Obsessed: Resurrecting the Art of Fresh Pasta

Fettuccine from Un Posto Italiano. Niki Achitoff-Gray

Welcome back to Obsessed, the interview series in which we talk to uniquely driven amateurs and professionals from all across the food world. We hope to shed light on the passions that inspire enthusiastic food nerds, from home cooks to chefs on the line to veteran butchers, fishmongers, and farmers. Hopefully we'll also pick up some of their favorite tips, tricks, and food wisdom along the way. Know somebody who you think would be perfect for this interview series? Email us!

The first time I made fresh pasta was with my father, in my childhood home. We used an old-school manual machine; my father would operate the crank, and I'd carefully lower our dough into the roller and watch it slowly emerge in soft, pliable sheets. Later, we'd pass it through a cutting attachment, and that same sheet would separate into dozens of delicate strands.

It's a remarkably satisfying tactile experience to knead flour and water; to watch incredibly simple ingredients combine into something extraordinary and new. It's a fascination I've never lost, and one that led me down something of a rabbit hole in my attempt to identify the hows and whys of great homemade fresh pasta.

But in my countless hours of experimentation with pasta dough, in which I tested every imaginable ratio of flour to egg to water, oil, and salt, I always skirted the question of flour. I'd set out to create a pasta recipe that used all-purpose flour, one that home cooks could make with ingredients they were almost guaranteed to already have in their pantries. I reasoned that rare and small-batch flours were too hard for our readers to find, and presented too many variables, to apply to a viable recipe. Yet exploring the vast world of wheat flour—and if there's one thing I've learned from this interview, it's that it's far vaster than I'd ever imagined—has never been far from my mind.

Perhaps that's why I find Antonio Capone to be such an inspiring figure. The Italian-born, Brooklyn-based artisanal pasta-maker certainly has impeccable technique. But it's his utter devotion to exploring and experimenting with flour that makes his products stand out from the crowd. Capone owns and operates Un Posto Italiano, a tiny, pristine storefront at the intersection of Gowanus and Park Slope. There, he sells nothing but fresh, handmade pasta and a small selection of high-quality imported Italian cheeses, oils, and other packaged pantry products. I sat down with him to talk about what makes his pastas unique, and how he came to open a specialty business that's virtually nonexistent in 21st-century New York.

Name: Antonio Capone

Age: 48

Website: Unpostoitaliano.com

Instagram: Un Posto Italiano

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you originally from?

I'm from the region of Abruzzo, in central Italy. It has a very diverse geography—there's the high altitudes of the Apennine Mountains, and there are the beaches and seafood of the Adriatic Coast—all in a very small region. In central Abruzzo, we grow two things: grapes for Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, and different types of grain. Because we have so much wheat, we have a very strong culinary history when it comes to flour and, of course, pasta.

One traditional local pasta is chitarra (literally "guitar"), which is made with a pasta-cutting tool with the same name. The tool comes from a small mountain village in Abruzzo, where it's still manufactured to this day. But Abruzzo was also one of the first areas in Italy to produce dry pasta—we have a factory that has been around since the early 1800s, about the same time that the town of Gragnano [in Naples] started making dry pasta, which they're very famous for. So we have a very long history of both fresh and dry pasta.

Of course, that's not even mentioning bread, which is a whole different story. There are maybe 50 different kinds of bread in Abruzzo, all made with different flours.

Capone making fresh ricotta ravioli.

So how did you wind up working with fresh pasta? Is it a family tradition?

My grandfather was a pasta-maker in Abruzzo in the late 1800s. In a way, I like to think I'm picking up this family tradition where he left off. But it's funny; I actually know very little about my grandfather. I never met him—he left the family and moved to the United States in the early 1900s, when my father was still a child. Nobody in my family talks about him; we don't have any pictures of him. I didn't even know he was a pasta-maker until I had already decided to open a pasta shop.

