is what kind of laid the foundation for the book. In the past, when you talk about flour, it's like, oh, just let me have a bag of flour. And that lily-white flour has absolutely no flavor, no anything, so once you start playing around with this fresh-milled wheat and you eat things made out of it - well, that just adds another layer. For me it just kind of opened up a lot of different things.
Are you getting local wheat and milling it now?
Yeah! We have a really nice mill at Vetri, and we are milling some, and we are looking all over the place for wheat, getting some locally, some from Anson Mills in North Carolina, also from New York. We are also working with local farmers, letting them have some seeds, and we are going to start to analyze the soil and to figure out what can actually work here. There used to be tons of wheat grown here, but not lately.
You got a huge response to your Huffington Post piece about gluten intolerance. Why do so many people seem to be having problems digesting wheat?
I think there may be some people out there who are getting rashes from even listening to us talk about wheat. The obvious thing is that if you eat store-bought white bread, that actually starts off as this lily-white flour, that is loaded with vital wheat gluten and baked into a loaf within four hours, that is not going to be healthy for you. There isn't any fermentation happening. There isn't any fiber, there aren't any nutrients in it. . . . My wife was eating this Ezekial bread with all these nuts and seeds and she is, like, "I think I'm allergic to gluten." And I'm, like, "Look at the ingredients. It is loaded with extra wheat gluten." You really start to realize, this is what is normal for us, to eat these kinds of breads. When you eat things made with freshly milled flour, it's a completely different thing.
I don't have pasta in my heritage. I didn't make it with my Irish grandma. I've never made pasta from scratch. Is this book for beginners?
This book is for everybody. There are a lot of things in the book that are made just using your hands, like hand-rolled noodles or gnocchi. For me that is one of the most satisfying things and one of the easiest. I honestly think that anyone can do it. We do these lessons in the upstairs rooms at Vetri. I love having folks there and showing them how easy it is. I literally make everything from scratch and they watch and they are amazed. There were eggs, some flour, some tomatoes, and now there is this amazing thing. And it all happens within an hour and they are all eating it, and they're, like, "Wow!" They go home and they can do it - usually . . . sometimes. It's not hard.
Makes 4 servings
11/2 pounds russet potatoes (about 2 large or 4 small)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 egg, beaten (beat whole egg, then pour half out)
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tipo 00 flour, or 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, plus some for dusting
1. To make the gnocchi, combine the potatoes (unpeeled) and salted water to cover by 1 inch in a saucepan. Cover, bring the water to a boil over high heat, and boil until a knife slides easily in and out of the potatoes, 25 to 30 minutes.
2. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the potatoes to a cutting board. Immediately peel off and discard the skins. (Wear gloves if the potatoes feel too hot to handle.) Coarsely chop the potatoes, and then pass them through a potato ricer or food mill fitted with the fine die onto a large, lightly floured cutting board or smooth work surface, covering the board or surface with potatoes. (Spreading out the potatoes helps excess moisture evaporate.) Let the potatoes stand for 5 minutes, and then sprinkle the Parmesan and nutmeg evenly over the top. Season the potatoes with salt and pepper and then use a bench scraper to cut all of the seasonings into the potatoes, repeatedly scraping and mixing the ingredients until well-blended. Taste the mixture, adding more salt and pepper until it tastes good to you. Use the bench scraper to stir in the egg. Finally, gently stir in the flour just until the dough comes together.
3. Gently knead the dough just until it has a uniform consistency, about 1 minutes. Be careful not to overwork the dough or it will develop excess gluten, which will make the gnocchi tough. Flour the bench scraper or a knife and cut the dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece on the floured surface into a long rope about 1/2 inch in diameter. Use the floured bench scraper or knife to cut the rope crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces. You can cook the pillows as they are, or you can press your thumb into each piece to create a slight indentation. Or, for the traditional potato gnocchi shape, roll each piece on a lightly floured grooved gnocchi board, pressing one cut side of the dough with your thumb to create a grooved oval shape with a gap in the middle. Let the dough roll around your thumb as you press and roll it on the board. You can also use a clean comb or the tines of a fork to create the grooves. As the gnocchi are formed, transfer them to a generously floured, rimmed baking sheet and shake the baking sheet to dust the gnocchi with the flour.
4. Cover the gnocchi loosely and refrigerate them for up to 8 hours; or freeze them in a single layer and then transfer them to a zipper-lock bag and freeze them for up to 2 weeks. Take the gnocchi straight from the freezer to the boiling water, adding 30 seconds or so the cooking time.
5. Have ready a bowl of ice water. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water, in batches, if necessary, to prevent crowding, and cover the pot to quickly return the water to a low boil. Adjust the heat so that the water simmers, stirring gently. Cook the gnocchi until springy to the touch and tender throughout, 3 to 5 minutes. Squeeze a dumpling between your fingers. It should have some bounce-back. If it just flattens, the gnocchi are not done yet. Using a spider strainer or slotted spoon, immediately transfer the gnocchi to the ice water and let them sit in the water for 30 seconds to stop the cooking. Transfer the gnocchi to dry kitchen towels and pat them dry.
6. To serve, heat the butter and olive oil in a large nonstick sauté pan over high heat. Add the gnocchi, in batches if necessary to prevent crowding, and sauté them until they are golden brown on both sides, 5 to 8 minutes total. Dish out the sautéed gnocchi onto warmed plates.