That’s all it takes to make homemade pasta: flour and water.
When those two ingredients are kneaded together by hand, the result is an impeccable Italian dish popular around the globe. It’s even better when that simple dough is worked by the skilled hands of an Italian Nonna (grandma).
An education from food
It’s no surprise that we are foodies. Whenever we visit a new country, food is one of our favorite ways to learn about the culture. While history books and museums are informative, food speaks volumes as well!
Cultural meals are loaded with fresh ingredients grown near the village or in a community garden. Local recipes date from times long gone, from the era of wars when ingredients were rare, from the days of famine when variety was slim, from the seasons of plenty due to increased globalization.
And in our experience (24 European countries and counting), food is an open door.
Food reveals the climate. What is sold in the weekly farmer’s market? What do you see in the fields on the outskirts of town? Peek into a backyard and see what’s growing in their small garden.
Food teaches you history. Pasta used to be made with flour, water, and eggs until eggs were too expensive for the poor. Romania serves more meat than vegetables because meat is prevalent all year round. Germans are known for their beer because monks used to brew it in their monasteries.
Food helps you learn the language. Let’s be honest, looking at a menu in a foreign language can be an adventure. But you’ve gotta eat! So it helps to learn a few basic words: chicken, beef, potatoes, salad, bread, water, etc.
Food connects you with others. How many times have you sat in a local restaurant in a foreign country and struck up a conversation with the people at a nearby table? We’re never shy to ask what they ordered (especially when an appetizing dish gets delivered) or to see what the waiter recommends. And don’t forget that your airbnb host or hotel staff are locals, which means they can tell you about their favorite foods or restaurants in town.
Handmade pasta with an Italian Grandma
Speaking of airbnb, we had this once-in-a-lifetime experience in Italy! Me (Jana), Brett, and Jana’s parents were spending a week together in Tuscany in September 2016.
We were talking with our kind hostess, and she casually mentioned that our airbnb rental was owned by her elderly parents. She (the daughter) handled bookings, reservations, and communication with the guests. Her mother took care of laundry and cleaning.
Naturally curious, we asked if we could meet her mother.
(Wait, ”Why did we want to meet an elderly Italian grandma? Well, Jana’s mom is 100% Italian, although born and raised in the USA. And Jana has Italian citizenship. Plus our family is hard-core foodies. So it just felt normal to want to meet this sweet Italian grandma!)
We scheduled to meet her the following day. Does she make homemade pasta? My mom snuck in before the daughter left. I would love to learn how to make pasta from a real Italian grandma! To our surprise, the daughter told us that her mother would love to teach us.
Fast forward to the next day. My mom and I walked over to grandma’s house. This sweet Nonna didn’t speak English, but her daughter was there to translate. Nonna took us to her backyard garden, where we picked vine-ripened tomatoes, dirt-caked carrots, and handfuls of fresh herbs for our sauce.
Once inside her cosy kitchen, we chopped vegetables and got them simmering on the stove.
Then we followed her into the dining room. She had a large wooden board laid over her table: the infamous pasta-making board, a staple in every Italian Nonna’s kitchen.
We watcher her scoop a handful of farina (flour) into the center of the board. She motioned that she portions approximately one handful of pasta per person. After the pile was finished, she made a second pile, explaining that we would made one pasta with uovo (egg) and one pasta without eggs.
She made a well in the middle and poured water into both, then cracked one egg per person into the other. We were like toddlers glued to the television as she kneaded the dough. No language was needed when she handed a piece to us to knead for a few minutes. Our conversation was nonstop despite the language barrier (with plenty of gestures and hand miming included).
Now the dough needed to rest before cutting. We checked on the sauce, simmering to perfection and smelling like the best sweet red sauce you’ve ever tasted.
Meanwhile, Nonno (grandpa) came into the room with a bottle and a few glasses. He proudly wanted to us to try his homemade alcohol. Seriously, Italians are so friendly! We sipped on the drink, which was tasty but potent, and conversed until it was finally time to cut the pasta.
In the blink of an eye, Nonna had rolled out a massive sheet of dough. If you’ve ever worked with dough, you know it takes a few minutes to roll out, but Nonna impressively did it in just a minute or two…showing off her years of pasta-making expertise.
We sliced the egg-less dough into fettucini-like strips, then attempted to roll out the other dough into worm-like shapes with our palms.
We dropped the birdnests of pasta into two different pots of boiling water (after generously sprinkling tablespoons of salt into the water, which Nonna claimed was an important step.) Minutes later we carried the pasta to our nearby airbnb. The proud Nonna couldnâ€™t wait to see our reactions and we couldn’t wait to devour the handmade delicacy.
Our verdict: handmade pasta is the best! And all four of us preferred the poor man’s eggless pasta.
Recipe: Eggless Pasta
“Poor man’s pasta” recipe straight from the kitchen of a sweet Italian Nonna!Ingredients
3/4 cup type 00 flour per person
1/3 cup water per person
Make a well in the flour, and pour in most of the water.
Using a fork, gradually incorporate the flour into the water.
Once the dough begins to clump together, use your hands to incorporate the flour and water together.
Knead by hand for approximately 5 minutes, until the dough is smooth.
Cover with a kitchen towel for at least 30 minutes (but no more than 2 hours).
Roll out the dough on a floured surface (wooden cutting boards work the best). Slice into you desired shape. Fettuccini is perfect for beginners!
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add at least 2 tablespoons of salt.
Cook the pasta until al dente, approximately 3-5 minutes depending on the thickness of your pasta.
Purchase Type 00 flour! Regular all-purpose flour will work, but the dough will be a bit tougher. (What’s the difference? Type 00 is European all-purpose flour, which has a different protein content.)
Don’t roll your dough too thin. You should be able to handle it without ripping. If it’s transparent, knead it back into ball and roll again.
You can dry your pasta by laying it out for 24 hours. Store it in a paper bag for up to 3 months. It will take 10-15 minutes to cook after it has been dried.
Don’t skip the opportunity!
If you ever have a chance to cook or dine with a local, do it! You will learn more about that culture in that one experience than you can imagine: the people, pastimes, heritage, traditions, homes, families, food, and more!
Have you taken a cooking class before? Do you have a favorite European dish that we HAVE to try? Leave us a comment below!
Jana is an SEO copywriter and content editor plus travel YouTuber. She loves all things gelato, sunshine, and words. Her perfect day? Tossing on sunglasses to read a book and catch some rays, then dinner with her husband and friends. In her free time, Jana disciples teen girls and cooks from scratch (like homemade pasta). Jana lives in Switzerland with her husband, Brett.