Learning from the masters: Spaghetti a la guitara

Learning from the masters: Spaghetti a la guitara

“I can’t slow down.  If I slow down, I’ll get tired.” says Anna, our adopted Italian nonna (Grandma) for the day.

At 77, she has been making pasta several times per week for most of her life.  In the beginning, she’s not sure what to make of us … English speaking ladies with cameras, who aren’t so interested in actually making the pasta, but rather in photographing how she does it.

We’re in a converted monastery where Anna lives with her family, in the Abruzzo region of Italy.   It’s fitting all of the rural Italian stereotypes I have in my head – a view of olive groves and vineyards, a very noisy, big, bustling family, her grandson playing accordion, everything happening at it’s own pace, on Italian time.

Anna’s hands only move at one speed – super fast.  We keep asking her to slow down (through our translator), so we can capture it more clearly on film.  But she just finds that funny (why would you want to work slowly?), laughs at us, and continues on.  Clearly this woman knows how to make pasta.

Staircase up to the monastery kitchen

We’re making spaghetti a la guitara.  The pasta gets its name from the ‘guitar’ like instrument used to cut the pasta.  The pasta itself is pasta all’uovo (egg pasta) which we saw all across Abruzzo.  If you want to try making pasta all’uovo, you can find recipes like this one across the internet.  But while a recipe provides the guidelines, there’s something so precious about learning directly from someone who has lived this tradition.

Making the dough directly on the work surface with just flour, eggs and salt.

I’m sure you can relate to this experience.  You get the recipe for Grandma’s cookies or your mother’s jam, and even though you follow the recipe perfectly, it just doesn’t taste the same.

Anna expertly rolling the dough into a perfect circle.

There’s always some secret ingredient or mis-measured quantity or special technique that just doesn’t translate into the written recipe.

Anna told us that you once you learned to make perfect pasta,
you were ready to get married. I’ve heard something similar
in the USA about rolling a perfectly round pie crust.

I’ve often wondered if some ingredients are intentionally left out of a recipe to make sure that it can’t be recreated.  Or maybe the ingredients or technique just seem so obvious to the expert that there’s no point in including them.  (Like old cake recipes from my Grandma which just have a list of ingredients … because obviously everyone knows how to bake a cake.)

But back to our pasta-making story.  After making the pasta, it had to rest for 15 minutes … so they brought us homemade almond cake and we wandered around the monastery.

Here is the Guitara which cuts the pasta – it’s strung with metal guitar strings which cut the pasta into spaghetti.

Like so many traditional recipes, pushing the pasta through the guitara was hard work!

Finally, the pasta was laid out in little nests on a tray to dry.

Of course, we couldn’t leave without testing the quality of the finished product.

Apparently “a little” pasta has a different meaning in Italy.  Buon Appetito!

Have you ever tried to recreate family recipes and found there’s just something missing?  Did you ever have the chance to learn directly from the expert … and how did you capture that experience?  Share your stories below!


About the author

Amanda Cook is an author, entrepreneur, and alchemist. She helps successful women create lives of meaning & magic by connecting with the seasons. Her work has appeared on BBC Radio 4, The Sunday Telegraph, Natural Health UK Magazine, and more. Learn more at AmandaCook.me.

Amanda Cook is an author, entrepreneur, and alchemist. She helps successful women create lives of meaning & magic by connecting with the seasons. Her work has appeared on BBC Radio 4, The Sunday Telegraph, Natural Health UK Magazine, and more. Learn more at AmandaCook.me.

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  1. i’m intimidated to go through all my photos from italy, but i really just need to sit down and do it! maybe tonight. loved getting to see your photographic story of this fun day!

  2. I used to have that problem, that my attempts never seemed as good as Mom’s (or someone else). Then, I read a study that showed that food prepared with loving hands tastes better. Food prepared with angry or resentful hands is bitter, and food prepared in a bored fashion tastes a little bland. I imagine food prepared in any mindset reflects that flavor. If you’re sure your attempt at the beloved recipe isn’t going to measure up, it’s probably going to taste a little lacking!

    Now, when I make those things, I focus on how good the dish is, and good memories of the person who taught me the preparation or shared the recipe!

    1. Steffie, I love this idea! (Would love to read that study, actually…) I do think that our thoughts and expectations make things taste better or worse (like when you tried that favorite childhood food again as an adult and it was just ‘blah’ … after having such high expectations.)
      It’s a good reminder to make, and eat, our food with love and care and mindfulness, and to enjoy it for what it is. Thanks for your comment!

  3. oh Amanda– I didn’t get to be with you all for this lovely experience but your photos and story make it feel like I did! love it SOooo much!! xoox, e

  4. Amanda, I love this! I learned to cook from my Great grandmother, grandmother and mother. All three of them Italian geniuses, but my GG had some amazing talent! Luckily, I was fortunate enough to have learned from them. Its very true, however… Despite having been directly taught by them, or the fact that I have their recipes to follow, it never seems the same when I make it.

    1. Zach! Wish you were closer so could try some of this Italian home cooking 😉 If you ever feel like sharing a recipe I’m always looking for more traditional food to try…

  5. so great! love the story and beautiful photos too! I really love the one of Anna rolling out the dough and her sprinkling the flour.

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