When I go to Italy, I go to eat. And while I would be hard-pressed to name my favorite dish, I would make a long detour for the small stuffed pasta called agnolotti, specifically those from Piedmont.
All over this region in northwest Italy, fine cooks turn out beguiling versions of this handmade pasta. But the undisputed queen of agnolotti is Lidia Alciati, who had been the chef and owner, with her husband, of the renowned restaurant, Guido, in the tiny hilltop town of Costigliole d’Asti. Although the restaurant, named for her husband, cooked many Piemontese dishes well, the agnolotti were the one dish everyone had to have, so extraordinary that I’ve known people who asked for it as a first course -- and second.
Unlike the crescent-shaped stuffed pasta you might find in other regions of Italy, Lidia’s specialty is agnolotti al plin, swatches of startling gold pasta scarcely bigger than a postage stamp. Hers are incredibly delicate packets filled with savory mixture of pork, veal and rabbit laced with greens and Parmesan. Made by hand, they have a characteristic vertical plin, or pinch. It would be foolish to destroy their delicacy with a mask of sauce, so they are simply tossed in a little of the juices left over from roasting meats for the filling -- and butter.
Lidia made these divine little packets by the thousands, week after week, for more than 40 years. When I heard that the beloved Guido might close, I knew I had to get there one last time. Not only to taste those agnolotti again but, even more, to have Lidia give me a refresher course on how to make them. Back home, the only way to get them is to make them yourself.
Not long before Guido closed for good, I managed to get back to Costigliole. I drove into town and parked in front of a horrendous 1960s building that housed a bank -- and Guido. As I waited, I pictured Lidia wiping her hands, leaving the dark basement kitchen and trudging up the stairs to the lobby. How many agnolotti has she made in her years at the stoves, I wondered. On average Guido served 36 people a night; that’s 18 agnolotti a serving, 648 of those handmade little packets per day, or close to 200,000 a year.
She opened the door, looking much younger than her 73 years. As always, her steel-blue bouffant was touched with pink highlights, and she was wearing a fresh blue-and-white striped dress with a white collar. We kissed, and I took in her familiar sweet, floury smell.
Past always present
Before anything, we have a caffe at the mahogany desk outside the kitchen door. We’ve known each other 18 years. From Lidia, I’ve learned so much about the traditional cooking of Piedmont. Guido taught me about the wines and the history of the region.
This time Lidia tells me it’s definite: They’ve decided to close at the end of the year. Andrea, her youngest son, has already left to run the restaurant they’ve opened in new a luxury hotel called Relais San Maurizio in nearby Santo Stefano Belbo. Her older sons Piero and Ugo are moving into the new Universita del Gusto, which the Slow Food organization will open next year in the king’s old hunting residence in Pollenzo. They’re taking the Guido name with them there. The restaurant is slated to open next month.
What will happen to all this, I ask, taking in the Oriental carpets, the carefully polished antiques and the heavy linens with hand-crocheted borders Lidia always irons herself. She shrugs, not wanting to talk about it.
Meanwhile, the word is out and the phone keeps ringing with callers who want to book a last meal at Guido. Lidia is the first to admit the building is hardly a swan, but clients who have been coming here for decades have a certain affection for it. “I’ve passed so many hours here,” she says, sadness making her face go still. “Even though it’s ugly, this was my place. We raised our three sons here.”
Lidia and Guido knew each other as children. She’s from Costigliole itself. He was born a few miles away in Agliano. Guido’s father had one of the first motorcars in the area and was quite the gourmand. He would drive anywhere -- Turin, Milan, Belgium -- to try a new restaurant. He died when Guido was a child and never knew that his son, despite many hardships, would become a restaurateur. When the couple started their restaurant, few villages in the area had one, and if they did, they were used mostly for weddings and banquets.
Over the years, asGuido became more known, the Alciatis dreamed of moving it to a country villa, but they never found the right situation. During truffle season they never have enough seats. Once, Sirio Maccione, who owns Le Cirque in New York, took a look around the dining room, pointing out to Guido that he could put a table here, another one here. How many times do you turn the tables? he asked. The answer: They don’t. When people come to Guido, they come for the evening, sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning
There’s nothing luxurious or even very personal about this kitchen dominated by a massive stainless steel stove where Lidia Alciati has spent the last 40 years. Worst of all, it hasn’t got any natural light, so it feels underwater, a bit depressing.
