Local Grains, Italian Style
Text and Photos By Morgan Ione Yeager
When local chefs Kevin O’Donnell and Michael Lombardi first crossed paths in a kitchen, it was 2009 at Ristorante Zeppelin, a restaurant in the Umbrian city of Orvieto, Italy. After long nights working in the kitchen— and on their rare days off—they were drawn to the city’s small wine bars, sipping wine and eating small bites of traditional Italian cuisine.
“When in Italy,” Mike recalls, “a lot of our favorite places were standing-room-only wine bars. They are high energy, lots of fun, and very small bites of food. Tapas and small plates are all over Boston, but not the same style—not really small plates the way they are in Italy, or in Spain.”
Kevin’s eyes become wistful as he tells me of another favorite food memory. “I remember driving down a narrow road in Italy in our beat-up little car. We pulled over and bought mozzarella at a small cheese factory, then went outside and sat down on the dirty sidewalk. We held the balls of mozzarella in our hands and just ate the cheese, the juices dripping down our face, laughing and enjoying and experiencing. Part of what made that mozzarella taste so unbelievably good was the moment—the instant nostalgia of it, the spontaneity.”
Their adventures cooking together continued in New York City, back over to Europe, and then back to Boston. Each kitchen brought new challenges, experiences and refinement to their cooking. As their cooking relationship grew stronger, so did their dream of opening their own restaurant. The vision was simple and honest: They wanted their restaurant to create “food memories” for their guests, akin to their own favorite experiences.
The chefs partnered with the Coda Group. Plans to create a larger restaurant around the northern Italian cuisine and culture that they had fallen in love with began to develop, and SRV (Serene Republic of Venice) was born. It was Boston’s first Venetian style bacaro, a wine bar with small nibbles, traditionally served standing up.
It goes without saying that the pasta would be important. They needed a “pasta that would stand out from the rest of the city.” One way to do that was to mill their own flour. Flour, and the grain it is milled from, is rarely acknowledged as what makes one pasta better than another. In fact, right now if you were to type into your search engine “what makes pasta taste good,” you most likely won’t see any mention of wheat or durum or rye. You will find lots of methods of boiling water, adding salt, adding oil, not adding oil, egg yolk quantities, kneading dough times, best dried pastas, best fresh pastas... the list goes on and on. Very few articles speak of the whole grains before they’re milled into flour, the milling process and subsequently how fresh and flavorful the flour will be. Kevin and Mike tell me this is important, so I ask them to enlighten me.
They start by talking about the anatomy of a grain. Each kernel has three components: bran, germ and endosperm. The rich-in-fiber outer layer is the bran. The endosperm is the middle, containing proteins, starches, vitamins and minerals. The germ is the inner-most layer, the seed for a new plant. It is full of vitamin B, protein, minerals and healthy oils. The more of each component that ends up in the flour, the healthier and more flavorful it is comparted to commercial flour.
To ensure they had flavorful and healthy flour, the chefs decided to grind all their flour in house with a stone mill. Stoneground milling, is a much gentler way of grinding than industrial steel rollers, it avoids overheating the grains, preserving the vitamins and minerals, and retaining a significantly higher amount of fiber. Milling their own flour also allows them to choose the grains they use—an appealing option because different kinds of pasta traditionally call for different grains. And, they’re able to source from smaller farms so that they know exactly how the grains were grown, dried and stored. The fresher the grains are when purchased, the more flavorful the oils in the germ will be.
Durum is the wheat most commonly ground into pasta flour in Italy. It is a hard grain that is high in protein and grinds into a strong, yet soft fine flour, allowing it to be made into complex shapes. Its flavor can be paired with anything. Some amount of durum finds its way into their all pasta.
Another grain the chefs love is triticale—a hybrid of wheat and rye. Triticale has a higher protein content than wheat or rye alone. A rye-only pasta would be very intense—the wheat cross helps to soften the rye flavor and also adds much-needed gluten. You end up with a fantastic pasta flour that pairs well with hearty sauces. “Think rabbit, carrots and red wine,” Kevin says. The triticale they use is from family-owned Four Star Farms in Northfield.
The chefs take me down to the milling room so I can experience the process myself. “The oil quality from fresh-ground grains is phenomenal,” says Mike. “The whole room smells when you mill it. A fresh, clean, barnyard smell.” To further explain, he likens this to eating fresh nuts rather than old, stale nuts. “The older nuts don’t taste bad, necessarily—you wouldn’t spit them out—but they don’t have the same initial crunch, then buttery texture and punch of flavor that fresh nuts do. That’s because the oil quality in them has changed.”
Kevin switches on the mill and pours a scoop of Richland soft white winter wheat berries—another grain from Four Star Farms—into the hopper. Mike holds a sieve below the machine’s output spout. Slowly at first, then more rapidly, milled grain falls into the sieve, a soft creamy white powder flecked with honey-brown colored flakes of bran. Mike shakes the sieve over a wooden table, separating the flour from the larger pieces of bran.
Back upstairs he makes a little mound of the freshly milled flour and cracks an egg into the middle. Using just a fork, Mike works the egg into the flour until a dough is formed, then kneads it with his hands. By touch, he knows when it’s just right. The dough then gets rolled through a pasta dough sheeter into flat sheets. The chefs proceed to show me how they make their casunziei, a half-moon-shaped ravioli, stuffed with beet root and poppy seed. Their own twist on the traditional recipe adds smoked ricotta, tarragon and nori to the mix. Next Kevin cuts some of the pasta sheets into small squares, wraps one square at a time around a wooden dowel and firmly rolls them across a cavarola board. Each square ends up a little garganelli tube with a beautiful design imprinted on the exterior. Perfect little ridges, ready to trap a delicious sauce.
Prior to speaking with the chefs, I had noticed that the menu doesn’t make mention of their flour being milled in house or even their pastas being made by hand. When I raise this point, Mike responds, “It’s simple. This is just how we make amazing food and unforgettable pasta. We believe in this method. We believe in our cooking, our staff and our space. We want our guests to love our restaurant simply because of the food and the memories they associate with it. They really don’t need to know why it’s so good. They just need to have a food memory, feel that tug of nostalgia when they think of SRV, and have a yearning to come keep coming back.”
569 Columbus Ave., Boston