While in Piedmont last year, some people on our bike tour talked up an addictive hand-rolled pasta they ate in Tuscany. What the rustic, hand-cut tajarin was to the area we were in, they said, pici was to the region around Montalcino. I had forgotten this conversation until recently when I saw a recipe for pici posted over at Jamie Oliver’s website. With a freak winter chill that descended on Houston this week, keeping us mostly indoors and so not going to the grocery store, I decided to make a hearty, fortifying pasta with what I had around the house and recalled the Oliver recipe. Pastas, like soups, have really become versatile saviors for me when ingredients are slim.
Unlike the egg-rich tajarin, pici is mostly flour and water. Still, its thicker shape gives is it a nice substantial texture, and the channel that forms along the length of the rolled pasta makes a great mechanism for gathering in sauce. I can see why pici is a good pasta for ragù. As a rough guide, I used the recipe from Oliver’s site for making the pasta, a mix of 00 flour and semolina, with water and the addition of an egg, which I read is a common regional variation. The dough is a bit difficult at first when trying to get it to hold together for kneading, feeling like wet sand, and the actual cutting and rolling are time-consuming, but the results are worth it. I didn’t have much to add to the pasta, yet an inexpensive bottle of sparkling wine (left over from the holidays) and a pound of crimini mushrooms were solid lead actors. Bacon, San Marzano tomatoes, and some fresh herbs made a fine supporting cast. I have begun to think of bacon and canned San Marzano tomatoes as essentials in the kitchen, always good to have on hand like a carton of chicken stock.
350 g 00 flour, or unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
150 g semolina flour, plus more for dusting
200 ml cold water
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt
1 lb crimini mushrooms, washed, stems trimmed, and sliced
5 peeled, canned whole San Marzano tomatoes and their sauce
4 thick slices of bacon
1 1/2 cups sparkling wine
1 large shallot, minced
4 garlic gloves, minced
Leaves from 2 rosemary stems, chopped
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage
1 tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley, plus more for garnish
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1/4 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for garnish
1 cup pasta water
season with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
garnish with flake sea salt
For the pici: To make the pici pasta, combine the flour, semolina, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle and add the egg and olive oil. Mix continuously while adding the cold water. Oliver’s recipe called for 150 ml, but I found I needed 200 ml of water in order to achieve a firm dough I could knead. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes on a lightly floured surface until the dough is smooth and elastic. Cover with plastic wrap and set in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes. Once rested, cut the dough into 5 or 6 equal pieces and cover the ones you are not working with in plastic wrap to keep from drying out. Roll a single piece into a rectangle between 1/4-1/8 cm thick. The rustic nature of this pasta means you don’t need to be worried about being so precise with the shape. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into about 1/2 cm strips. Then, starting at the middle, gently roll each strip into a long tube. I found it easier to roll if I lightly pinched along the length of the strip of dough first. I also covered the unrolled strips with a sheet of plastic wrap gently draped over them to keep them from drying out too quickly. When rolled, place the uncooked pici on a semolina-dusted tray or parchment-lined sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.
For the sauce: The sauce can be started after you’ve rolled out all of the pasta, or you can make the sauce up to the addition of the cheese and pasta water, keeping it warm and covered on the stove or refrigerated, then reheating when ready for use. In a dutch oven or large sauté pan or braising pan, cook the bacon. When cooked, remove, chop, and set aside the bacon. Add the sliced mushrooms to pan with the rendered bacon fat, and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the shallots, and cook until the shallots are softened. Add the red pepper flakes and garlic, stirring until the garlic becomes fragrant. Add the sparkling wine and reduce, scrapping up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan, until the liquid is about a scant 1/2 cup. Add the tomatoes in their sauce, crushing them and breaking them up in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. Add the herbs. Cook until the flavors have combined and some of the liquid reduced, about 10-15 minutes. At this point, you can start cooking the pasta in boiling, salted water. While the pasta is cooking, stir in the cheese to the sauce. When the pasta starts to float, cook for another 3-4 minutes, then strain, reserving the pasta water you need for the sauce. Add the water to the sauce, reduce, and check the seasoning, adding kosher salt and cracked pepper as needed. Add the pasta, stirring until the pici is well coated and more of the liquid has reduced. Serve the pasta with chopped parsley, fresh grated Parmesan, and flake sea salt. This makes six dinner servings.