Hidden in the streets of Bari, Italy is a small alley where a dozen grannies make fresh pasta by hand every day.
They have been there for decades, carrying forward a tradition passed down over generations.
Today, Via Arco Basso, the alley where they live and work, has become a rite of passage for tourists and locals looking for great pasta and a breath of authenticity.
One of the grannies, Nunzia Caputo, shows us how she makes Bari’s most emblematic pasta shape: orecchiette with semolina flour.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Claudia Romeo: We are in Bari, Italy, and today we are going to see how fresh pasta is made. Today is a very special day because this is my hometown, and I am going to take you to a local gem: a small alley in the old town where grannies make fresh pasta by hand. That’s right, they are there all day, or, sort of, with their hands in the dough. They know everything about pasta making, they know everything about this historic neighborhood, but most of all, they are the coolest grannies you could stumble upon while walking down the street. Let’s go meet them.
Nunzia Caputo: This is our workshop, our space, our everything. By the road, see. One step and we’re outside, one step and we’re inside. This is an art that doesn’t have to be put aside. Rather, it was gifted to us, and we have to look after it and pass it down. But unfortunately not everybody listens.
Claudia: One could say that Nunzia is the official standard-bearer. In January 2020, she crossed the Atlantic to New York to share her pasta-making skills with the world. Today, I meet her in her house, where she shows me how she makes Bari’s most emblematic pasta shape: orecchiette with semolina flour.
How much flour is there here? How much water?
Nunzia: Nothing, nothing. Whatever works. Because if it’s hot and there is humidity, semolina doesn’t absorb too much water. So I could never give you a precise calculation. It depends on the weather, the temperature.
Claudia: So, today is very hot in Bari, the water —
Nunzia: It will take little water.
Claudia: It will take little water. Also, the water is already warm.
Nunzia: There is no salt. There are no eggs. It’s only kneading, elbow grease. This is homemade pasta. I was a kid, I was not even 6, and by the will of my grandmother, I became a pasta maker. At that age. My life was divided between school — I wanted to study, but they did not let me — and orecchiette. I got married, I had kids, grandkids, and they also continue to make pasta.
Nunzia: Now burnt durum wheat is trendy, spinach flour, carrot flour, chili pepper flour, whole wheat flour.
Claudia: There are so many, in short.
Nunzia: We are a little bit more assorted. But the authentic one, the traditional one, it’s the best in my opinion.
Claudia: It’s this one. But —
Nunzia: It’s this one.
Claudia: When you make pasta, orecchiette with the other flours, what difference do you notice?
Nunzia: The colors.
Claudia: Ah, the colors only.
Nunzia: The colors, that is the difference. Because to work this type of semolina or that type of flour is the same thing. See, once the dough is done, you don’t have to wait for it to rise, because there is no yeast. There is no need to let it rest, and we start to “graminare.”
Claudia: “Graminare”? What does it mean? That you have to —
Nunzia: To smooth it out, see.
Claudia: Like this.
Nunzia: To get rid of the roughness of semolina. Then we make these little tubes, depending on the size.
Claudia: Ah, because semolina is rough.
Nunzia: Yes, yes.
Claudia: So if you don’t smooth it out —
Nunzia: That’s why we don’t put salt, because with salt, this grain that is so gritty, with salt it would break, and then it takes really a lot of strength.
Claudia: A lot of strength.
Nunzia: Also because there is no Bimby, there is nothing —
Nunzia: That could replace the manual skills of the hands.
Claudia: Ah, but here you have made orecchiette already. They’re already ready.
Claudia: In five minutes.
Nunzia: This is the regular size. The most popular that stands out both with vegetables and ragout. With —
Claudia: Braciola ragout.
Nunzia: Braciola ragout is the authentic Sunday dish in Bari.
Claudia: Ah, yes.
Nunzia: But also with basil and cherry tomato, arugula, cabbage, mushroom. It’s the right size. Then there is the slightly bigger one that we blanch with water, and then we flavor it.
Claudia: Ah, here it is. These are the big ones.
Nunzia: Yes. With mozzarella and a very light sauce. They have to swim. They can’t get a crust, otherwise they get hard. They have to be pretty soft.
Claudia: So that you have all the sauce inside.
Nunzia: The flavor goes all inside.
Nunzia: Then there’s cavatelli. And then I’ll show you the Foggia-style orecchiette. All of Puglia makes them, twisted on the finger, like so.
Claudia: Like so.
Nunzia: This is another type of orecchietta. But it’s not the original.
Claudia: Because these are the Bari-style ones. Because these are slightly flatter, no?
Nunzia: No, ours are rougher. They have roughness when you drag them. Whereas this one is twisted and is smoother.
Claudia: Ah, it’s true. It’s true.
Nunzia: See the difference.
Claudia: Yes, yes. So this one is Bari-style, from here.
Nunzia: This is the authentic one, ours, and this is the twisted one. All Puglia makes them like this.
Claudia: Except for Bari.
Nunzia: For us, in Bari.
Claudia: The size varies depending on the thumb of the pasta maker that makes it.
Nunzia: Apart from the thumb, the size of the little tube I make. If I make it smaller, I get it — wait, this is a lucky one.
Claudia: This one didn’t come out well.
Nunzia: Because when there are nails, it pierces.
Claudia: You have to be careful, of course.
Nunzia: You have to be careful, yes. A lot of people think that you can make orecchiette with nails, whereas no. You need a table manicure. No nail polish and no long nails, no oven lamp, no gel. All freehand.
Claudia: Otherwise here —
Nunzia: You get it all wrong.
