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Learn to make pasta like an Italian mama in Bologna


The dough is draped precariously over the edge of the table. Another centimetre and it will be on the floor. The cooks, rolling pins beneath their palms, are frantically working on the rest of the doughy mass still on the table.

The force of gravity must be harnessed to stretch out the “sfoglia” — the rolled out dough — as far as it can go, hence the use of the table’s edge. Making your own pasta is not an easy undertaking. At least, not in Bologna.

“Roll it out, keep on rolling it out, faster, faster,” commands Luisa Mambelli while her group of students are at the table, feverishly working with their “matterellos” or rolling pins.

The dough must not be allowed to dry out. “Everything can influence the consistency of the dough — the light, the humidity, how many people are in the room,” says Luisa.

With her short blond hair and jeans, Luisa does not fit the stereotype of an Italian “mama” — but she certainly knows what she’s doing. Several times a month, she welcomes strangers into her kitchen to teach them how to make pasta.

There is no better place than Bologna for learning this artful skill. Capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, the city is famous for its culinary specialties. It was here that mortadella and tortellini were invented.

But spaghetti bolognese, despite the sound of its name, has nothing to do with Bologna, and Luisa is dismissive: “Nonsense. Spaghetti bolognese? This does not exist in Italy at all.”

Meat sauce is called “ragu” and is not served with spaghetti, but with tagliatelle, a noodle that can soak up the sauce better because it is wider.

Luisa holds her cooking courses as a way of countering such misunderstandings. And yet, she is not a professional cook, but rather a housewife — or, if you prefer, a “cesarine,” as the women in the kitchen are fondly called in a nod to the once-mighty caesars who ruled ancient Rome.

“Le Cesarine” is the name of the club that offers the cooking courses. Luisa has been a member for ten years now.

Le Cesarine is an initiative of Egeria di Nallo, a professor at Bologna University. She wanted to make sure that family recipes and the traditional art of making pasta should not be forgotten.

So she created Le Cesarine in 2004, so that Italian housewives can hand down their cooking skills to both local residents and tourists alike. A course, including the meal afterwards, costs around 50 euros ($55) per person.

The dinner is often only of secondary importance. Tourists above all want to become acquainted with the locals. Before the course, they go out shopping together, winding their way through the narrow alleyways to the Piazza Maggiore, the main square.

Here, the store shelves are filled with yellow-golden chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, juicy slabs of Parma prosciutto, and precious bottles of balsamic dressing from Modena.

And, of course, fresh pasta products. In many of the “laboratorio di pasta fresca” the city’s small pasta-making shops, the pasta is made right before the customers’ eyes. The most famous one is the tiny “Le Sfogline” shop that Monica Venturi and her sister Daniela took over from their mother 20 years ago. They produce pasta products only on demand.

Back in Luisa Mambelli’s kitchen, the preparation of pasta in this introductory course takes a good two hours. “No matter —next time it will go faster,” she tells the group.

But it’s worth the effort — the freshly made pasta tastes as if made by a genuine cesarine. Simply divine. — DPA

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