perfect pasta

Perfect pasta

photo Marina Oliphant

When you want perfect pasta, ask an Italian.

Early in my career, I was extremely fortunate to work in several restaurants with talented Italian cooks, who shaped my ideas about great pasta. Not all were qualified chefs, but masters of their craft nonetheless. Recently, I have met and worked with more of these talented Italian cooks, as they photograph, document and preserve their traditional family recipes. The two Nonnas –Rosa and Maria, have shared their traditional ragu recipe below. Traditionally, this would be served in two parts – the sauce would be served with pasta, followed by a second course with the meat accompanied by salad.  If you would like a rich, meaty ragu pasta sauce, then roughly shred the meat and fold through the sauce to enjoy all at once. I urge you to make it, as it is absolutely delicious. Which brings me to the gnocchi: in my opinion, the perfect accompaniment for this sauce. This is an easy recipe to try, and can be undertaken whilst the sauce is simmering away. The recipe comes from a great Italian food writer, Anna del Conte. The gnocchi require a light touch, so don’t knead the dough too much. Small hands make great gnocchi and my 12 year-old son helps me all the time. So get your kids into the kitchen to help with this one. I don’t deny that it’s messy, but there’s an extra pair of hands to help clean up afterwards. For fancy gnocchi, you can shape them with a fork, but I prefer a more rustic misshapen look, which happens to be much easier.

Lastly, try my version of the classic Penne Genovese from the Dog’s Bar, in St.Kilda. It still stands as my all time favourite pasta sauce. And it’s from yet another great Italian cook.

Rosa and Maria’s recipe for Ragu sauce

The ragu sauce is considered as the master of all sauces in the Italian household. The ingredients are not fancy, yet as the sauce simmers, the complex flavours build and develop into a deliciously rich sauce. For more of these authentic recipes, visit their website

¼ (quarter) cup Olive oil

1 large Onion, chopped finely

3 cloves Garlic, chopped finely

1 small Carrot, chopped finely

1 cup Parsley, chopped finely

3-4 pieces of Beef chuck steak on bone (about 1 kg)

2-3 Pork spare ribs

4 x 750ml bottles Tomato Passata

1 tbsp Tomato paste (if passata too watery)

¼ (quarter) tsp Nutmeg, grated (optional)

Small bunch fresh Basil leaves

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large saucepan heat the olive oil then add the onion, garlic and carrot and fry until the onion becomes translucent and carrot has softened, being careful not to burn the garlic.

Add the chopped parsley and cook this a little ensuring it is combined with the onion mixture.

The beef pieces and pork spare ribs are now added to the saucepan. Brown each piece on all sides, it is important that the meat has a nice colour as this will enhance the flavour of the final sauce.

If you are using the tomato paste you can add it at this point by pushing the meat to one side of the saucepan and frying off the tomato paste for a minute or two.

Now you can add your tomato passata, one bottle at a time ensuring it is well combined with the meats.

Season with salt, pepper and a little grated nutmeg and stir through.

Add your basil leaves by tearing them into the sauce, and again stir through.

Place the lid on the saucepan slightly askew allowing excess steam to escape and cook on a low heat for at least two hours.

makes enough for 8.

Potato gnocchi

photo Marina Oliphant

According to Italian food writer, Anna Del Conte, these gnocchi originated from the Veneto region. They are easy to make with the addition of egg to bind the dough. My tip; cook the potatoes with the skin on until properly tender, as they are easier to sieve.

1 kg floury potatoes, well scrubbed

1 tsp salt

300g (1 ½ cups) 00 flour

1 large free range egg, beaten

75g unsalted butter

Boil the potatoes in plenty of water until tender. Drain and peel whilst still hot.

Sieve the potatoes onto a clean workbench or large bowl, using a potato ricer or food mill.

Sprinkle the salt onto the flour in a separate bowl and mix well.

Add beaten egg and half the flour to the potatoes. Knead, gradually adding more flour, until the mixture is soft, smooth and slightly sticky.

(Depending on the potatoes, you might need a little more flour).

Divide dough in four then shape mixture into rolls about 2.5cm in diameter and then cut into 2 cm pieces.

Use a fork to make ridges in the gnocchi, if you like (optional).

Bring 5 litres of water to the boil in a large saucepan. Do not put salt in the water as this tends to make the gnocchi stick together.

Meanwhile, heat butter in a large flat ovenproof dish in a low oven.

Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water, about 20 at a time. After they rise to the surface you need to cook for a further 20 seconds. Use a slotted spoon to remove from the pot. Dry on kitchen paper then transfer to heated ovenproof dish and toss lightly in butter.

Repeat until all the gnocchi are cooked.

Serves 4.

Penne Genovese

photo Marina Oliphant

When the Dog’s Bar opened in St.Kilda in the early 1990’s, Aurelio, the cook, used to make this fantastic Penne Genovese. This is my own humble version of the classic.

500g pork rashers or pork belly

250g veal

180g end piece of prosciutto

2 tbsp olive oil

5 stalks celery

3 carrots

1 onion

3 cloves garlic

1 cup white wine

3 cups veal or chicken stock

half cup parsley leaves

1 tsp white pepper

500g penne pasta

freshly grated parmesan to serve

Chop pork and veal into large dice, about 2cm. Chop the prosciutto into 1 cm dice.

Heat oil in pan and fry meat for a few minutes until browned.

Remove from pan.

Roughly chop celery, carrots and onion into large dice. Finely chop garlic. Saute vegetables in pan for about 10 minutes until well cooked. Add meat, wine and stock, bring to the boil, reduce heat and cook for about 45 minutes or until meat is very tender.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and set aside.

Add parsley and pepper to sauce and stir well to combine.

Toss pasta with sauce and serve with plenty of freshly grated parmesan.

Serves 4.