Fresh pasta and gnocchi
By Karen BarrFeatures Business and Operations Profiles Trends
Carrying on the cultural traditions of Italy with seasonal updates
In the competitive restaurant industry, there is a need to differentiate. While patrons dine out for an evening away from cooking, or as a gathering place with friends and family, still others search to enjoy something they do not make at home every day. Homemade pasta and gnocchi are drawing cards.
Casa Mia Ristorante, Niagara Falls, Ont.
At Casa Mia Ristorante, in Niagara Falls, Ont., Chef Luciana Mollica oversees the kitchen. “I want every guest to feel welcome, like a friend that has been invited into my home for dinner,” Mollica says. Guests can choose to dine in the intimate dining room, the casual bar, the private garden room, or even the wine library.
Luciana purchased the business with her husband, Genesio, and son Domenic more than 30 years ago. Their son Claudio is also part of the family business. “We proudly continue to produce fresh homemade pasta to carry on cultural traditions from Italy, brought here by my parents,” he says. “It creates an authentic, delicious, and memorable dining experience for our clients. This helps us stand out in the marketplace, while satisfying our passion, and fulfilling our guests’ needs.”
In the kitchen Luciana, Genesio and Claudio all work together. “We hand create gnocchi, cannelloni, ravioli, agnolotti, lasagna and many different cuts and shapes with our pasta machine,” Claudio explains. “These include spaghetti, linguine, fettucine, pappardelle, super-fine lengths of fini fini, thick strands of bigoli, rotini, rigatoni, and shell-shaped conchiglie. We make 50-60 kilos of pasta here each week. We use a motorized pasta machine, which has a stainless-steel hopper or mixer, for us to add our flour and eggs, which gets extruded through bronze dies.”
Claudio says the secret to making perfect pasta starts with quality ingredients. “We use 00 flour, semolina, all-purpose flour, or ancient grains like faro or kamut. In Niagara, we have access to farm-fresh eggs. Kneading egg pasta for a long time helps to activate gluten and creates a silky pasta. Proper cooking and appropriate sauces for each shape really makes a difference.”
Summer pasta menu items include homemade rigatoni, with shrimp, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes. Another favourite is bottarga, or conchiglie with the Italian cured meat guanciale, snow peas, pecorino Romano cheese and mint.
In the fall, pappardelle with a wild mix of mushrooms, includes porcini, oyster mushrooms and chanterelles. Butternut squash ravioli, with brown butter sage sauce, gets a hint of sweetness, through amaretti cookie crumbs.
Pasta dishes become heartier in the winter. “We like to make Bolognese, with lasagna, or any egg noodle. We make our own Bolognese with the trim from beef, and veal tenderloin, or ground wagyu beef.
In the spring, the pasta menu lightens up. Bigoli with wild ramps, wild morel mushrooms and asparagus is a highlight. Another popular dish is spring pea and ricotta filled agnolotti, with Atlantic lobster, butter sauce and Parmigiano.
Valley Restaurant, St. Catharines, Ont.
Tucked away in a residential area of west end St. Catharines, in the Niagara region, sits the 70-seat Valley Restaurant. Close to Sunset Beach, it draws locals, and visitors on weekend retreats to wine country. The restaurant has been around for 60 years. Initially, a beachside hamburger joint was extended into an Italian restaurant. Allan and Nadia Sawatsky bought the restaurant five years ago. The couple was inspired by their travels to Italy, combined with a love of the local ingredients in lush Niagara.
Nadia, who develops all the recipes, added handmade pasta and gnocchi to the menu, upon purchasing the restaurant. “When making fresh pasta, you can’t rely on a recipe. It is completely dependent on the weather. Sometimes, you need more water, other times it’s more flour. Making the perfect pasta is all about years of experience. All our pastas are made by hand. We don’t use anything packaged,” Nadia says.
There are always two people on the team of nine, including Nadia, who share the task of making fresh pasta daily, as well as the restaurant’s bread and desserts. Using an electric machine they make spaghetti, penne and linguine, both plain, and the lemon pepper variety. For fettuccini and orecchiette, they use a manual machine with a turn and crank handle.
A pasta menu favourite is classic lasagna with meat, and three kinds of cheeses, including ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella. Spaghetti with meatballs, crafted from pork, beef, and veal, have a house-made tomato sauce. An elevated spaghetti is the Spaghetti Nero. Here the pasta is made with squid ink. Additional seafood added consists of clams, mussels, scallops, jumbo shrimp, and squid, which are cooked in a lemon, white wine sauce, with a hint of chilies, to round out the flavourful dish.
Spinach ravioli envelopes spinach and ricotta cheese, in a sage tomato and Gorgonzola cream sauce, with crispy pancetta. Then, there is the house-rolled, portobello-stuffed cannelloni, baked, and topped with truffle cream reduction sauce.
Potatoes are cooked a day in advance to cool and rest, before being made into gnocchi. “With gnocchi, we want it to be light and pillowy. It can’t be overworked,” Nadia advises. The gnocchi, with a Gorgonzola cream sauce, pancetta and sundried tomatoes, is a menu favourite.
La Roma, Ottawa
At La Roma restaurant, in Ottawa’s Little Italy, they still make pasta and gnocchi by hand, just like they have for the past 40 plus years. Every week, Ian Cherry and his assistant Courtney Pearl, who also creates all the pastry, make up 15-20 kilograms of fresh pasta. This includes basics like fettuccini, penne, sheets for lasagna and ravioli. Ear-shaped orecchiette, handkerchief-shaped fazzoletti and twisted gemelli are also part of the mix. What is the secret to perfect pasta? “Lots of flour, quality ingredients and patience,” Cherry says.
In the dining room, La Roma’s head chef, Ilya Dyagilev, has the task of transforming the pasta into delectable menu items in the winter, which may be ravioli with braised beef, in a rose cognac sauce. Handmade lasagna is turned into a dish when layered, with a meat sauce of pork, veal and beef, along with béchamel, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese.
In the summer, Dyagilev lightens the menu with a tossed dish of gemelli, with sundried tomatoes, olives, garlic, basil and slivered almonds and aglio olio. Fettuccine Pescatore consists of shrimp, scallops, mussels and crab meat all in a velvety rose sauce. Gnocchi is served in a light tomato sauce, topped with their own fresh ricotta and sprigs of basil.
While La Roma is a fine-dining restaurant, they also have a takeaway menu for a more casual dining experience at home. Lasagna for Two or handmade gnocchi in packages is available, along with a number of bottled sauces. Fozzoletti for Two is stuffed with ricotta and spinach, in a tomato béchamel sauce, with Parmigiano and mozzarella cheese.
La Roma also sells a Date Night for Two package. It contains handmade gnocchi, tomato sauce, whipped ricotta, crostini, marinated olives, two loaves of par-baked olive bread, cannoli and even cooking instructions.
Adding fresh pasta and gnocchi to restaurant menus brings the authentic flavour of Italy to your restaurant and the palate of your customers.
Karen Barr writes about arts, culture and cuisine. She is a graduate of George Brown College and is a Red Seal pastry chef.
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