Hand-rolling pasta is the ideal pandemic cooking skill, especially when the tools are beautiful works of art
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If you think about it, there couldn’t be a better pandemic cooking activity than making fresh pasta by hand. It requires no hard-to-find ingredients or complicated tools, yet offers infinite potential for creativity. It’s also a meditative process that keeps anxious hands away from screens. And you end up with a plate of deliciously carb-y comfort food when you’re done.
Even better? Making pasta with the gorgeous tools created by Vancouver’s Dan Ewart.
Ewart learned how to work with wood when he was a kid, taught by his dad, who had a furniture business. But his creative hunger was for food, and for four years he was the sous chef at Osteria Savio Volpe.
“When I was at the restaurant, we had our supply of pasta tools, but they just weren’t very nice,” he says. “I started making the pasta tools for myself, then the other guys wanted them. And when we closed for COVID, I never went back.”
Since August, he’s been making wooden pasta rollers, gnocchi boards and ravioli cutters full-time, selling them through his Etsy store, Nonnas Wood Shop, as well as at local cafés including Giovane in the Fairmont Pacific Rim, Caffé La Tana, Flourist, and a couple of places in Toronto. And he’s not surprised there’s such a hunger for pasta tools: “Now that everyone’s at home and cooking, everyone wants to do it from scratch,” he says.
Among the most distinctive items he makes are the brass-wheeled pasta cutters with fancy burled wood handles and the intricately patterned stamps for corzetti, disc-shaped pasta that date back to medieval times in Liguria.
But the most popular are the mattarellos, the thick, long wooden rollers used to roll sheets of pasta to a paper thinness, a process that takes longer than using a machine, but is so much more satisfying. He makes the mattarellos from all sorts of wood—birch is particularly popular, but he also uses maple, black walnut, violet-hued purpleheart, blood-red padauk and cherry, “lots of cherry.” They range in length from 16 to 44 inches, and in price from $60 to $200.
Traditionally wielded by Italian nonnas, mattarellos were popularized in recent years by Evan Funke, the celebrated chef-owner of Felix Trattoria in Los Angeles, where all the pasta is rolled by hand using a mattarello. (His motto, fittingly, is: “F*#% Your Pasta Machine.”) He wrote a James Beard Award-winning book called American Sfoligno: A Master Class in Pasta Making, and created a documentary called, simply, Funke for Amazon Prime. “People watched that and now everyone wants a mattarello,” Ewart says.
Funke’s theory is that machines crush the minuscule air pockets inside the pasta dough, making it heavy and leaden, while rolling it by hand keeps things light.
“I’m not sure I could tell the difference,” Ewart admits, “but it’s a lot of fun to do.”
Find Ewart’s wooden pasta boards, rolling pins, brass cutters and other tools at etsy.com/ca/shop/NonnasWoodShop.