Earlier that morning Lidia had already made her pasta dough and the filling for the agnolotti. When we go to the refrigerator, she complains, “Look, they’ve put the vegetables next to the refrigerator wall and they’re ruined. You need lots of patience -- tantissimo. I have to do everything myself. It’s very difficult.” Her perfectionist nature meant that for years, even after she achieved two Michelin stars, she had no help other than her family.
Her pasta machine is only slightly larger than the hand-cranked type many of us have at home. She unwraps the dough and feeds part of it through the rollers of the machine, making pass after pass until the dough is so thin you can practically read the newspaper through it.
“It’s new, this electric machine, no?” I ask her. “Yes, it’s new. This machine is extraordinary because if you make the pasta by hand, sometimes the dough will come out thicker in some places and thinner in others: with this, everything is always the same thickness.”
Is there ever a day when agnolotti aren’t on the menu? “Sempre, sempre -- always, always. It’s tradition and the most requested.” The machine whirs as she passes a sheet of pasta through one last time, stretching it slightly. Because of all the eggs, the dough is very elastic.
Now we make the agnolotti.
She takes out a tray lined with a hand-woven fringed cotton napkin and throws a little rice flour on it. “You want something pure cotton that won’t leave little balls of fluff or lint,” she explains. Working on a lightly floured board, she lays the sheet of pasta in front of her, crosswise, and sets down dabs of filling a little bigger than a hazelnut an inch or an inch and a half apart. I’ll never be able to master the way she wipes her knife across a spoon loaded with filling, forming a round ball each time, always the same size. Some chefs use a pastry bag to dispense the filling, but not Lidia. “Maybe it’s just a question of habit,” she says, shrugging.
Then she folds the dough over, leaving at least a half-inch margin, and with her thumbs, presses down all along the back close to the filling. Now come the pinches. With the thumb and forefinger of both hands, she pinches the dough to form a vertical pleat on either side of each ball of filling. With her pastry wheel, she cuts one long strip. Then she quickly cuts between the filling, always back to front, so the pleat lies down the same way. Fold, pinch, bear down with the pastry wheel, then the practiced whir, whir, whir as she cuts firmly between the agnolotti.
“What’s important is that they should look alike, but at the same time they’re not quite alike, because they’re made by hand,” she says. “Can I tell you how to make the filling while I make the agnolotti?”
I can still hear her voice, saying firmly, “Allora, I put onion, carrots, rosemary in a roasting pan, then add pork cut in pieces, veal, rabbit, and let it take some color. Ten minutes before it’s finished cooking, I add the raw spinach, then remove everything, let it cool and pass it through the meat grinder. Once everything is ground, I add some egg to moisten it and some Parmesan.”
Oh, that’s all.
Finished with the lesson, Lidia hands me a breadstick, knowing how much I love the skinny hand-rolled grissini a local baker makes just for them. As I take a bite, she can’t help pointing out that grissini in this period are not as good. Ever the student, I ask why. “Because it’s the end of the old flour, and we don’t yet have the new flour. It’s lost some of its flavor.” It’s the kind of subtle distinction that made Guido one of Italy’s most celebrated restaurants.
We take some grissini and thick slices of salame crudo -- raw-cured salami that tastes of sweet pork -- into the “office.” She brings out a small round of local sheep’s milk cheese and grinds some black pepper over it. I ask how she plans to enjoy her retirement. Oh, no, she’s quick to inform me. At 73, the queen of agnolotti plans to spend her mornings making agnolotti al plin at Relais San Maurizio. She’s looking forward to working with the young chefs.
“The kitchen is wonderful. Every person has his or her work station,” she tells me with pride and excitement. It also has lots of natural light.
The telephone rings. “Pronto? Si! Irene and I are eating salame crudo.” It’s Piero, calling from Pollenzo. The phone rings again. This time it’s my friends, waiting for me in Alba.
Released, Lidia is free to head back to the kitchen. She has people to feed tonight, including my friends and me. We wouldn’t miss the chance for a last meal at Guido and a last plate -- or two -- of agnolotti.