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Window on Italy - In Lea’s Kitchen: I Learn to Cook Pici, or is it Strangozzi?

Colleen Simpson

One of the first things I learn when I come to live in Umbria is that pici pasta is a hot topic in Umbria and Tuscany! In southern Tuscany around Montepulciano, Tuscans insist it is their local pasta. In Umbria around Lago Trasimeno, Umbrians insist it is their local pasta. I see pici on menus in both regions. In Umbria the thick long strands of this handmade pasta are also on menus and in markets as “strangozzi.”

The noodles of pici or strangozzi are thicker and coarser than spaghetti noodles. The crenellated surface captures the sauce efficiently and makes for truly delicious pasta.

Priest Stranglers

I love the fact that each region has its specialty pastas, with proprietary nicknames and stories. Although my adopted Italian sister, Lea Cipriani, prefers to call her pasta pici, I think the origin of “strangozzi” much more interesting. It is called the priest strangler and it is a legend straight from Umbrian history. “Strongolare” means literally to strangle in Italian and strangozzi could be slang for strangle. Legend has it that parish priests in Umbria often dined at the homes of their parishioners. Each parishioner would vie with the others to ensure that their priest left the kitchen well satisfied and stuffed with pasta. The villagers served uch large quantities that eating so much could strangle the priest. I prefer to believe this version of the legend. I don’t think they wanted to actually strangle their men of the cloth, but who really knows? Medieval times were often rambunctious!

Each Region, Each Village Has a Version

I learn that not only each region, but each village, has its own version of pici or strangozzi and what sauces you must pair with this pasta. I still hear loud arguments about whether you must make this pasta with eggs or without. In markets the dried versions are without eggs, but in the home it is a hotly debated subject! In Piegaro, on the border of Tuscany, we call it pici and we definitely make it with eggs.

Colleen rolls the dough as Lea and Mauro carefully watch

Colleen rolls the dough as Lea and Mauro carefully watch

What Recipe?

In Lea’s kitchen for my first cooking lesson I quickly see that she does not use an exact recipe for anything. Lea is a master chef who cooks by “feel.” So here is how I learn to make a Piegarese Pici Pasta al Lea. Dump a bag of 00 fine white semolina flour on the work surface, create a well, pour in three eggs, small palm-full of salt, and pour “just enough” sunflower oil into that well. Mix by hand adding tepid water until the mix begins to form smooth dough. You cannot go wrong here: if you put too much water, just add more flour. Knead well until all lumps are gone. Add flour if necessary to keep dough from sticking to the work surface. Make a log about 3” thick and cut about 1-1/2” segments with sharp knife from this log. Roll the segment into a long rectangle about ¼” thick and place on a Chitarra. Roll firmly until the dough drops through the wires. Keep dusting the strands with flour as you place them “lightly” in a large cardboard box. Avoid clumping! Continue to cut these segments and roll until all dough is in strands. Put a large pot of water to boil. Do not use the American version of a deep pasta pot! Piegarese only use a wide and shallow pot to boil pasta thinking that the noodles spread out easily. Add salt to water (Never ever oil)! Cook until “al dente” (with just a little firmness inside)--usually when noodles float to surface. Serve with a good tomato/basil/pancetta sauce or cinghiale meat (wild boar) and dose liberally with freshly grated Parmigiano/Reggiano cheese. Children love it with olive oil or butter and grated cheese.

The Invaluable Chitarra

And now a word about the Chitarra: I don’t know how I lived for 60 years without one! It is a wooden box strung with wires, on one side fine and the other wide. We use the wide side for pici. The village Chitarra that we use to make pici for village festivals is about 3’x6’ to allow about three women abreast and on either side to roll simultaneously! I now teach my guests at L’Antica Vetreria to make pici and after the lesson we invariably troop up to Maria Pia’s “everything store” to purchase one as a souvenir. After two seasons, Maria Pia knows to lay in a good supply!

Maureen making Pici with the Chitarra

Maureen making Pici with the Chitarra

Under Dear Lea’s Tutelage

Over the years I have mastered Lea’s versions of cinghiale stew, risotto with fresh asparagus, delicately battered zucchini blossoms, ravioli with many fillings as the season dictates, and her amazingly light and fluffy gnocchi with five-cheese sauce. I really “arrive” as a chef when dear Lea tells me to taste the risotto bubbling on the stove and to season as I wish! There is no higher honor than that!

Nonna Comes to Kellen’s Classroom!

I bring my Chitarra and pasta classes to Seattle when my grandson, Kellen, makes aMaking Pici with Children request for his Nonna and Papa to come to his classroom! With Tom’s help, I give a seminar on medieval walled villages with watch towers (we have a 9th century tower in our Villa), tell them what Italian children eat, teach them a few Italian words and set to work with eleven children getting messy. Soon, flour covers all of us!

A Big Brava to Lea Cipriani for Starting an International Tradition!!!

Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests. At other times, you can find her in beautiful Seattle.

© Colleen Simpson, 2010

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