I was living in New York, but I went back to Italy to do some research. I was speaking with my sister, and I told her, "I've been thinking about making fresh pasta; I just need to learn more about it from professionals." And she said, "Oh wow, it's something that we probably have in our DNA." I said, "What do you mean?" And she told me that my grandfather was a pasta-maker. But I'd had no idea.

The ironic part is that he died in New York, where I decided to pick up this trade. At the time, though, I didn't know that he died in New York, or that he was a pasta-maker. Later, my sister was cleaning out some old boxes, and she found a pasta cutter. She said, "This is the only thing that our grandfather left." It's framed in my store now. It sounds like a movie plot, but...it's true. I think that maybe there's something that was always in my blood that just didn't emerge until I moved to New York.

When exactly did you move to New York?

I moved to New York in 2007, mainly because my wife is from Brooklyn. Or rather, she was born in Brooklyn, but her family moved to Italy when she was five or six years old, so she's basically Italian. About 10 years ago, we decided it would be a nice change of pace to move here, and, since we were married, it was easy for me to get a green card.

When and how did you decide to open a pasta shop?

In Italy, I was a documentary filmmaker, and I did some work where I followed and documented the labor of food artisans and winemakers throughout the country. When we moved, I looked for work in the film industry. But it was 2007, and the economy wasn't really good, and it was hard to find something regular. After one month, I decided to move on. For me, it was natural to look to the food industry, because I knew it very well.

I started as a restaurant manager, and basically used it as an opportunity to get to know the restaurant business in New York, the food scene, et cetera. And then, when I understood enough, I decided to open a small pizzeria, Sottocasa, with a friend of mine. But it was really more something I did just to make some money—even then, I was thinking of doing something by myself.

During my six, seven years in the restaurant business, I noticed that there really wasn't fresh artisanal pasta like you'd find in Italy. Traditionally, in Italy, you'd find small stores like mine that only sell fresh pasta; they don't make anything else. Today, most places will also sell premade food—it can be hard to make enough money from just fresh pasta, unless you're a really old, famous establishment. There was nothing like that in New York, so I saw an opportunity.

I went back to Italy, where I apprenticed with a master pasta-maker from my region and learned more about my grandfather's history. From the beginning, making fresh pasta has been inseparable from using high-quality flour from local Italian grains, something that even in Italy today is being brought back to life by a select number of producers.

So you didn't grow up making pasta at home?

Like in most Italian families, homemade pasta is something that I grew up with, and it has been part of my culinary upbringing as far back as I can remember. When I was a child, my mother and all my aunts—I had a big family—would make pasta at home for these big Sunday lunches. Pasta, ravioli, gnocchi, and so forth. But as a child, and even as a teenager, the last thing I wanted to do was stay with my mother in the kitchen. To me, it just seemed really boring.

The first time I ever made fresh pasta at home was back when I lived in Italy. I don't remember exactly when; it was just something that happened once in a while. You have a big dinner with friends and say, "Okay, let's make pasta."

But the funny part was that when I went back to Italy a few years ago to learn to make pasta in a professional capacity, it was very natural for me. It was like I'd always done it. In literally a few weeks, I was a natural at mixing dough and making pasta by hand—ravioli, gnocchi, everything. In a romantic way, I like to think maybe my grandfather transmitted this knowledge to me. Even though we never met, something of him is in me.

The technique came quickly, but the long lesson, the one I'm still learning, is to understand and find and experiment with different flours.

Gnocchi from Un Posto Italiano.

Tell us more about that. What does understanding flour entail?

Before you speak about flour, you have to speak about the grain that it comes from. So you have to understand how the grain works and grows. To generalize, there are two kinds of wheat—soft wheat and hard wheat. Hard wheat, including durum wheat (which is used to make semolina), has more gluten and a much stronger flavor than soft wheat. Traditionally, soft wheat is used in Northern Italy and hard wheat is used in Southern Italy. That's because hard wheat usually grows in hotter climates, and soft wheat usually grows where it's cold.

