I keep staring at this photo, seeing that golden tangle of fresh tagliatelle luminous in the afternoon sunlight, and rubbing my eyes. I'm used to seeing a tray like this on our table, for sure, but there's one small difference this time. This time, I'm the one who made that pasta and it's tickling me pink.
Every time I go to Italy, to the little village where my grandfather lived for so many years, our friends there keep us flush in good things to eat: like homemade tagliatelle and a bagful of fresh peaches from Franca, a freshly killed and roasted rabbit from Maria, homemade crescia sfogliata that Eugenia made and stuck in the freezer for later cooking, or a handful of black truffles foraged by Stefania's son Federico and delivered in a paper towel on an afternoon social call.
This year I decide I want to learn to make pasta myself. So one afternoon I sling my camera across my back and set out for Maria's house, walking past the shuttered houses where our neighbors sleep while the sun beats down on the fields around us. The human silence is warm and familiar while the birds swoop above with abandon and cats blink lazily in patches of shade. I've done this walk a hundred, a thousand, times but this year it's suffused with nostalgia and a faint pain grips my heart. I feel like I did twenty years ago, as my sandals gently slap the concrete of the road. The town looks as it did twenty years ago, the same weathered shutters and swaying trees. But so much has changed and no matter how hard I tried to hold on to the way it used to be, I have been forced - I am being forced - to let go.
As I walk, I see former versions of myself, walking alongside me. I see my cousins, racing me up the hill, and our friends, sitting on the curb late at night, thrilled by the possibilities that life holds for us all. I see my whole life so far, reflected in the memories that the hills and valleys around me hold. I see my grandfather, or I try to, but it's hard. His absence is flat and final. He's difficult to conjure.
Down at Maria's, she leads me into a room where she has her pasta station set up. Maria started making fresh pasta at the age of seven, standing on a chair to reach the table, and had to do so every day for years. There's an old wooden board and a long rolling pin, fresh eggs from the chickens outside, and an industrial-sized bag of flour. She measures out a little less than 300 grams of flour and tells me that the flour should take around three eggs, three of her eggs, she cautions, from the chickens outside, not those larger industrial eggs you find at the store.
We make a well of flour on the board, then crack the eggs into the well. The yolks are impossibly orange, they practically glow. I remember making a hole in the fresh eggs we'd get from Maria, and Gina, who lives behind my grandfather's house, as a kid, and sucking the sweet, raw egg through that hole into my mouth as a special treat. Using a fork, Maria shows me how to beat the eggs without breaking the well and then slowly begin to incorporate the flour as I beat until the whole mass comes together as a rough, yellow ball of dough.
Maria instructs me to start kneading that ball of dough, so I do. I knead for several minutes, while she observes my hands silently, then several minutes more, and several minutes after that, too. My shoulders start to tire. I look up at her, but it seems I'm not done yet and I feel a bit fraudulent. When the dough is as smooth and plasticky as Play-Do, when it feels like the underside of your arms, untouched by the sun, that's when it's ready to go.
Maria's technique for rolling out that chubby round of dough into a sheet so thin you can read newspaper through it involves that long rolling pin, the shuffling movement of palms, the slapping and rolling of the dough over the pin and onto the board and onto itself, and then back again. She makes it look so easy, of course, even though it's not, not at all.
We cover the dough with towels and let it rest for a bit. My mother comes down to the house and we talk about old times. I used to hear chickens squawking in the yard outside, but over the years Maria has landscaped her house and the chickens and rabbits are now farther away, removed by a terrace. It's quiet and a fly drones above us. Finally, it's time.
Maria rolls one side of the dough halfway into itself and then rolls the other side halfway into itself. She brings out a long, narrow board that fits snugly onto her tabletop and equips me with a serrated knife. I start to slice, watching the curls of tagliatelle emerge on the other side of the knife, suddenly marveling in the simplicity of the whole thing. Who needs hand-cranked machines or boxes of store-bought noodles? Not me, not anymore.
We say goodbye to Maria but not before I snap her photograph. She's beautiful but acts bashfully, is uncomfortable in front of the lens. We eat the tagliatelle the next night, the last meal I'll have in Italy this year. They're good, delicious even, tender and eggy and sauced with tomatoes and basil from the garden. I wonder if I'll ever make them in New York. If it will be as nice as it was in Maria's kitchen, with her standing behind me, watching.