A Recipe for Hospitality

A real-deal lesson in Italian pasta-making

Homemade lucertoloni al profumo al salvia

Homemade lucertoloni al profumo al salvia

PHOTO BY NANCY CHRISTY

We had a pasta-making lesson during a recent visit to Italy. That in itself is not an especially uncommon experience. But this particular pasta-making lesson was a precision course in hand-folding the freshest ingredients, in just-made dough, according to a recipe passed down from mother to son-in-law to daughter.

This took place in the kitchen of a fourteenth-century Roman villa that’s been remodeled into an agriturismo, a working farm that offers rooms and usually foods grown on-site. Tucked into the rolling green hills of Montefeltro in the Marche region of Italy, the villa is roughly forty miles from the coast of the Adriatic Sea. And that, along with the warmth and gracious hospitality of the Gallerani family, is what made this cooking lesson the genuine article.

Mario Gallerani, the owner of the Borgo Storico Cisterna, greeted us from his tractor on a hill overlooking the main gate when we arrived. He came down, helped us with our luggage and welcomed us to his home. We met his wife Stefania, and soon we were sitting on the patio with a cold drink getting to know each other. One by one, their  four children—Michele, Lucia, Elena and young Matteo—each shook our hands and introduced themselves.

Mario was a trained scientist-turned-CFO for a pharmaceutical company in Bologna where he and Stefania were born. Stefania was a banker. But five or six years ago they realized they wanted something different, away from the big city. They made what they called a life choice, looked at property in a couple of places and found the Borgo, a half dozen or more buildings, including a tower dating from the twelfth or thirteenth century and the sandstone remains of a large well, or “cisterna.” Five of the rooms have been turned into bedrooms furnished with beds, bureaus and chairs from the seventeenth century. It’s a spectacular property with a breathtaking view. But where we really got to learn about and experience the scope of the agriturismo was at dinner.

This was arguably the best meal we’ve ever had in Italy. There was a traditional fried bread from Bologna, squash blossoms, ham, salami and cheese served with an incredible warm onion-tomato condiment and honey, handmade pasta, rabbit, stuffed pork ribs and a wonderful dessert. Many of the ingredients came from the farm.

The highlight of the Borgo’s products are the capers. Autochthon capers typically grow in more southern climes like Sicily. Mario found them growing up the walls of the Borgo, as they had been for ages. He had them officially recognized and sells them as well as uses them in his own recipes. He’s also experimenting with an artisanal Fossa cheese, typically fermented under hay in ditches (to protect the cheese from invaders in ancient times), which he is letting sit under layers of homemade cherry wine.

Anyway, it was during dinner when, after being served the most beautiful pasta we’ve ever seen, Lucertoloni al profumo al salvia, that we asked Stefania for a lesson. She graciously agreed, and the next morning, after Michele had procured the necessary, fresh ricotta cheese and picked the bietola da costa greens for the filling, she showed us how to form the pasta “lizards,” as the word is translated, the way her mother taught Mario. It was pure generosity. Afterward Michele showed us the garden and picked seeds for the greens that he carefully wrapped in a paper towel, labeled and gave to us.

This is a family who gets it, who really care about their work, their lives, each other and their guests. And we were the grateful recipients. Very simply and honestly, we did not want to leave.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. 

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