Mateo Zielonka - aka the Pasta Man - makes it look easy. It’s not, says Sophie Morris
It has been two weeks since I first spoke to “the Pasta Man” Mateo Zielonka, and I’ve eaten his spinach tagliatelle four times. This may sound diligent, homework after a pastamaking Zoom with Zielonka ahead of the publication of his first book, The Pasta Man: The Art of Making Spectacular Pasta (Quadrille, 10 June, £15). The truth is, I wanted to eat more pasta.
I was given a shiny machine for Christmas and knew that making the dough isn’t tricky. But discombobulation set in as I attempted to remember how many times I had rolled each sheet on each setting. I needed help. Zielonka’s pasta caught my magpie eye - along with 376,000 others on Instagram - because of the spectacular colours and shapes he creates. He rolls sheets of striped and spotted pasta, and wraps up ricotta or pumpkin or mushroom fillings in sweet and heart and hat shapes. His spinach green, beetroot pink and squid-ink-black spaghetti and tagliatelle are stylish but simple ways to amp up your pasta game. There are vegan and gluten-free options, too.
The striped pasta looks incredible - lines of pitch black or ruby red across buttery yellow. I’m sorely tempted to have a go, but alas, this is some next-level stuff, which requires making different coloured pastas, slicing them into strips and lining them up alternately, then rolling. Or taking a plain sheet and criss-crossing it with coloured dough. There are detailed recipes in the book but Zielonka advises that I try to walk before I can sprint.
We make a verdant dough by blending 125g blanched spinach with one egg, 250g Italian 00 flour and an egg yolk, and bringing the mix together in a bowl with a fork. “Don’t be afraid of the dough,” he says. “You can always fix it. Too dry? Add a tiny bit of water. If pasta breaks, you can always roll it again.”
We knead the dough for around 10 minutes. I suggest that this process has proved so popular because it’s something to beat our frustrations into, but Zielonka takes a more Zen perspective, describing it as an opportunity to meditate.
“Pasta-making is really relaxing,” he says. “It’s really good for our minds, because you are all in - if you make pasta, you only focus on making pasta. You have time to think, to contemplate.”
Carving out “pasta time” in my schedule does seem the ultimate expression of self-care. I envisage a future where I stay up late, not to hate-watch Selling Sunset but to shape scarlet and golden ravioli, tortellini and cappelletti, finding calm within soft folds and precise pinches.
Was it Zielonka’s mamma or his nonna who taught him to cook? “I’m not Italian,” he admits. “I am trying to respect the tradition while doing my twist on it.” In fact he’s only been to Italy once - to Sardinia, which gives us malloreddus, similar to gnocchi and made with vegan semolina dough. In their homeland, these firm bites are served with lamb ragu; Zielonka gives us vodka, tomato and mascarpone, as rich a mix as any meat sauce. We roll the pasta into long worms, slice these into nuggets, and create a slim ridged lozenge with an air pocket by pressing the pasta against a garganelli board, a small wooden tool that costs £12, though the back of a fork can be used instead.
The food writer Rachel Roddy is another non-Italian with a pasta book out this summer. She has lived in the country for many years and is an expert in the cuisine. An A-Z of Pasta (Fig Tree, 8 July, £25) tells the story of this world-favourite food through 50 tales about 50 shapes.
Every country has its favourite pasta dish, says Zielonka; where he grew up in Poland, it’s served with sauerkraut. His favourite recipe is culurgiones, a Sardinian filled pasta shaped like a small dumpling, filled with potato, mint and pecorino. “Double carbs - the dream,” he grins.
Zielonka learned his skills in some of the UK’s best pasta spots, such as Padella, where fans queue for hours for plates of pici cacio e pepe, fat noodles cooked with butter, cheese and black pepper. Today he is chef at 180 The Strand, a new cultural centre. Pasta may be getting the red-carpet treatment at the moment, but it is a great leveller.
“It is comfort food,” Zielonka says. I find it comforting enough to eat every day. Who’s with me?
‘The Pasta Man: The Art of Making Spectacular Pasta’ (£15, Quadrille Publishing Ltd) is out tomorrow
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Pasta Grannies Instagram.com/pastagrannies/ Half-a-million people follow this celebration of Italian grannies (nonnas) and their handmade pasta on Instagram, thanks to Vicky Bennison, who founded the project and has filmed hundreds of women with precious culinary knowledge. Watch Lina rolling extra-long fusilli or 96-year-old Pierina teasing a sheet of dough the size of her dining table ever thinner.
Bancone instagram.com/bancone.pasta/ Images of Bancone’s now-legendary silk handkerchief pasta with walnut butter and confit egg yolk almost broke the internet when the restaurant opened in Covent Garden in 2018. Sitting at the counter and watching chefs roll and shape pasta is almost as big a draw as eating it.
Pasta Evangelists https://www.instagram.com/pastaevangelists/ Not quite ready to roll your own? Pasta Evangelists is a letterbox fresh pasta delivery company delivering shapes and sauces from different regions of Italy from £6.50 a portion.