I came across Le Pincinelle Marchigiane quite by chance. We were getting introduced to an up and coming young chef in Sassoferrato who had restored Agriturismo Antico Muro, a stately building that sits right on top of a major archaeological site just out of the town’s center. We’d just been shown to a large table in the center of the restaurant which sat upon a glass floor, below which one might observe the excavation of Sentinum, the location of a battle fought in 296 bc and won by the Romans against the Samnites, Etruscans, Senones, Gauls and Umbrians who outnumbered them, setting up the Roman domination of central Italy.
Soon chef and owner Guido Mingarelli arrived shouldering a huge pot brimming with one of his colorful specialties, La Pincinelle Marchigiane, dressed with his garden’s vegetables, some great olive oil, and a handful of wild asparagus he’d foraged.
Guido explained that when you made your bread with levitation naturale or what we might call “sourdough starter” you’d also make this pasta.
Cucina povera was born out of saving time, money and effort, and this was as easy a pasta to put together as you ever wanted—and it didn’t contain eggs. Sourdough was leaven for free, compliments of Mom Nature. Perfect cucina povera.
I found a credible recipe on the web from LaGreg, not run by a guy named Greg but a woman named Silvia Gregori, who has a passion for the cooking of her native Le Marche region. She runs a cooking school, too, called Fabrica del Gusto where you (or your kids) can learn to cook the specialties of her region.
Recipe: The Mutant Pincinelle of James Martin
I’m no pasta-making whiz. That will be evident in the pictures. Still, the process of making this sourdough specialty pasta from the laboratory of the poor kitchens of Le Marche was a snap. Forming it? Well, I’ve failed the process many times in cooking schools all over Italy. I imagine many Italian women hide from me when I come for a cooking class.
In any case, if you have clicked upon the recipe touted by LaGreg (link above) you will see the Pincinelle after being formed by the hands of a master. Mine came out like fat earthworms, but they looked quite, um, shall we say “organic” in the sauce, a cupful of leftover elk ragu, Here they are, as they writhed deliciously upon the sauce in the pan, waiting for me to let them integrate into the elk compost.
Here’s the recipe ingredients:
200 grams of all-purpose flour (Italians use farina 0)
150 grams of starter
a pinch of salt
water as required
This will feed 2-3 people as a “piatto unico” or a single plate that makes a meal. If it’s part of a “real” Italian meal with a meat course following, it’ll easily make 4-5 smaller portions.
Don’t worry about the water as required. If you’ve made pasta before you’ll know how it should feel. Italians use a denser starter or “levito madre” so they’d need more water. My starter was wetter, so only a few tablespoons of water were needed.
So I mixed all the ingredients, adding water until my fingers sensed perfection and the dough held together nicely. Then I let it rest for half an hour.
Then came the tricky part. I tore off a hunk of dough about the size of a golf ball, rolling it on a floured board until it was shaped like a fat little sausage. Then, finding the pasta wouldn’t hold to the floured board to further thin the shape, I transferred to an unfloured board and rolled it until it was about as thick as an earthworm. Thusly:
To get this shape, started with my hands working from the inside of the dough to the outside and began rolling it, so that the dough was stretched and rolled at the same time.
Now all I had to do was whack each long worm into 3-4 inch pieces and throw them in the floured board with all the others.
Then, to account for the “mutant” bit in the title, I warmed the elk sauce and cooked the pasta about three minutes in abundant boiling and aggressively salted water.
You see, if I were actually following the tradition of the fine people of Le Marche I wouldn’t cover the pasta with a big, meaty sauce, I’d go to the garden and gather some spring vegetables, or I’d get some small artichokes and saute them in good olive oil with a little garlic.
Nevertheless, here it is with a bit of grated cheese on top:
It made a fine lunch. Yes, the delicate flavors of the pasta were rather lost in the sauce, but I’ll try again soon. There is an excellent perfume from the pasta itself that needs to be married to some delicate vegetable flavors.
I gotta try that. Soon.
Epilogue: The Sourdough Pasta Evolves
I have to admit, I had a lot of Le Pincinelle Marchigiane left over after our little lunch, so I ran it through the pasta machine to make sheets, then cut it badly. That made maltagliata. Then we purchased about 8 small artichokes, called “baby” artichokes in the US. I trimmed and chopped the artichokes in small pieces and added them to a pan in which I was sauteeing garlic, an anchovy, and a tablespoon of tomato paste in some good olive oil. The pasta went in the pan after cooking it and that became the dish. Simple. And the pasta worked much better with the sauce; you could taste its slight sourness under the artichokes. Notice that the pasta isn’t oversauced. It’s not just the cucina povera, it’s the balance between a fine pasta and the condiment.
Notes on cutting boards and the like
When we learned the art of Sardinian pastries in Sedilo, Sardinia we stayed at the house of a friend, Antonio. A neighbor taught us. When she entered the pristine kitchen, she immediately removed some oilcloth covering a rather primitive, homemade table. While cleaning the surface of the table, she told this story:
When Antonio’s mother died, all the women in the village wanted this table. You see, one day Antonio’s mother told her husband she would need a new place to work on bread and pastry. She told him exactly the specifications for the table. Then he set out for a long while, hunting for wood that had the grain structure she was looking for. When he had finally found it, he made the table, topped with the perfect wood with the right grain for working dough. It became the talk of the town.
Notes on tasting a better version of Le Pincinelle Marchigiane
The town of Sassoferrato is a very interesting off the beaten track destination in Le Marche. See: Finding the Hidden Italy in Sassoferrato for information on the many attractions in this town you’ve never heard of. Then, go to Guido’s place and eat his specialty pincinella. Stay over if you like. You’ll be right on the Archaeological site: Stay in a Roman Battlefield, Eat Well.