I spent a week helping in a restaurant kitchen in Sardinia. I learned how to make ravioli—and that there is no real mystery to great foodby Wendell Steavenson / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Whenever I make ravioli they disintegrate. The pasta is too fragile or the filling too wet and the little parcels stick together, leak and tear. My birthday was coming up and, for a gift, I wanted nothing less than the answer to the mystery of ravioli. My mother, an organisational superhuman, (lists, dear, lists!) found me a week-long spot in a friend of a friend of a friends’ well-reputed fish restaurant, Al Tuguri, in Alghero on the west coast of Sardinia.
And so I arrived at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning, my knives wrapped up in a dishcloth, and was set to work immediately by Miriam, the diminutive, tough, wry daughter of the proprietor Benito. She had me deboning filaments of poached skate for a dish of linguine con razza. The skate flesh was then kept under oil, and this was my first revelation: storing the fish this way preserved and softened the flesh, in turn, the oil took on its flavour and was used as the base for the sauce.
“Here, like this, skate oil in the pan. A little chopped tomato. Only a little. Stop! Enough. Now salt.” Miriam was 29 and had been working in her father’s restaurant since she was 14. Six days a week she was in the kitchen at 8.30am for morning prep, then lunch service, afternoon nap for a couple of hours and finally back at 6.30pm for the evening rush that lasted, in high season, past midnight. Her mother did the coffees and desserts, her brother waited in the dining room. Miriam had the special touch, the taste, the nuance of pasta. After the skate oil hissed against the raw tomato for a few seconds, a couple of ladles of boiling pasta water were added. Miriam shook the pan, swirling roughly. “Because it’s oil and water, and they must mix.” She put her nose in the steam, to check its amalgamated progress.
Meanwhile the linguine was boiling towards that just-right point of al dente. She turned the fire off under the tomato base, added the skate, then put in a few threads of basil. When the pasta was cooked it…