The view from our table on the restaurant terrace was breathtaking. The air in Monteciello was pleasingly cool. The house red wine was more than drinkable. The kids were quiet and complacent, happily munching on bread and coloring pictures. We all shared that giddy feeling of triumph that accompanies a welcome rest and good food after a day of sightseeing.
But there was one hitch in my perfect evening. I had ordered the wrong dish. Not that my meal was bad. Quite honestly, I don’t remember what was on my plate. Instead, my recollection of that lovely evening is taken up almost entirely with intense feelings of covetousness. I wanted the bowl of food across the table. Meanwhile, my friend S was blissfully chowing down. He had cunningly ordered the house specialty: Pici in a pork and white bean sauce. And I was kicking myself.
Oh, S had been generous. He had given us all tasting bites of his repast. But tasting time was over. And it wouldn’t be right to ask for another bite. Instead, I had to watch, in pain, as the last morsel was devoured right in front of me.
In fact, I had to accept a more momentous possibility: I may have just had my last bite of Pici ever. As I pouted and picked at my own Tuscan fare, I envisioned the end of our Italy trip. We’d soon be back in the States. Our holiday would end. And where would I find my beloved Pici?
Pici is similar to spaghetti, but it’s hand-rolled, so it comes out a little thicker and more uneven. It has a rustic mouth-feel, and it holds sauces well (it’s often served with boar ragù). Pici’s only available in the towns south of Sienna, such as Montepulciano, Montalcino , and where we were, Monteciello. It’s basically Tuscan comfort food.
When I discovered a recipe for Pici in Jamie’s Italy, I prepared myself to meet the challenges. Sure I’d feel arthritic after a couple hours of repetitive rolling. Sure, we wouldn’t eat until 9:30 PM. Sure, I’d have to face the inevitable question: “Is Pici really worth it?”
Oh Yeah, Baby! If I had my little way, I'd eat Pici every day.
Pici con Ragù
(adapted from Jamie’s Italy)
1 lb. finely ground semolina flour
approximately 1 cup water
For the sauce:
1 red onion
2 cloves of garlic
3 bay leaves
A sprig of fresh rosemary
1 lb. 2 oz. of ground beef or veal (I used ground turkey)
2 28 oz. cans of good quality plum tomatoes
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Jamie instructs you to knead the dough, but I put the flour into the food processor on the dough setting, and then added the water slowly. It took about 7 minutes to get it smooth and velvety. Wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge until you’re ready to roll.
Jamie also gives advice on how to roll the dough with a wooden skewer, so it creates a hollow tube, but I simplified things and simply rolled out noodles. Begin with an orange-sized ball (about one third of the dough). On a very lightly floured surface, roll this ball into a long sausage shape, about 1 inch thick. Break it into 1 ¼ inch pieces so you have lots of little nuggets of dough. Using your finger tips roll each piece of dough until it’s thinner than a cigarette. Lay all your pici on a tray, dusted with semolina flour. Don’t let the strands touch, or they’ll stick together. Let them dry out slightly before cooking.
For the sauce, peel and chop the onion and garlic. Heat up a large sauce pan, add olive oil, and cook the onion and garlic slowly for about 10 minutes, until soft and slightly colored. Add the bay leaves, the whole sprig of rosemary, the ground meat, and the tomatoes. Stir well and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for 2 hours with the lid on the pan. (I actually removed the lid for the last half hour to let the sauce thicken up a bit). Season well with salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaves and the rosemary sprig before serving.
Cook the pici in a pot of boiling salted water for 10 minutes, or until al dente. (Jamie suggests 10-15 minutes, but 10 minutes worked perfectly for me). Drain the pici and stir in the sauce. Add a splash of olive oil. Serve with lots of freshly grated Parmesan.