At Pasta Classica's small shop in Smith Street, Melbourne a daily changing display of colourful pasta shapes has graced the front window for more than 20 years.
From home-made spaghetti and fettucine to gnocchi, cannelloni, and custom orders of colourful pasta shapes and fillings, this artisan pasta producer is one of the city"s great undiscovered gems.
But even if the name is not familiar, the pasta probably is. Supplying five-star hotels, catering companies and some of Melbourne's most acclaimed restaurants, the retail store is only a small part of the family-owned and run business. In a factory in Coburg, Daniel Tonin oversees the production of thousands of beautifully shaped filled pasta and cut pasta each week, a small selection of which is sold to its loyal retail customers and served for lunch in Pasta Classica's tiny cafe.
Tonin's parents started the business more than 20 years ago while they were running Mamma Vittoria, the family restaurant across the road from the Smith Street store. He grew up surrounded by pasta-making, not only as a business but as part of the family culture.
"Pasta is a dish that is traditionally made, cooked and eaten as a family," says Tonin. "You would never make just one dish of pasta, it would always be a big family enterprise with all the adults and children helping."
The work in pasta is all in the preparation rather than the cooking says Tonin. "We may slave over making the pasta, but we always finish it simply."
Tonin's tortelloni recipe is the perfect example of the philosophy – a little bit of work to start and then fast cooking and a simple sauce designed to feed a family economically and quickly.
There are as many methods for making pasta as there are Italian families and regions, but the basics are consistent – good-quality ingredients, treated simply.
Tonin says there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to which pasta should go with which sauce, just a few common-sense combinations. "Dishes such as gnocchi can take a heavier sauce like a ragu or sauces made with game or slow-cooked meats. The longer and finer the pasta the lighter the sauce should be – such as clams or alio e olio with spaghetti. The thicker the sauce, the shorter the pasta – a chunky sauce needs a short chunky pasta."
Tonin runs pasta-making masterclasses that have pasta novices soon making simple cut pasta and filled pasta. The thrill of getting your hands dirty and making something delicious to eat from flour, eggs, salt and oil never fades, no matter what your age.
"Nothing should go wrong," says Tonin. "Pasta is very forgiving."
Wet or dry dough
If your dough is too dry, don't add another egg, instead add a little water to help bring it together. Add a little flour to dough that is too wet.
If the dough sticks to the pasta machine and tears, it needs more flour. Turn the handle of the pasta machine in reverse to remove the pasta from the machine. Sprinkle it with flour and try again.
When making the filled tortellini make sure you add only a small amount of filling to each. If the filling is trapped under the edges of the tortellini, it will expand when cooking and the pasta will collapse.
Loosen pasta with flour, place in a sealed container and freeze until needed. Cook pasta straight from the freezer, adding a little extra cooking time.
Buying a pasta machine
Tonin says the rule of thumb is to buy a machine with as few plastic components as possible. He says $70 will get you a good, basic machine. Alternatively, some kitchen appliances, such as the KitchenAid, offer pasta-making accessories.
Recipe: Basic pasta dough
Serves 4-6 people
400g "00" plain flour
4 eggs (59g each)
2 pinches of salt
1 tsp olive oil
This recipe is perfect for cut pasta but also works just as well for filled pasta. A more traditional recipe for filled pasta uses the same ingredients but replaces the whole eggs with 12 egg yolks. If you're after a richer, more golden dough, use the recipe with 12 egg yolks. The unused egg whites can be used for meringues, pavlova or egg white omelettes.
Method (same for both types of dough, basic and traditional)
Place your flour on a large board or directly on to your benchtop. Create a volcano-shaped mound with the flour and then make a well in the centre. Crack the eggs into the well and add the salt and olive oil. Using a fork, lightly beat the eggs, salt and oil, gradually mixing it into the flour until all the flour and egg is combined. Bring the dough together into a ball with your hands and begin to knead, using the heel of your hand and folding the dough over from each corner.
Knead the dough until it is smooth without any visible traces of flour. This will take a little bit of time and elbow grease. The dough will start to change from a rough texture to a smooth, pliable and velvety dough after about five minutes. When the dough is ready, wrap it in cling wrap and rest in the fridge for 20-30 minutes. Remove from the fridge and bring to room temperature, about 10-15 minutes, before using.
When the dough is ready, cut it into four equal pieces. Use a rolling pin to flatten and shape the first piece of dough making sure to create a pointy end. Put the pointy end of the pasta into the pasta machine first.
Pass the dough through the machine at least 2-3 times on each level of thickness, starting with the widest level and moving down to the narrowest. Sprinkle a little flour on each side of the dough to prevent it sticking to the pasta machine. As you move the dough through each level it will begin to take on a smooth, velvety finish. By the last level you should have a long rectangular sheet of pasta. Sprinkle the sheet with flour, set aside, and repeat the process with the remaining dough.
Making the tortelloni
Cut the strips of pasta dough into squares; about 8cm x 8cm is easy for beginners to manage. With a pastry brush, moisten the edges of each square of pasta. Using a piping bag or a teaspoon, place a small amount of filling in the centre of the square. Pick up the square of pasta with the filling and place it in the palm of your hand. Bring one corner of the pasta over to its opposite corner to form a triangle. Firmly press the edges of the pasta together all the way around. Carefully trim the edges of the pasta triangle with a pasta cutter or a knife. Then, with the point of the triangle facing you, bring the other two edges together in a circle and press them together to form the tortelloni shape. Place the finished tortelloni on a flour-dusted board and repeat with the remaining pasta and filling.
Ricotta, parmesan and pepper filling
500g of skim milk ricotta
35g of grated Parmesan cheese
3-4 pinches of salt
1-2 pinches of cracked pepper
Remove the ricotta from its packaging and place in a strainer to remove any extra liquid. Place the ricotta in a large mixing bowl and add the grated Parmesan. Mix with a spoon or your hands until smooth. Add pepper and salt to taste. If not using immediately, cover and place in the fridge.
Cooking the tortelloni
Place a large pot of water on the stove and bring it to the boil. Place two tsp of salt in the water with about three tablespoons of olive oil. Place your freshly made tortelloni into the boiling water and stir. Continue stirring the water for the first 30 seconds to make sure the tortelloni don't stick to the pot or to each other. Replace the lid and return the water to the boil. Cook the tortelloni for 8-10 minutes. Prepare the sauce while the pasta is cooking. Remove the pasta from the pot with a slotted spoon and serve with the sauce.
Lemon zest, zucchini and goat's cheese sauce
30g lemon zest
300g grated zucchini (using the larger of the holes on a grater)
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2-3 pinches of salt
4-6 tbsp olive oil
1-2 tsp of cracked pepper
5 tbsp/125g goat's cheese
Place a non-stick pan over a high flame and pour four tablespoons of olive oil into the pan. Add a teaspoon of cracked pepper (remember you can always add more seasoning later), two pinches of salt and the garlic. Cook until the garlic is translucent, then add the grated zucchini and cook for about two minutes, stirring all the time. When the zucchini has softened slightly, add the lemon zest, stir through, then remove the pan from the flame. Place the contents of the pan in a serving bowl and then add the goat's cheese and gently combine.
Place four pieces of cooked tortelloni in each dish then add a little sauce. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with fresh oregano or thyme.
Pasta Classica is at 352 Smith Street, Collingwood, 03 9419 2366. www.pastaclassica.com.au