Pasta Pasta Pasta

Sisters Margherita and Valeria Simili taught the celebrated cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna at their small Bologna cooking school, Corsi di Cucina Sorelle Simili, from 1986 to 2001. They wore crisp white cotton blouses, strings of pearls, glasses on thin gold chains, straight skirts and linen pants, and soft leather sandals. And, they wore aprons. Everything about them was classic. With handsome faces full of character, they weren’t today’s Food Channel femme fatales—they were better; they were the real thing. In fact, they are our heroes, wonderful cooks who taught and encouraged home cooking.

So we take their lead and do as they, and so many other good Italian cooks, do—we make homemade pasta for the holiday season. The festivities take precedence, and we set aside our day-to-day work to do some big-deal cooking. We clear the books and papers from our worktables and wipe those tables clean. Then we put on our aprons. We are ready to roll.

We give ourselves over to the process; nothing is hurried. Our floury hands keep us from answering our phones, texts, or emails. We put on music and roll sheet after sheet of smooth spinach and egg pasta. We make our version of the Simili sisters’ magnificent recipe for lasagne Bolognese—layers of silky spinach pasta, rich Bolognese sauce, creamy balsamella, and grated parmigiano-reggiano. It is a dish for Christmas. We also make one of our families’ recipes, cannelloni, involving squares of the sheerest egg pasta rolled around a chicken forcemeat, then covered in velvety balsamella and a bright tomato sauce. We serve two per person to begin the dinner and the first bites never fail to quiet the entire table—the cannelloni are so delicate, yet each mouthful is completely satisfying.

While we work, we tell each other stories of our families. One such story is about an Italian uncle who made wine in his basement, and on Christmas Eve after dinner he would take over the family’s small kitchen. He’d play Italian opera records on their old Victrola and while Enrico Caruso sang his heart out, Uncle Fred would pour himself a small tumbler of his own “Dago red” and begin. His specialty was Christmas ravioli, learned from watching his mother, as all Italians do. The kids would sit on chairs pushed up against the wall to watch the spectacle. ­Uncle Fred would roll out that pasta by hand until it eventually covered the top of the kitchen table and draped over the sides. Then he’d run a fluted ravioli cutter over the sheet, dividing it into a grid of scalloped squares, and dollop meat filling (which he’d made the night before) onto each one. He would fold and seal the ravioli, lay them out on cornmeal-dusted kitchen towels, and leave them on the cold back porch until Christmas lunch the next day. It wasn’t Christmas until Uncle Fred made his ravioli. It’s essential to have heroes like the Similis and Uncle Fred—they go before us and show us the way.