And that's the important thing to know: There are hundreds of really different strains of wheat, each with particular properties to consider. Some have less gluten, or more gluten; different protein compositions; unique flavors. And then there's milling. So when you're shopping for soft wheat, there are five different categories of milling (00, 0, 1, 2, and 3), and which one you buy depends on what you need to do. So 00 is for ravioli; 0 is used to make pasta; 1, 2, and 3 are used for different kinds of bread. Hard wheat is another story entirely. The packages are labeled "for bread" or "for pastry," and so on.

We obviously don't have that system here, at least in big supermarkets. What are some of the challenges you've encountered in trying to source wheat in the United States?

In Italy, we have dozens of varieties categorized as soft, hard, and durum (extra-hard). Some are small productions, but it offers artisans the opportunity to work with very old grains that have been used in pasta-making for centuries. But here in the United States, it's not easy to find a lot of these grains. There aren't many wheat varieties, perhaps because it's not a native cultivar. When you go into a supermarket, you see all-purpose flour and maybe two or three other kinds. That's it. There's no indication of whether it's soft wheat or durum wheat, and definitely no information on what specific species or strain it is.

The other challenge is finding millers in the United States that focus on creating flours with specifications for pasta-makers like myself. Milling flours to the correct granularity is an important part of making pasta. Bigger grains of flour, like semolina, will make pasta that is very rough, rustic. These pastas, like chitarra, are stronger. They're good for heavy sauces, like a ragù that has simmered for hours. Finer, more powdery flours, like remilled semolina, are what you could call elegant flours. The pasta is smoother and lighter.

Of course, I'd be interested in working with local producers, and there is a movement here in the United States with growers and millers of high-quality flours. But for now, I import all of my flours. I especially prefer durum wheat because it's tastier, and there are more varieties of it to experiment with.

How do you go about experimenting with flour? What do you like about it?

Basically, you play with flour. Flour has a taste. Some people think flour is all the same. But each flour has a particular taste, and some are really strong. So I'll start with a base of hard wheat, maybe 80% remilled semolina, and then I'll add 20% of a new flour. And sometimes I like to mix a little bit of whole wheat flour in. I just experiment until I find a pasta that tastes a little different or interesting.

But in New York, I've seen a lot of pasta-makers who like to make their dough with extra ingredients. Squid ink, or hot peppers, or basil, parsley.... There are 50 different ways to aromatize the pasta. I think in this country, sometimes experimentation is about innovation for the sake of trying to do something new, but for me, it all starts with learning the traditional way of making pasta, with good, untreated, and flavorful grains milled into flours the traditional way. When you cook it, you can add sauce and spices, whatever. But the pasta should be made with just grain and water and egg. Period. Not even salt.

For me, it's all about bringing back a tradition of pasta-making that has been lost by industrial processes. Once you've mastered this, then you can start experimenting with new pastas.

What are the challenges you face, commercially, as an artisanal pasta-maker?

For one thing, when I started Un Posto Italiano, I had to get licenses to sell fresh pasta, and the local food authorities had a hard time understanding my business and what it meant to open a fresh-pasta store, since my establishment is not a restaurant and customers cook my products at home. Likewise, I had to educate my customers on what fresh pasta is, how to cook it, and how to keep it at home if not used within a day.

So what do you tell them?

When you buy fresh pasta, it has a 30 to 40% moisture content. If you take it home and leave it on your counter, it starts to dry. But it doesn't dry evenly. Sometimes it dries from the bottom to the top, or only on the corner. When you cook a pasta that's only partially dried, some of it will be done in two minutes and some in 10 minutes. Either way, you wind up with some pasta that's overcooked and some pasta that is al dente. It's a mess.

If you want to cook the pasta the same day that you bought it, it'll be fine. But if you want to cook it any later, you should either freeze it right away or let it dry. It has to be completely dry, though. In the winter, when you have the heat on, it will dry on your counter in a few hours. In the summer, it may take a little longer. Then, when it all feels hard, it's ready to cook or store.

Antonio Capone with his chitarra.

What are the essential tools of the trade for you?

