Lately, I find myself constantly dreaming of pasta. Smooth-as-leather strands of expertly kneaded flour and egg falling through my fingers, a light dusting of flour resting on my hands as the pasta falls to the table. I can feel it as if I am wide awake, rolling the dough myself. I can see the smooth golden hue. But I can’t taste it. It evades me. It’s practically haunting me! And I know why …
Let me give you a little background. My husband and I recently moved to the Highlands, the purchase of our house a leap of faith taken with the promise that we would overhaul the kitchen as soon as the home was in our anxious hands. Fast forward, and we are deep in the midst of a home renovation project. It is going smoothly (knock on wood), but is taking the time it needs to come together in the best way possible. Before the move, I would cook dinner five nights a week, mixing things up and trying my hand at new recipes regularly with the exception of one constant: fresh pasta. My husband and I would tuck into a bowl of homemade noodles every few days, never tiring of it. And now it’s come back to haunt me. So here I am, a food writer without a kitchen. And as we neared the end of another week of carryout meals, I was beginning to think I might actually lose my mind — until last week, when I had the opportunity to attend a cooking class at Gina Stipo’s microrestaurant, At The Italian Table, and her lesson in pasta brought me back to life.
After years living and operating her own cooking school in Tuscany, Ecco La Cucina, Gina decided it was time to bring her knowledge back to the states and set her sights on Louisville, armed with a shipping container overflowing with authentic Italy, including her beloved Fiat.
Gina opened the doors to the tiny dining room and kitchen of At The Italian Table in July, setting up shop in the heart of Clifton, just past the corner of Frankfort and Ewing avenues. Communal dinners are offered Wednesday through Saturday evenings, beginning at 7 p.m., and cooking classes are hosted weekly on Tuesdays, starting at 6:30 p.m. Dining at At The Italian Table is akin to being invited to a friend’s home, room for no more than 18 at one time. You can reserve a seat for one, two or a single large group.
The sun had already dropped from the sky when I arrived at At The Italian Table, and I could spot small candle flames floating from the windows, the warmth extending out of the cozy restaurant, drawing me in. Gina welcomed me warmly, showing me where to toss my purse and hang my coat, moving with ease through a space that is clearly her own. My eyes weren’t sure where to look first, every inch of the three rooms making up the restaurant adorned with photos, art and a general array of trinkets transported directly from Gina’s Italian home to her new Louisville oasis. If she could bring something for the restaurant from Italy, she did, right down to the massive dining table set for that evening’s feast and to the immense buffet of sorts, repurposed and redesigned with an oven and range built in, the countertop made of marble from — you guessed it — Italy.
Classes are typically limited to 10 guests, and we gathered around the dining room table, taking turns selecting wine from the concise and exclusively Italian wine list while mingling quietly. Everyone tended toward the reserved side at the start. The kitchen is open and directly adjacent to the dining table, just where you would expect to find it in any home. Angelina, a culinary student at Sullivan University, began some initial prep, deftly slicing mushrooms and mincing rosemary as Gina welcomed us to her Italian table and offered insights on the culture of Italian food and her life in Italy. She stressed that Italy is both hyper-local and hyper-regional (kind of like StyleBlueprint!), explaining that many dishes often seen in the South are scarce or nonexistent in the North. You cook with what you have on hand at the moment. Don’t expect to find strawberries in the winter. Those are reserved for the summer, when they can be plucked straight from the vine. The same goes for items like cheese. Various varieties of cheese are made throughout the country, based on what type of milk (sheep or cow) is readily available. Whether or not sheep or cows or any livestock at all are on hand depends on the climate and topography, and so on. It’s a domino effect that leads to individualized culinary experiences and turns the Americanized Italian food as we know it on its head.
Her knowledge of the Italian lifestyle knows no bounds, and she continued to transport us to Italy as we made our way into the kitchen, gathering around the stove to begin preparing the first dish of the night.
