Ravioli da Uovo

When I was deciding which dish I wanted to create for my artifact project, I immediately rephrased the question in my mind to “Which Italian pasta am I going to study?”. My interest in Italian culture has been deeply embedded ever since I moved there at the age of 16. Being uprooted from Dallas, Texas in the middle of high school and relocating to Milan, Italy was an experience I never could have anticipated. I had never even been to Milan before it became my new home. Sure, I had visited Italy before but my prior experience with Italian food was limited, mainly consisting of American-Italian cuisine.

As I began to familiarize myself with the local cuisine and customs, I learned how very different true Italian cooking is compared to what is presented to us in the US. The simplicity of the dishes is what really amazes me even today. So when deciding on a dish, I thought back to my first clear memory of experiencing incredible and authentic Italian cuisine. We had just moved to Milan and decided to take a weekend trip up to Lake Como.

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My experience was as follows:

My mom, step-dad, sister and I sit down to lunch on a beautiful outdoor patio. The weather is perfect and we have views of the entire lake. Not comprehending the Italian menu, I told the waiter that I would like whatever he thinks is the best pasta. I would say I am a pretty adventurous eater, but what he proceeded to bring me was like nothing I had ever had before.

A single small white bowl was placed in front of me, with only a single, large ravioli. My first reaction was “This is it? I only get one?”. I proceeded to cut into the pasta with my fork not knowing what was inside. Suddenly bright orange liquid seeps out, covering the rest of the pasta. Surprised and confused I put the fork to my mouth and was immediately blown away. The flavors and textures were like nothing I had ever experienced. I can’t think of any other cuisines that feature raw egg yolk so indulgently. This is more or less the masterpiece that is Ravioli da Uovo:

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My next experience with this dish wasn’t until a few years later. Surprisingly, I never found this dish on the menu at any restaurants in Milan. As I began to become more familiar with Italian cuisine, I did start to assume maybe it was due to the regional cooking practices. Dairy based dishes were much more typical of southern Italian cooking. The summer after I had finished a semester abroad in Florence, my mom and I took the train down to Parma to take a cooking class at the Barilla academy. We didn’t request a specific menu but the ravioli da uovo happened to be one of the things we were making that day. This is where I would like to talk about the process of making the dish.
Although a simple and fluid deconstruction, the process of making this dish requires extreme precision. First we made the pasta dough from scratch, proceeding to run it through the machine until we had a very thin sheet of pasta. Next you make the cheese filling, a mixture of spinach and ricotta, which is crucial to securing the egg yolk. With the dough cut into large squares, you begin to layer the cheese mixture in a large tower-like structure leaving a hole in the center.

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Next, you must separate the whites and the yolk, and carefully place the yolk in the center of the tower being careful not to break it. Once the yolk is safely resting inside the cheese, it is time to form the ravioli. Finally, with extreme caution, gently cover the egg with a final sheet of pasta and seal the edges with a fork, making sure not to put any pressure on the yolk or else it will break and result in a sad gooey mess.

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If you have successfully made it to this step, you are not far away from the final product!

Fresh pasta has a very short cooking time, so the ravioli only need to be cooked for a few minutes. The precision here is once again extremely decisive to accomplishing this dish. If you cook it too long the yolk will no longer be raw, but if you don’t cook it long enough the pasta will still be doughy. Once you remove the ravioli, there are a variety of sauces you can prepare. The final product should look like this:

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Although an extremely precise and detailed procedure, the ravioli da uovo are deconstructed with such simplicity. Appreciating this dish as a visual art form elevates the experience of eating it; one I might not have had if I never learned how to make it.

A second aspect I would like to discuss is the movement of this dish from the tables of the elite to the tables of local trattorias and family homes. The dish was, in essence, created by circumstance. Nino Bergese, chef to the last king of Italy, created this dish due to financial shortcomings. The royal family was bankrupt, so to save money, Bergese began to fill the ravioli with egg instead of costly meat. Italy became a Republic so Bergese, out of a job, opened his own small restaurant in Genoa. Here, this dish found a second life among the non-aristocracy. To me, this is interesting due to the meticulous process of making the pasta. In todays day and age, usually the more skill that goes into making a dish the higher it is priced.

After retirement, Bergese became a consultant at the restaurant San Domenico at Imola. His apprentice, Valentini Marcattilii, soon became a master at the dish. Marcattilii saw an opportunity to bring this Italian delicacy to New York and by the 1980’s the US was introduced to ravioli da uovo.

It is this transition that also shifted the status of the dish back to one of elite privilege. Marcattilii’s new restaurant, aptly titled San Domenico, was the pinnacle of fine dining and priced the ravioli at $50 for a single serving.Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 2.52.14 PM

To me, this exemplifies the market of the “other”. When eating food that is not of one’s same culture, assigning value becomes very difficult if not inappropriate. Not only is this cuisine foreign to you, making it very hard to distinguish the effort that went into making it and the types and quality of ingredients involved, but also each culture has a different set of values and standards in terms of food. I think this is an interesting aspect to study especially in New York City. Learning the history of this dish and the cause of its creation, I was surprised to find that In New York City it is prominently found at very upscale restaurants. Born as an economical alternative to pricey meat ravioli, the ravioli da uovo was for most of its history a peasant dish. Perhaps its movement to the US allowed the dish to re-invent itself as a sophisticated delicacy, paying homage to the difficult assembly by valuing the dish at a higher price.

In relation to my own personal taste profile, this dish is an extreme outlier in my experiences with Italian cooking and overall preferences. Throughout my time spent living in Italy I became accustomed to the simplicity of the cooking. Grilled meats, vegetables, and simple pastas were my staples and they continue to be my favorite foods today. The richness of the ravioli da uovo completely goes against my taste profile. This also forms another interesting contrast between the richness of the flavor and the minimalism of ingredients.

To me, ravioli da uovo is a dish that falls somewhere in the middle between food of the “other” and food of my own. The beauty of the dish lies in the contrast between simplicity and complexity, and nobility and humility.