Cooking on memory lane: a class with Aldo Zilli
June 25, 2022
Pasta on the board
Well into her late nineties, my maternal grandmother, Marie, used to make noodles by hand for the two of us when I visited her in Connecticut. Originally from Piemonte, she left Italy before 1914, adopted her grandmother’s French surname and created a new persona for herself. (The French were considered classier than the Italians at that time.) Despite this, and the fact that we often spoke together in French, she never lost her passion for pasta.
“I’ll make us noodles,” she would say.
She’d form a circle of flour on her well-worn pine kitchen table and beat the eggs within it, gradually pulling the flour into the eggs until it was too thick for the fork and it was time to knead. She would pull her rolling pin out from its nook and in no time had fashioned a sheet of pasta she then folded and cut into strips. The result was one of the most delicious, comforting foods imaginable.
Chef Zilli giving the cooking class at Bellavita Academy
These memories came flooding back when I recently attended a cooking class in London with the chef from Abruzzo, Aldo Zilli, in the spacious kitchen of Bellavita Academy and Food Shop near Tower Bridge. Familiar to many in the UK for his restaurants and TV work, Zilli was giving a class to a group of food professionals, some of whom had never made pasta before. We each created our own dough sheet but – and this surprised me – there was not a pasta machine in sight. Zilli had brought his own favourite method for cutting the sfoglia into noodles: a wooden hand machine strung with very thin wires like a guitar. Pasta alla chitarra is a southern Italian speciality and we all took turns rolling the dough along its sharp strings and catching the even noodles below as they dropped.
For the meal, Zilli was showcasing some of Italy’s greatest ingredients, many with denominations of origin that guarantee their provenance and quality. Foods like Prosciutto di Parma DOP (which he wrapped around blanched asparagus and blasted quickly in a hot oven with lashings of butter) and well-aged Parmigiano Reggiano DOP and Pecorino Romano DOP, used for his deep, roasted tomato sauce. There were salumi from Emilia and accents from the south, including bunches of aromatic oregano and salted capers from the Sicilian islands. Balsamic vinegar from Modena and Italian extra-virgin olive oil underpinned these quintessentially Italian flavours.
It’s always worth looking for authentic Italian products when you’re shopping at the supermarket or deli: not only are their food security and production methods guaranteed but their flavours and textures will lift your cooking to a higher level.
“In Italy we are very tied to our regional specialities,” the charismatic Zilli says. “I grew up seeing my mother and grandmother making their own food and I’ve always maintained their passion. The key is to build flavour by respecting your ingredients. Slow-roasting cherry tomatoes and not blending them will give you a much richer, sweeter, sauce. The same with garlic: halve your heads of garlic and wrap them in foil with a little oil and salt and bake them until the garlic has caramelised and can be squeezed out like a paste.”
Zilli’s stracciatella with wild garlic
To top his – or our – pasta Zilli made his own stracciatella. This is a soft cheese made only in the south from buffalo mozzarella and mascarpone. He dropped a whole mozzarella into boiling water for literally two seconds before shredding it into a bowl with his fingers. He added creamy mascarpone and a few spoonfuls of home-made wild garlic pesto for a subtle and rich topping. Delizioso! Almost as good as my grandmother’s!
Chef Aldo Zilli’s pasta alla chitarra with roasted tomatoes and stracciatella