Claudia: You pierce everything with nails.
Nunzia: You do.
Claudia: So I can’t do anything. I need to cut my nails.
Nunzia: Then there’s the other size, even smaller. This one. This one goes well with ricotta.
Claudia: Even smaller. Nunzia: Yes. Then there’s the cavatello. Claudia: How do you eat these? With ricotta —
Nunzia: These with ricotta. Some grated lemon and sugar. Claudia: Nice. How many orecchiette do you make per day?
Nunzia: Many, I can’t tell you how many. My evening is never on the sofa watching TV. Because my table is here, the TV is there, I look outside, I make orecchiette, I watch TV. Imagine, three actions in one.
Claudia: As they say in English, you multitask.
Nunzia: That’s it.
Nunzia: Whereas in Bari, you say “facim tut cos.”
Claudia: That’s the saying. Well, the meaning is more or less the same.
Nunzia: It is.
Claudia: Once ready, the orecchiette need to rest at room temperature to dry, sometimes overnight, sometimes for a few hours or a few minutes. It all depends on the weather.
Nunzia: Once I make them, there are some looms that we call retine. And if the weather allows, we put them outside. Otherwise we use a fan or a stove. DIY things. If you go camping, how do you do? You adapt to the space. Us too. This is our workshop, our space, our everything. By the road, see. One step and we’re outside, one step and we’re inside.
Claudia: These are really the houses of Old Bari.
Nunzia: The houses of Old Bari. And the spaces are not called spaces, but sottani.
Nunzia: Sottani of Old Bari. Yes.
Claudia: In the last few years, because the neighborhood —
Nunzia: I’m 62. We’ve been living here for 62 years. My grandma, God rest her soul. Then my mum, now there is me, and I have two homes a few steps away from one other. I reside there —
Claudia: And you work here.
Nunzia: And here I live. I’m forced. A bit because of work, a bit to look after her. I’m always here.
Nunzia: What I really miss is the studying that I was not allowed to pursue.
Claudia: But now, thanks to orecchiette, I know that you’re traveling a lot.
Nunzia: Yes, it’s been a beautiful experience. One day, some guy named Luca from the Puglia tourism board came over and told me, “Nunzia, you have to come to America with us.” In America, me? I always said that the world turns around Nunzia, now Nunzia has to go to America. “Yes, you have to come. There is a big international exhibition and you have to represent Puglia in New York.” And I felt so small. I backed away from the group that was there, of journalists and others. But then the consul calls me: “Nunzia, come here. It’s you I want to meet.”
Claudia: This is an ancient tradition. It’s important to preserve it.
Nunzia: It’s one of the beauties of Bari. We stand out and we are known through these blessed orecchiette. All over the world, they know orecchiette.
Claudia: If orecchiette were not there, Bari would be much poorer.
Nunzia: Exactly. Let’s hope to hang in there and pass it down.
Claudia: Can I try?
Claudia: Can you show me? Explain to me how it works, because I’m not really….
Nunzia: Yes. First of all, take the knife.
Nunzia: Like this. Move your index closer. The index.
Claudia: Of which hand?
Nunzia: This one.
Claudia: Of this one.
Nunzia: The index. Go ahead with the knife. Pull, pull, pull. There, a cavatello.
Claudia: Ah, this is a cavatello.
Nunzia: Yes, a cavatello. which is the — so and so. Let’s say that it went well.
Claudia: So and so, it’s so bad.
Nunzia: So and so.
Claudia: It has a little tuft, come on. It’s a bit of alternative cavatello.
Nunzia: But you can’t think that it’s a magic wand. Here you have to train.
Claudia: Can you let me do an orecchietta instead?
Nunzia: Like a good soccer player. To score goals, what do they do? They train. The same for orecchiette. You can’t make it, toh, immediately.
Claudia: It’s a good thing, otherwise —
Nunzia: Do it again.
Claudia: Let’s see. OK.
Nunzia: The orecchietta is more difficult.
Claudia: Ah, great!
Nunzia: Because, see, you have to give it the shape and drag it.
Claudia: At the end.
Nunzia: With two fingers.
Nunzia: Go, let’s see.
Claudia: Let’s see. And so…wait. Oh, my God. I’m sweating.
Nunzia: Like at an exam.
Claudia: Yes. So?
Nunzia: A cavatello.
Claudia: What is it?
Nunzia: No, it comes out like this.
Claudia: It doesn’t have any shape. This manual skill is to appreciate.
Nunzia: With this heat, look, making pasta is more tiring. When you’re inside, nice and curled up, the cold, it’s pleasant.
Claudia: Yes? It relaxes you. When you can make them. Otherwise you’re there, anxious, oh, my God!
The first batch of orecchiette is ready. The pasta is going to dry outside, which is Nunzia’s official shop and showroom.
But don’t put the bad one I made. That one, also. Way to go!
Nunzia: Whereas these big ones, you need to put them like so. That’s it. Now we can go outside.
Claudia: Until when are you going to stay here?
Nunzia: Eh, it depends on when I get tired. oday I don’t feel very much like working.
Claudia: That’s OK.
Nunzia: With you, I made an effort.
Claudia: Luckily. Surely because we are dressed the same.
Nunzia: It could be.
Claudia: So today —
Nunzia: We also match the colors.
Claudia: The color of orecchiette.
Nunzia: Not even if we had known. Tell them, Puglia is beautiful, the flavors of Bari are good, genuine, and flavorful. Come, come, come. And take care of yourselves.
Claudia: The real Bari tradition.
Nunzia: It’s this one.
Claudia: That we have to defend.
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