Perhaps the hand of fate guided Maria Rendinell's friend when she called her with the news that a spot had opened in women's tour group hiking through Italy. Rendinell's Italian mother died the same day she received the call.
Rendinell overcame her trepidations that a trip to Italy would be callous so soon after her mother's death because she suspected that the outing would bring her closer to her mother, Maria Francesca Accattato, who emigrated from Italy when she was 20 years old. Rendinell had never been to Italy.
"I wanted to walk where she had walked, to see the olive groves and beautiful gardens she saw," Rendinell said. "She always had a garden."
With her family's blessings, she joined a group of 33 women, nearly all from Charleston, who hiked through the Italian countryside for 10 days in April, enjoying local food and wine as they went. They quickly decided to forgo the box lunches provided by their hotel in favor of fresh meals in out-of-the-way bistros and family restaurants. Whether they were in villages or cities, they sampled the local fare.
"The pasta was incredible, especially in the little local places you find along the streets," said Becky Graff. "They don't use as much sauce as we do and the pasta is really light."
The women spent their days hiking in three groups, divided into light, moderate and vigorous hikers. They marveled at the slower pace of Italian life and noticed that Italians don't rush out of coffee shops with a to-go cup. They sit and savor their coffee and their meals.
"The only to-go cups you saw were carried by Americans coming out of Starbucks," said Becky Jordon.
Near the end of their trip, in Sorrento, some of her friends, sighing over another plate of pasta, asked Rendinell if they could take the pasta home, or procure it at all.
"I told them, no, they couldn't take it, but I could show them how to make it," said Rendinell, whose mother taught her to make pasta. She continues the tradition in her home, making pasta for her family every other Sunday.
This past Saturday, the women joyfully gathered at Donna Slayton's home, each bearing a pasta sauce, Italian salad, appetizer or dessert to add to the feast. Debbie White brought homemade pesto she and her mother made from the 137 basil plants she grew last summer in her Kanawha City home. (Story at right.)
Rendinell brought her homemade cheese ravioli, meatballs and red sauce. Kim Skaff brought a creamy tomato basil sauce with artichokes and black olives. Ellen Setliff of Beckley whipped up an Alfredo sauce with prosciutto and peas from an Emeril Lagasse recipe, which she shared.
With a blast of her whistle, Rendinell interrupted the women's lively reminiscences to demonstrate how to make pasta. She made fettuccine and cavatelli, which she described as gnocchi without the potato filling.
Her instructions, learned at her mother's knee, were simple enough:
Figure 1 cup of regular, unbleached flour per serving. Make a well in the flour to place liquid ingredients.
For cavatelli, add some water, perhaps 1/4 to 1/3 cup per cup of flour. Add 1 egg for every 2 cups of flour.
For fettuccini, which is a stiffer dough, use 1 egg per cup of flour or 1/4 cup water. Only add more water if needed to moisten all of the flour.
Stir or work dough with hands, until consistency is smooth. "You have to really knead this dough," she said. "It's not delicate like pastry dough."
Let the dough rest for about 5 minutes.
She passed around small balls of dough for the women to work.
For cavatelli, they rolled the balls into 1/2-inch-wide ropes of dough. They cut the dough into slices, and then pushed the pads of their thumbs into the center of each one to form an indentation.
For fettuccini, they flattened the balls and cranked them through a pasta making machine on a flat noodle setting several times, decreasing the thickness each time. When they were thin enough, Rendinell changed the setting to fettuccine, and the dough came out in ribbons.
To cook, dump the pasta in salted boiling water and cook until it rises to the top of the pan. (Add a few drops of olive oil to the water to keep pasta from sticking.) Drain and serve.
Rendinell made the whole process look quite simple, if a little floury and messy, but she's perfected her technique through years of practice. Mama Accattato would have been proud.
Fettuccine Pasta with Proscuitto, Peas and Cream Sauce
1 pound fettuccine pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 cup diced onions
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 ounces prosciutto, cut into 1/4-inch strips
1/4 cup dry white wine