Pasta is arguably (or not) one of the greatest carbohydrates. The yellow-tinged foodstuff comes in hundreds of different forms and is a vessel for one of life’s other great pleasures — sauce.

Making pasta is nothing short of a skill, and while its composition comprises just a handful of ingredients, mastering the art of pasta-making is far from simple.

Chefs Marco Villa and Michael Otto talk to Hospitality about learning the basics, pairing shapes with sauces and what makes a good plate of pasta.

Marco Villa grew up in Southern Italy and found himself in the kitchen from a young age. You see, Villa was busy learning from the best — his mother and grandmother. “They were the first people who taught me how to cook when I was really young,” he says. “My mum had to work, so she taught me how to make pasta which I’d prepare for lunch.”

The foundational cooking lessons had a significant influence on Villa, who went on to study cookery and forge a career as a chef, most recently at Tipico in Melbourne. As with many skills, the learning process is a combination of books and experience. “The main difference in school is that you learn the theory and the methods, but the reality is you also learn from being in the kitchen with other chefs who teach you all their tricks to making the best-possible pasta,” says Villa.

Sagra Head Chef Michael Otto had a similar experience — albeit in Australia. “We cooked pasta at home, so I’ve been making it my whole life,” he says. “You’re taught how to make pasta at TAFE and most people have an idea about how to make it, but they don’t do it well. Making high-quality pasta takes a fair bit of training.”

Otto relied on a mixed bag of formal education meets the internet meets kitchen experience. “I mostly trained under chefs including the former owner of Sagra, Nigel [Ward] and the head chef Glenn,” he says. “They both taught me heaps. I also just became comfortable enough to chat with other chefs, which was really helpful with learning; most of it is trial and error.”

Pasta is made of just three ingredients: flour, water and eggs, should the shape call for it. Of course, there are other additions depending on the dish, but flour is of the utmost importance. Villa combines a number of flours together to create the best consistency. “We like to mix different types of flour together at Tipico,” he says.

“We use semolina, 00 flour and 000 flour, which is something new we’re trying. 000 gives the best flavour, but it’s hard to work with. Not many people use it; it’s something used a lot in pastry. It was a tip from a previous chef I worked with. When you eat the pasta, it’s a completely different feeling in your mouth.”

The restaurant switches up the pasta offering frequently, and has also experimented with wholemeal and chestnut flours alongside other additions such as charcoal and cooked vegetables.

But additional ingredients introduce the challenge of reworking ratios. “We are making charcoal pasta where we mix two flours with activated charcoal powder,” says Villa. “But adding the charcoal made the consistency too wet and hard to stretch, so we had to mix in semolina. Same with the beetroot tortelli we are making now; cooked beetroot adds a lot of moisture, so we had to adjust the recipe and mix in another flour to reach the right consistency.”

Otto also opts to mix flours, combining 00 with Bellata Gold Milling’s semolina which is made in Tamworth, New South Wales. “We use ¾ semolina and ¼ 00 flour,” says the chef. “There’s a little bit of flavour with the semolina, but it’s not a lot. It’s more about how much the sauce sticks to the pasta compared to 00 flour or bread flour; you end up with a much smootherpasta and the sauce doesn’t sink into it.”

The Sagra team will incorporate eggs, but only when called for. “We use them when we want the dough to be stretchier, so for filled pastas like tortellini, but we wouldn’t use it for spaghetti where we want more chew.”

Sourcing the right equipment goes a long way to reducing the labour-intensive task of making pasta. There is a realm of intricate shapes such as orecchiette and pici that require a deft touch, but making the shapes on a restaurant scale is a challenge.

Both Sagra and Tipico list cutters, stretchers and rollers as essentials. “The stretcher cuts down preparation time immensely especially when you’re making pasta every day,” says Villa. “We also uses a 15-litre mixer.”

Otto says a gnocchi board is another piece of equipment Sagra commonly uses along with a roller. “We use the roller pretty much every day and we have an extruder we use all the time.”

While the right pieces of equipment make the job a little easier, there’s no denying the investment required to make fresh pasta. Tipico breaks the job up over a number of days to fit in with the rest of the restaurant’s prep.

“We make the dough the day before and then we cut, vac-pack and store it in a cool room,” says Villa. “It needs to rest for at least half an hour, but a day is good. When I come in the next day, I’ll let it come up to temperature and then stretch and shape the pasta.”

Otto says making pasta is the most demanding task the kitchen team manages. “We usually have four pastas on and a special, so it’s easily the most time-consuming thing we do; there’s someone on it for a couple of hours each day.”

Shelf life is also largely dependent on the type of pasta. Filled and egg variations expire quicker but can be frozen if not used in a couple of days, whereas a dry extruder pasta is still good to go almost a week later.

Working out which sauces and shapes pair together all comes down to experience. For Villa, it’s straightforward. “When I cook meat-based sauces such as a ragu, it can go with long or short shapes,” says the chef. “If I’m making a sauce with mushroom and sausage, I’d use rigatoni or macaroni. But if I’m preparing seafood or fish, I stick with
long shapes such as spaghetti, tagliolini and tagliatelle. Most people follow the standard, but sometimes it’s nice to try new things like filling up big rigatonis in the same way as cannelloni.”

At Sagra, it’s a similar story. “It’s a bit of intuition, but ribbon-y pastas go with meat sauces and spaghetti and firm ones go well with fish,” says Otto. “We don’t use too much butter in our fish sauces, so it binds better. We usually bake tube pastas, but generally those things are my go-tos.”

You can make a killer sauce and pasta shape, but it all comes down to how well
they bind together. “Consistency is very important; it’s not good if all the sauce is on the bottom and not sticking to the pasta,” says Villa.

The Italian word mantecare is of utmost importance when it comes to creating a cohesive pasta dish. The term loosely translates to creating a creamy texture through mixing. “The sauce must be attached and combined to the pasta — it shouldn’t be around the plate,” says Villa. “It takes a lot of experience to make pasta in this way. People from Southern Italy are masters of it.”

Villa is also keen to see Australians approach a plate of pasta a little differently. “In Italy, we have pasta everywhere, but what people really love is the sauce,” says the chef. “They clean the plate. Here, people eat the pasta and leave leftover sauce and I always think, ‘Why did they leave the best part?’ Pasta is pasta — the tastiness of the sauce is more important.”

Fortunately for local diners, the future looks bright when it comes to securing a plate of top-tier pasta. “When I first came here, there weren’t that many good Italian restaurants,” says Villa. “But there are so many good places now. Italian chefs have really imported what we have in Italy to Australia; especially in Melbourne. Nowadays, you can find almost everything we do in Italy here.”