To be honest, all you need to make fresh pasta are your hands, a knife, and a rolling pin. You can make almost everything that way, even ravioli. But it's not commercially possible, because it would take forever. So I use a dough machine to mix my ingredients, and an electric pasta roller, called a sheeter. Mine is made by Imperia; they're famous even in the United States. It's especially wide, so you can maximize the size of each sheet of pasta. You can make great pasta with any machine, though, even the manual kind, which can be quite inexpensive. I use a ravioli mold and a fluted ravioli cutter as well.

My work surface is also special. I had a wood board custom-made with poplar. It's the wood of choice for making fresh pasta in Italy, because it's the only wood surface that doesn't impart flavor to the products you work with on it. Because it's a soft wood, it also absorbs moisture well. When you work in an artisanal capacity, the dough isn't always the same. You have to think, "Today is a humid day, so I have to use less water," or, "Today is a dry day, so I have to use more." If you use too much water, and the dough is too sticky, the board will extract that excess humidity. It's something that works with you.

Of course, I also have a chitarra, from my region. Originally they were made with poplar, just like the board. If you know how to use the chitarra, you can, of course, make chitarra. On the other side, you can make fettuccine or tagliatelle. But you can even use it as a cutter to make other pastas, like thick tagliatelle that you cut into smaller pieces or roll between your hands to create an irregular texture. You can really play with it. Not many people use it anymore, even in my region. But I like it because it's like an instrument. You have to clean it, adjust the wires once in a while, make sure they're perfectly straight. It's literally like an instrument, like a violin.

What's your favorite type of pasta to eat? Why?

Chitarrina, a type of spaghetto with squared edges, which comes from my region of Abruzzo. It mixes with sauces better than regular round spaghetti.

What's your favorite type of pasta to make? Why?

I like making ravioli, and experimenting with different fillings and ingredient combinations. But I don't really have a favorite—in my store, I make several different kinds of pasta, like chitarra and tagliatelle, potato gnocchi, and of course ravioli. I don't have a favorite, but I think it's important to combine each one with the right sauce or condiment, sometimes something as simple as melted butter and sage with good-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Is there a recipe you've come up with that you're particularly proud of? What about it is important to you?

I'm making another type of chitarrina that uses less egg and more water, mixed with a whole wheat flour from Sicily called tumminia. It's from an ancient durum variety that grows only in this region. It has a more pronounced wheat flavor, where you can really taste the grain. It's perfect for more robust sauces, but it's also good with just garlic, olive oil, and some hot pepper.

Chitarrina from Un Posto Italiano.

Do you have a recipe or idea in the works? Anything that's particularly challenging or thorny about it?

Many of my clients are asking for gluten-free pasta, and I've started to experiment with flour mixes that either contain no wheat or use wheat varieties from Italy that contain a lower amount of gluten, like the maiorca from Sicily (40% less gluten than regular soft wheat). The key for me is to develop a low-gluten or gluten-free pasta product that holds during cooking and has a great taste.

Any tips for the aspiring home pasta-maker?

Yes. Forget about making pasta. Just start by trying to understand what flour is. As I said, it's all about flour. You can learn all the techniques in a week; it's easy. Of course, there is technique, but it's also about the quality of these simple ingredients: flour, water, and eggs. Water is simple. Eggs should be fresh; I buy organic eggs from a farmers' cooperative in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and they have bright, colorful yolks.

But to understand what you can do with flour takes a long, long time. If you want to be a romantic, go somewhere in Italy or even in North America and work in a grain field. Study varieties of grain before you start. For instance, Slow Food in New York City is hosting an event next week where they're going to show all the different grains that are being grown in upstate New York. Bakers and pastry chefs are going to make food with them and demonstrate what you can do with them. An event about grain and flour? This sort of thing was unthinkable 10 years ago. So you can look for things like that, wherever you live.

If you can't find a way to learn about flour in person, read about it. Most of the time, people buy books about pasta that are just collections of recipes, but they almost never really explain flour. Instead, get a book about flour. Understanding the many different kinds of flour that we have around the United States, Europe, everywhere—that's it. That's what you need.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.