Marc Vetri was born into an Italian-American family in Philly and spent the formative years of his career cooking in Bergamo, Italy, alongside some of the region’s top toques. Shortly after opening his namesake fine-dining eatery in his hometown, Vetri racked up applause with a spot on Food & Wine‘s list of Best New Chefs and, later, a James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. He also has two cookbooks under his belt, Il Viaggio di Vetri, a collection of hits from his restaurants, and Rustic Italian Food, a highly acclaimed tome about bringing artisan cooking into the home kitchen. He’s just released a third: Vetri’s latest work, Mastering Pasta: The Art and Practice of Handmade Pasta, Gnocchi, and Risotto, delves into the ins and outs of making one of Italy’s most beloved foodstuffs.
When Vetri started working on his first book project close to a decade ago, he wanted to write about pasta; however, he put that idea to the side and continued researching for an additional ten years. The book is not just about mixing and rolling out dough; in it, Vetri explores myriad wheat variations and milling techniques — he even suggests ways to grind wheat berries at home.
He admits there was a time when people would ask him how to make pasta, and he would tell them to pick up a bag of 00 flour and go to town. But after attending a conference at Dan Barber’s Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Vetri became fascinated with wheat. Chefs like Ferran Adrià, Michel Bras, and David Bouley were there; however, Vetri’s attention was captivated by a university professor, Dr. Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder from Washington State University. Jones discussed the breadth of wheat varieties in existence, most of which can’t be sold on the commodity market due to the constraints of the industrial food system (mostly shelf life and consistency). The chefs tasted some of the breads made from these varieties, and Vetri was blown away. “I was aware [of wheat], but you sort of fall into the moment,” says Vetri. “You’re just working and, you know, just order the bag of flour and kind of just go through the motions. You read up on stuff and you just don’t follow through.”
After that lecture, though, Vetri found himself on a quest to learn everything he could about wheat, milling, and the differences among the grains. To conduct research for the book, he went to Italy, and his interest only expanded. There, he found chefs and artisans were fresh-milling with stone mills, a process that, unlike the steel roll milling used in industrial flour-making, mixes the entire grain together. Wheat berries are composed of three basic parts: bran, germ, and endosperm. When they’re stone-ground, the endosperm (the only component found in commercial flour) winds up in soft fine white fragments; the bran and germ end in up in larger dark chunks. The mix is then passed through different sieves to obtain different grades, but all the flavor, fiber, and nutrients from the bran and germ are retained.
When Vetri returned from Italy, he decided to spend some time with Jones at his Bread Lab to further research his newfound curiosity. Based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and part of the university’s plant-breeding program, the lab brings together farmers, millers, bakers, and food scientists to study different varietals of wheat. The day Vetri visited, he, Jones, and resident baker Jonathan McDowell switched the focus from bread to pasta. They took different cultivars — like soissons, tevelde, and dayn — ground them fresh, and kneaded them into dough. They used different combinations — whole eggs, egg yolks, water only, olive oil — and compared each combination with different brands of commodity flour, tasting the two versions next to each other. The results were eye-opening. In the freshly ground mixtures, Vetri and the team picked up aromas similar to what you find in wine, with notes ranging from tobacco and nuts to flowers, fruit, and freshly cut grass. “Pasta was never thought of to have flavor component and actually taste like wheat, which has an entire range of nuance,” says Vetri. “But once you start adding a flavor component, all these different things come out, and the sky’s the limit.”
There’s a reason for the difference. Roller-milling is not just easier for industrial producers, but like so many other processes in the commercial food chain, it extends shelf life — a necessity in the grocery store supply chain. The germ, which is rich in vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids, has a high oil content; it makes flour go off fairly quickly. Removing it makes it possible to store flour for longer periods of time, but it also removes the flavor and nutritional benefits.
In his book, Vetri explores the science and technique that goes into making dough. His goal is not just to get readers making pasta in their home kitchens, but to gain a thorough understanding of wheat and flour. “Everyone is always asking me, ‘What’s the flour you use?’ and ‘Do I have to do this or that?’ ” says Vetri. “I just want everyone to understand flour and the properties, so you’re not locked into this or that. It just opens everything else and enables you to do whatever you like.”
For Vetri, the process doesn’t end with the pasta itself; he views pasta as a “singular dish,” not just the noodles and sauce. He delves into the importance of marrying the two together. Each recipe comes with a pasta swap, and Vetri explains why each one works. “A good pasta dish is like a good marriage,” he explains in the intro. “In it, two things become one. It is no longer Bill Smith and Jane Smith, or pasta and sauce. It becomes The Smiths, or a dish of pasta.”
There are only a couple of differences between this sauce and the tomato and basil sauce on page 124. Each starts with tomatoes and garlic sweated in olive oil, but the arrabbiata gets punched up with red pepper flakes and the herb is parsley — a fair amount of it. Otherwise, they’re both simple, straightforward sautés of tomatoes and aromatics. The pasta here is scraps of freshly rolled egg pasta. Use leftovers from making another pasta, or use fresh sheets and cut them into irregular rectangles, diamonds, squares, triangles, or whatever. Maltagliati means “badly cut,” so don’t make them too perfect, or too big or too long. About 3 inches (7.5 cm) square is right. If you opt for dried pasta, use about 2 cups (150 g) of a short shape. And add as much red pepper flakes as you like. It’s not arrabbiata without some kick.
PASTA SWAP So many pastas work in this dish. I use maltagliati to make it more luxurious. But you can easily used dried penne, ziti, or another short shape to make it more traditional.
1/4 cup (60 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 cup (240 g) whole canned San Marzano tomatoes
8 ounces (227 g) Egg Yolk Dough (page 26), rolled into sheets about 1⁄8 inch (3 mm) thick
1/4 teaspoon (0.5 g) red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons (11 g) chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons (13 g) grated Parmesan cheese
Heat the oil and garlic in a large, deep sauté pan over medium heat. Keep the heat on medium so you don’t burn the garlic. A little brown is OK. After about 2 minutes, add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hand as you add them to the pan. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook the tomatoes until they lose their raw tomato flavor, about 10 minutes.
Lay a pasta sheet on a lightly floured work surface. Cut the sheet into irregular shapes about 3 inches (7.5 cm) square. This pasta is traditionally made from pasta scraps, so the pieces should not be perfect. Just cut them any which way. Repeat with the second sheet. Dust the pieces with flour, cover them, and use them within 1 hour or refrigerate them for up to 4 hours. You can also freeze them in a single layer, transfer them to a zipper-lock bag, and freeze them for up to 1 month. Take the pasta right from the freezer to the boiling pasta water.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the maltagliati and cover the pot to quickly return the water to a boil. Cook the pasta until it is tender but still a little chewy when bitten, about 2 minutes. Using a spider strainer or slotted spoon, drain the pasta by transferring it to the pan of tomato sauce. Reserve the pasta water.
Add 1/2 cup (118 mL) of the pasta water, the pepper flakes, and the parsley to the pan and cook over medium-high heat, tossing and stirring vigorously, until the sauce reduces slightly, becomes creamy, and coats the pasta, about 1 minute. Keep the pasta moving until pasta and sauce become one thing in the pan. Taste it, adding salt and pepper until it tastes good to you.
Dish out the pasta onto warmed plates and garnish each serving with some of the Parmesan.