Crespelle in Brodo — crepes in broth. Having never made crepes before, I was anxious to watch a step-by-step tutorial. We conversed with Gina while she randomly selected individuals to step up to assist with compiling the batter. She cautioned us against overwhisking, which can lead to tough, rubbery crepes. The issue of large clumps of flour remaining is remedied via a quick run through a fine mesh sieve, allowing the batter to come together smoothly, incorporating the flour and ensuring any lumps are removed.
The batter ready, Gina picked up the long arm of a ladle in her left hand and grasped the handle of a small nonstick pan in her right. The pan had warmed on the stove, no additional butter or oil added. Gina quickly poured a ladle of batter into the pan, turning and tilting it immediately, the crepe rolling thinly and evenly over all sides of the pot. After a quick cook on the first side, Gina tipped the side of the crepe up with a rubber spatula and simply pinched the edge between her fingers, flipping it naturally onto the opposite side. Thirty more seconds and the crepe was turned out onto a plate where it patiently awaited its filling. Gina made this look beyond simple; however, when it came time for someone from the group to give it a try, we all stood by timidly. Finally one brave home cook stepped up to the plate and broke the ice for us all. Soon the plate of crepes was growing quickly, each of us making two, the crepe from the second round always better than that from the first pass. Our confidence had begun to grow, and we moved onto our next task: dessert.
With Thanksgiving mere days behind us, Gina was excited to make use of the cranberry jam she had left over from the holiday. It proved to be a perfectly tart filling for the crostata crust the group quickly assembled, a sugary dough kneaded ever so softly and then pushed into a cake pan, the edges trimmed to ensure they were uniform. The cranberry jam was spread to the edges, and then long strands of dough were woven into a lattice over the top. I don’t have many desserts in my arsenal, so this one immediately made the list. It couldn’t have been simpler to construct, and it is an ideal base that can be spun in a hundred creative directions. The crostata was placed in the oven to bake and brown as we continued to the main event, our pasta.
As I mentioned, making pasta from scratch is not new to me. I relish crafting this dough, rolling it thin and catching the long strands of spaghetti between my fingers as they fall from the pasta cutter. I must confess that I’ve always taken a shortcut, however, allowing the dough to come together in the bowl of my KitchenAid machine, forgoing the traditional hands-on method, where a well is formed into a pile of pillowy flour, an egg placed in the center to be mixed into the dough with your fingers. As Gina deftly cracked two eggs into her flour well and began to break the yolks and swirl the egg into the flour, I knew that my days of cheating the system were over. The resulting strands of tagliatelle were far more delicate than any noodle I had ever crafted. By the time we all encircled the table to try our hand at the dough, the wine had been flowing freely and our laughter began to reach a more lively pitch, the mood far looser than at the start of the crepe construction! Sheet after sheet of dough was dusted with flour and lined up, awaiting a run through the pasta cutter.
With the tagliatelle prepped and a large pot of sliced mushrooms cooked down into a rich sauce, we took our seats around the table, anxious to sample our handcrafted Italian feast. The crepes, now at room temperature, were piled high with freshly grated Pecorino Romano and rolled, a piping hot turkey broth, or “brodo” as the Italians call it, poured over the top, gently melting the cheese and warming the crepes. This is simplicity at its finest, and was completely soothing after an evening on our feet in the kitchen. The main event — our tagliatelle with mushroom sauce — was everything I had been dreaming of, the ribbons of egg and flour curling around a rich melee of mushrooms spiked with white wine and parsley.
The conversation was as warm as the food, and we continued to chatter into the evening, picking at crumbs from the cranberry crostata. It felt immeasurably good to be back in a kitchen, working to construct a meal with my own hands. This delicious taste of the old normal made me that much more excited about the new normal that is soon to come. It is only a matter of weeks before I will cover our new countertops in flour and egg, Gina’s lessons in Italian cooking pushing me forward, arming me with the utmost of confidence.
At The Italian Table is located at 2359 Frankfort Ave. Dinner is available Wednesday through Saturday evenings, at 7 p.m., by reservation only, at a cost of $70 per person. Cooking classes are offered Tuesday nights beginning at 6:30 p.m. for $70 per person. For more information visit attheitaliantable.com or call (502) 883-0211 to reserve your seat at At The Italian Table.
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