Italian-American cuisine is famously specific to the Philly-Boston corridor, proving that demography (lots of Italians) trumps topography (a not particularly Mediterranean combination of concrete and snow). Recently, however, Triangle restaurants such as Oakleaf, Pizzeria Toro and Panciuto have demonstrated the viability—indeed the deep logic—of a Southern school of Italian-American cuisine.
The South, after all, has warmth, soil and tens of millions of hogs waiting to be turned into ragout.
Aaron Vandemark, chef-owner of Hillsborough's Panciuto—to my mind, both the best and most gracious restaurant in the Triangle—leads the way. His season-driven menu is a kaleidoscope of Italian concept and Southern foodstuff, with nearly every ingredient culled from local farms.
"It happened naturally," Vandemark says. "I was doing Italian food with Southern ingredients and the cuisine naturally took on a Southern slant. Both cuisines are based on low-on-the-hog ingredients. Both go back to farming and the freshness of ingredients. It has not been at all difficult to make the two cuisines harmonize. It hasn't been in the least bit forced."
Vandemark's chestnut tagliatelle [tah-lya-TEH-leh] with egg and butter sauce, spring asparagus and prosciutto is an emblematic dish, a rich and rustic carbonara whose spirit is Piedmontese in both senses of the word. This is not a signature dish—there's no such thing at Panciuto—but an opportunistic inspiration designed to wed chestnut and asparagus, which respectively represent the last weeks of winter and the first weeks of spring.
"This is a perfect dish at the moment, because we're now smack dab between the two seasons," says Vandemark, amid an unseasonably chilly March. "Winter is not quite over and spring is not quite here. Asparagus is one of the real joys of spring in our area. This is a fun way to celebrate."
The chestnut tagliatelle is a hearty noodle. Its woody hue, nutty fragrance and slightly granular texture evoke hilly views of orchards and grape rows and demand the bulk of a good Barolo. If asparagus is out of season, try the tagliatelle with a ragout of mixed mushrooms or with an even simpler dressing of browned butter, sautéed sage leaves and Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is peasant food at its most refined.
Panciuto's chestnut tagliatelle with spring asparagus and prosciutto
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 cups (10 oz.) all-purpose flour (preferably Lindley Mills or King Arthur)
1 cup (5 oz.) chestnut flour (see note)
4–5 tbsp. room-temperature water
In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and yolks. In a medium bowl, blend the flours. Combine the flours with the eggs and 4 tbsp. of water. Turn out and knead until a smooth, pliable dough has formed, about 10 minutes. The dough should be neither tacky nor crumbly (add an additional tablespoon of water as necessary). The kneading must be vigorous enough to develop the gluten in the flour. Under-kneaded dough will produce an easily torn noodle. Wrap the dough in plastic film and rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Divide the dough and store one of the halves for future use. This unused portion can be refrigerated for 24 hours or frozen for a month.
Divide the remaining dough in half. Flatten the first half and feed through a pasta roller at the widest setting. Fold the pasta sheet into thirds, like a letter, and again pass the sheet through the roller. Repeat this procedure four more times at the widest setting, each time folding the sheet into thirds and rotating it 90 degrees. Pass the sheet through the roller at incrementally narrower settings without folding. When the pasta sheet reaches 20 inches (probably at the middle setting), cut it into two 10-inch sheets for easier handling.
Pass the sheets through the roller until each is about 1/8-inch thick (the penultimate setting is probably as narrow as you need to go—the pasta sheet should not be paper thin). The finished sheets should be about 20 inches. Cut each sheet in half, trim any uneven edges and ends and lightly dust with flour to prevent sticking. Fold each sheet into thirds (again like a letter) and cut into half-inch strips. Unfold each strip, revealing a broad noodle about 8 inches long. Loosely pile the cut tagliatelle, dusting with flour to prevent sticking. Repeat the entire process with the second dough half.
SAUCE AND GARNISH
10 thick stalks of asparagus
2 large eggs, beaten
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup room-temperature water
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
1 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto, roughly chopped
6 tbsp. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, or to taste
1/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs, or to taste (see note)
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
With knife or mandoline, thinly slice the asparagus lengthwise and reserve. The asparagus should match the length and thickness (about 1/8 inch) of the tagliatelle. Add the egg, butter and water to a large sauté pan, off heat. In large pot, bring 1 gallon of water to a boil. Add the tagliatelle to the water, stir gently to disentangle and cook for 45 seconds. Add the boiled tagliatelle, steaming hot, to the egg, butter and water. Gently sauté over a low heat, swirling to incorporate the ingredients and generate a slightly viscous egg-butter sauce (do not expose to high heat or the eggs will curdle). Season with salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the heat and fold in the chopped prosciutto. Plate the dish. Garnish with Parmigiano-Reggiano, breadcrumbs and a fine drizzle of olive oil.
Weaver Street Market sells one-pound bags of chestnut flour milled by High Rock Farm of Gibsonville. Amazon.com also sells a variety of chestnut flours. Feel free to substitute simple egg pasta for the chestnut tagliatelle. Panciuto's basic pasta recipe combines 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, 2 eggs, 2 egg yolks and 1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil. To produce Panciuto-caliber breadcrumbs, bake thinly sliced ciabatta (preferably from Weaver Street Market) at 250 degrees for 30 minutes. Put the toast in a food processor and chop to medium-fine consistency. The shock of the hot tagliatelle and the gentle heat of the sauté pan should fully cook but not curdle the eggs. Those concerned about salmonella contamination should use pasteurized eggs.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A hearty noodle."