At Agriturismo Cretaiole, Thursday night is pasta night. Guests return from a busy day of tooling around Tuscan hill towns and wineries to make pasta — specifically, the local hand-rolled noodles, called pici.
After a lively week of group bonding, all of the guests pack into the glassed-in veranda. They squeeze behind rustic tables with a hubbub of anticipation. In front of each small group is an oversized, rough-wood board with just the right texture for rolling noodles.
In one corner of the room, our agriturismo host, Isabella, stands at a small table and addresses the group. The board in front of her is piled high with a 10-pound mountain of flour. She explains — with the seasoned confidence of someone who’s taught hundreds, maybe thousands, of travelers how to make perfect pasta — the precise procedure.
First, she dredges out a crater in the top of her flour mountain, turning it into a volcano. Into this precarious container she cracks eight eggs. She gingerly beats the eggs with a fork, gradually sprinkling in water — a few drops at time — as she pulls in more and more flour from the lip of the crater. With each stir, the sea of eggy goo threatens to breach the fragile walls. But gradually, liquid turns to solid. And with one last vigorous stir, it becomes a mound of sticky dough.
It’s time to knead. Isabella carefully explains the importance of keeping the “cut” — or, in more pleasant terms, the “smile” — facing you at all times. After each knead, you rotate the dough a quarter-turn, then repeat. It’s a steady rhythmic, motion — like waves crashing on a beach: Pull, push, push, rotate. Pull, push, push, rotate.
Each family huddles around their communal wad, taking turns. Isabella circulates through the room, gently correcting our awkward technique. “Done?” someone asks her. She sticks an accusing finger deep into the center of the seemingly finished ball of dough, and withdraws a sticky fingertip. “Not done yet,” she says. “Keep going.”
Finally, the dough is ready, and it’s time to make the pasta. Pici (pronounced “pee-chee”) are peasant noodles. Pici are hand-rolled — not neatly extruded from a metal tube. But it’s deceptively tricky to master.
Here’s the technique: Cut off a hunk of dough, hold it in your left hand, and roll it with your right. Continually massage the dough with the heel of your hand against the cutting board, always gently tugging on the dough clump to tease out a strand. It’s harder than it sounds. Too little pressure, and you get thick, inedible ropes. Too much pressure, and it breaks into bits. But if you do it right, you get pasta shaped like a four-foot-long earthworm. This is where those special boards come in: They offer just enough texture to provide friction for rolling the pici, but not so much that it sticks.
Families take turns rolling their pici, offering each other tips and encouragement. Some people go fast. Others go slow. Some pick up the technique immediately, churning out long strands of perfectly uniform noodle. Others can’t quite get the hang of it, and spend most of their time pinching together broken strands…while nervously eyeing Isabella across the room, hoping she doesn’t notice.
I take a break to head outside, where I find Isabella’s husband Carlo at the grill. His roaring fire has died down, and he’s repositioning his glowing coals. Carlo gently nestles his pork sausage and ribs onto the hissing grill.
In the little garden shed nearby, Isabella has brought a 20-gallon pot of water to a rolling boil. To season the noodles, Isabella pours three generous handfuls of coarse salt into the water. It tastes as salty as soup. Then she drops in the handfuls of pici, which squirm around the bubbles like miniature eels.
In just five minutes — when the water starts to foam up — it’s done. Isabella tosses the pici with some meat ragù she’s been simmering all day long, then takes the giant, overflowing, stainless-steel bowl back to the veranda.
At Cretaiole, pasta night is also potluck night. Each guest brings down a salad, side dish, or dessert they’ve prepared in their apartment. Some use it as an opportunity to try out recipes they’ve picked up at cooking classes this week: a radicchio salad with pecorino and fennel, or a lightly sweetened, simple ricortta. Others import favorites from back home — my mother-in-law’s apple crisp (made with Tuscan apples) is a hit.
Settling in to a delicious (and hard-earned) dinner, the Cretaiole guests chatter and drink and eat and laugh. Old Man Luciano shows up, clutching bottles of Vin Santo and grappa that he’ll be sharing later in the evening. Once-strangers, now-friends animatedly discuss all they’ve experienced this week. That great art museum in Siena. That stunning scenery from the drive to Monticchiello. Adorable Milli, our canine companion who sniffed out truffles during our hike through a wooded valley. People swap the Italian words they’ve learned and the Italian gestures they’ve mastered.
Digging into my pici, I screw my index finger deep into my cheek, then wave my hand alongside my head: Delizioso! The noodles we made are firm but tender. Each noodle clings to just the right amount of flavorful ragù, exactly as it was designed to do. As time stands still around this convivial dinner table — so far from home, yet so familiar — it’s clear why here in Tuscany, the traditional ways are still the very best ways.