Among the many virtues of the cuisine of Italy is it’s unmatched simplicity. Despite all the gastronomic innovations taking place worldwide, many can agree that the most satisfying dishes to come out of Italian kitchens are those consisting of straightforward, seasonal ingredients that are prepared using traditional methods. The concept of simplicity may be most accurately depicted through the numerous pasta dishes of which Italy is known.
Fresh pasta often contains no more than three ingredients, and the sauces that adorn them are only marginally more complicated, thus allowing the individual ingredients to take center stage. That mid-summer tomato sauce needs little embellishment when it’s made with locally-grown heirloom tomatoes. Covering up their natural sweetness is a cardinal sin.
According to the National Pasta Organization, Italians consume more pasta than any other nationality, with a per capital consumption of 23.5 kg (Over 51 pounds) annually. That is over double the amount that the average American consumes, and after a trip to Italy, many can agree that the Italians are superior in quality as well as quantity.
The history of this starchy staple is a source of disagreement among historians, with some attributing Marco Polo with bringing the concept back to Italy upon returning from a voyage to China. What this theory fails to recognize is that modern pasta has an ancestor that pre-dates Mr. Polo’s journey by many centuries. It’s name is Testroli.
This ancient variety of pasta was conceived by early Etruscans in present-day Lunigiana, a territory located on the northern tip of Tuscany, slightly east of Liguria. All it takes is a brief glance to realize that this is not the pappardelle or fettucine found on countless Italian menus.
The ingredients themselves (flour, water and salt) are as ordinary as can be. It’s the rather mystifying cooking process that sets testaroli apart from present-day pasta.
It all starts with a special cooking vessel called a testi (yes, it really is called that). The testi consists of a flat, round base (the sottano) and a hollow cover (soprano), both of which are made of terracotta or cast iron. Once the base is heated up, a thin layer of ultra-thin batter is added and the cover is placed on top to ensure uniform distribution of heat.
The testaroli is never flipped, resulting in one side exhibiting deep caramelization and the other remaining pale. Once cool, the round is sliced into irregular diamond shapes and briefly boiled. This crepe-with-an-identity crisis is often served with a bright, herbaceous pesto. Gild the lily with some grated parmesan, and you’re ready to mangia.
The straightforward yet perplexing cooking technique of what is essentially water and flour is what makes the texture of testaroli so intriguing. They have a slightly spongey consistency compared to regular pasta, yet they also possess that distinct al dente pasta toothsome-ness.
The bracing oiliness and intense flavor of pesto is the perfect foil for these little diamonds; a heftier sauce and additional toppings would mask their distinct texture. Like so many other Italian dishes, simplicity is key.
Finding testaroli on a menu in Italy is only slightly easier than finding it in America (Testi are hard to find these days, I guess). Therefore, coming across it on a restaurant menu should evoke a happy dance followed by at least one order.
Establishments that put in the time and effort to serve testaroli are helping to preserve centuries of Etruscan culinary history. It’s just another example of what can happen when flour and water join forces.
Originally published through unconventionaleatsnh.com