The Most Obscure Italian Food Ever Featured On Pasta Grannies

The "Pasta Grannies" series features regional Italian dishes largely unknown in the United States.

Here in America, the availability of regional Italian food is booming. Restaurants have shifted away from serving a broad catalog of Italian cuisine in favor of focusing on the culinary delicacies of a specific area. Liguria, Sicily, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna—each of these regions provide a wealth of dishes to populate a menu. It makes sense, too, that the best restaurants would choose to do this, since specificity is key to selling a well-made product. But even as the fare grows more niche, we're discovering all that we have left to learn about this complex cuisine. The small towns within each region all have their own funky, peculiar pastas that have remained mostly unknown. That is, until the Pasta Grannies came around.

The Pasta Grannies, explained

How to describe Pasta Grannies? It's a series of cooking videos (and now a cookbook) filmed documentary-style throughout tiny Italian villages. Each video celebrates not just the hyper-regional pasta therein, but also the nonnas who cook it. It's a wonderful study of intergenerational recipes, small-town home cooking, and food's connection to family. Filmed and narrated by food writer Vicky Bennison, the series encapsulates remarkable eccentricity.

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The humble matriarchs in Pasta Grannies are happy to share their recipes, their kitchens, and even their families with the viewer. In watching the joyous cooking process, you get a sense of each grandma's views on pasta, many of which are not as stringent as you might think.

Chef Evan Funke famously said "fuck your pasta machine," referring to the common use of matterellos in Italy to flatten pasta dough. But in Pasta Grannies, you see many of the women use pasta machines. They don't care about your rules, your pretension, or your notions about what pasta is "supposed" to be.

Here are the most obscure pastas featured in the Pasta Grannies series. I for one am thankful that they've been unearthed.

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Gnocchi Ricci

Gnocchi Ricci is a traditional dish from Amatrice, a town in the mountains of central Italy. Amatrice is famous for gifting all of us amatriciana sauce, but gnocchi ricci are a lesser known (read: virtually unknown) pasta also hailing from the area.

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Elvira, the granny in this episode, describes gnocchi ricci as a "traditional ancient pasta." To make the pasta, she builds two doughs: one with eggs and 00 flour, and the other with boiled water and 00 flour. After they're both separately kneaded, she then combines the two doughs and kneads them together, a process that prevents the boiling water from cooking the eggs. It's a stunning hat on a hat, and a process I've never ever seen before.

The resulting dough is incredibly very soft and pliable. Elvira slices it into little nuggets, and then—this is the part only an expert can achieve—she curls and rolls them across a floured table using four fingers, which creates unique ridge patterns on each piece. Vicky describes gnocchi ricci as a sort of wrinkled orecchiette; they sort of look like roses. Though it's tedious to make, Elvira loves preparing this pasta. She bounces around the kitchen with a youthful, goofy grace. "Cooking is the passion that gives me the most joy," she says.

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Taccuna

Taccuna is a shattered pasta shape made with eggs, water, and hard wheat flour. The grannies roll the dough into a giant flat disc, then dry the sheet of pasta for an entire day. Next, they take the big sheet of hardened dough and break it into irregular pieces using their hands. No shaping, no rolling, no tools—just a sheet of pasta broken into shards. It's unusual, and even ugly, but enticingly simple.

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The pasta is cooked in the same pot with cabbage, salt, and chili, then served with a bit of the starchy, cabbage-infused cooking water. This is as old-world as it gets, and it's one of those pasta dishes that feels likely to die off with the oldest generation of Italian grannies left preparing it.

One reason to watch Pasta Grannies, cooking aside, is to watch the grandmas interact with each other, because they're almost always wisecracking, hassling each other, and talking shit.

Cjarsons

Olimpia lives in Sutrio, close to the Austrian border, where cjarsons are made. Cjarsons, pronounced with a bit of a French accent (car-zhones), are a biscuit-style ravioli stuffed with a savory-sweet mixture of cookies, jam, ricotta, herbs, and more. Olimpia makes three types of cjarsons here: two plain, and one apple flavored. Apparently, she makes 1,000 at a time.

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Every village in this region of Italy has their own recipe for cjarsons, so you're unlikely to have the same one twice. "I got a little bit from Timau, a little bit from Sutrio, and a bit from myself," Olimpia says. In badass pasta granny fashion, she adds, "Not everyone does it this way." That's a theme that runs through all episodes of Pasta Grannies. Each dish seems to be wholly unique, and the cooks often relish that exclusivity.

Cjarsons are more adjacent to pierogi than ravioli, right down to the pale color and crimped edges. Still, the way it's served with smoked ricotta screams Northern Italian cuisine. I can't say that I've ever seen cjarsons on a restaurant menu anywhere, but the way regional Italian food is expanding, I wouldn't be surprised if they start popping up.

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Frascatole

The granny here is Paolina, who lives in Marettimo, a tiny island off the coast of Sicily.

Frascatole are essentially a semolina flour infused couscous. In fact, the pasta uses a near equal mixture of semolina flour and cracked durum wheat grains. By ladling a little cold water at a time while mixing the durum and semolina together, lumpy balls of couscous pasta swell into what looks like granola. Traditionally served in a soup, frasctaole in Marettimo make the most sense to be paired with seafood—in this case, lobster.

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"This cannot be bought in the shops, or sold already made, no no no," says Giuseppe, Paolina's husband and chef of their restaurant. "You can't find [frascatole] anywhere."

The base of the sauce is made with softened vegetables, tomato passata (puree), water, and ground almonds. The pasta gets cooked directly in the sauce, which appears to be a thick and hearty lobster bisque. It's truly unique to this island west of Sicily, and it's a dish you're not likely to see elsewhere.

Angel Hair with Ragu

When people hate on angel hair pasta or say that it's not traditionally Italian, know this: They are full of shit. In this video, grannies are cooking meat sauce and angel hair. It's an enhanced version of what bad Italian-American restaurants do here in the States, and it'll have you completely rethinking the maligned pasta shape.

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Though it is referred to as "angel hair" in Bennison's narration, the pasta here is technically called fieno di Canepina, which is a very fine tagliolini. Canepina is a little town in Lazio surrounded by hazelnut groves, but there's a yearly food festival that celebrates chestnuts. The pasta served at that festival is fieno di Canepina.

Delfina and her friend Maria Louisa are the grannies in this episode. The fieno di Canepina is rolled with a mattarello, and then sliced incredibly thin by hand using a large knife; the final product is served up with Pecorino and a hearty meat ragu. This ultra-fine pasta just goes to show that angel hair is authentically Italian. Just when you think you know everything there is to know about this nation's stunning cuisine, here comes a granny to break the rules.

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