This is a chitarra (pronounced kee-TARR-ah) and if you think the name sounds like guitar, you are right. The instrument looks like a guitar too, which is probably why it has that name, but it’s used to produce a particular kind of hand-made pasta from the Abruzzi, the rugged mountainous region east of Rome.
My chitarra came to me straight from the Abruzzi, courtesy of my pasta-making friends at Rustichella d’Abruzzo, but you might find a similar tool, perhaps gathering dust in an old shop, in a historic Italian neighborhood like Boston’s North End, South Philly, or San Francisco’s North Beach. For a less romantic shopping excursion, you can also find a chitarra on line at (inevitably) Amazon.com where it costs around $35.
In The Four Seasons of Pasta, which I wrote with my daughter Sara and is just out from Avery Books, we described learning how to make pasta alla chitarra from Stefania Peduzzi, a co-owner with her brother Gianluigi, of Rustichella. Stefania of course mostly uses her family’s own very high-quality packaged pasta but every now and then, and especially on Sundays, she turns her hand to this terrific Abruzzese recipe.
Durum flour, called in Italian semola rimacinata, or reground semolina, is what goes into the pasta dough. This is from the high-protein species of hard wheat (Triticum durum, or T. turgidum subsp. durum) that is required by law in Italy for commercial pasta secca, boxed pasta. But durum is also widely used throughout the Italian South to make pasta by hand (unlike northern Italy where softer so-called bread wheat, similar to our all-purpose flour, is used). And just like a northern cook making pasta fresca, Stefania mixes in eggs to give her pasta alla chitarra structure and elasticity. Because the Abruzzi is a region famous for its saffron, cooks also often use saffron water to give the pasta dough a golden color, and that’s what I did here.
I put a pinch of saffron in a half cup of water and let it steep overnight. Then next morning, I took 3 cups of durum flour, available from King Arthur Flour Company (www.kingarthurflour.com), and mounded it on the pasta board, made a well in the center, and dropped in 3 whole eggs and about a teaspoon of the saffron water. Using a fork and cupping the walls of the well with my hands, I gently broke up the eggs and stirred the flour from inside the well into the eggs. Then, as the dough began to thicken, I switched to a bench scraper and lifted and folded the dough, incorporating more and more of the flour, a little at a time, until the dough was easy to knead. At that point I could knead it like bread dough on the board, gradually adding in more flour and a bit more of the water. A lot of the texture of the dough depends on the atmosphere in the kitchen. On that brisk fall morning, my dough seemed a bit dry so I mixed in another spoonful or so of the water. (If I’d made a mistake and added too much water, I would have just mixed in a little more flour until it was right.) When everything was well kneaded, and the dough was soft but still with a bit of elasticity, I rubbed it over with olive oil, incorporating that into the dough, then shaped it into a round, covered it with plastic wrap and set it aside to rest for a half hour. (I could have refrigerated it too, but I’d bring it back to room temperature before working it again.)
Rolling this dough out on a barely floured board is easy. It has a nice, supple texture that seems to like being embraced by the rolling pin. I didn’t roll it as thin as I would have for lasagna—just about the thickness of the distance between two wires on the chitarra. Once the dough was rolled out, I cut it to fit the top of the chitarra and laid it over the wires, then pushed the handy little rolling pin back and forth until the dough fell through the wires and turned into the square-shaped strands of pasta alla chitarra. I gathered up the strands into a little loose cluster, sprinkled them with a bit of flour to keep them from sticking together, and proceeded to roll out the rest of the dough.
Like most fresh pasta, this cooks up very quickly. “Basta dire un Ave Maria,” said our old housekeeper back in Rome, “just long enough to say a Hail Mary.” Well, actually, a little longer than that. Bring a big pot of water to a rolling boil, add a good spoonful of salt, and tip in the pasta. Give it a stir and when it returns to the boil it’s only a matter of a couple of minutes, no more, before it will be done to a turn, or a tee, or whatever your doneness measure might be. Drain it, turn it into a warm serving bowl or warmed plates,
top it with a lush late-summer tomato sauce (mine had some red peppers added to give it color), add a grating of parmigiano reggiano or a good sheep’s milk pecorino from the Abruzzi, send it to the table, and stick your fork in as soon as it’s in front of you. Don’t wait! Don’t stand on ceremony! Dig in! That’s the way we eat our pasta, in Italy and around the world.