I’d been curious forever about the northern Italian dish known as pizzoccheri, but never tasted it. I just knew it combined short buckwheat tagliatelle with potatoes, cabbage, onions and lots of luscious cheese.
Looking on a map, I could see how this hearty dish came to be. Its place of origin, Valtellina (with Teglio as its capitol), is to the far north of Lombardy, not far from Switzerland. Pizzoccheri is border cuisine from a place where the traditions of what are now two countries mingle–a dish for people who work and play hard in a challenging climate.
Buckwheat has long been grown here, turning up in whole-grain breads and steaming bowls of whole-grain polenta taragna. So why not pasta? Italy takes pride of ownership and I was interested but not surprised to find a site by a group called Accademia del Pizzocchero di Teglio that shares the story of this northern dish as well as a recipe from a participating restaurant.
According to the Accademia, pizzoccheri is the sort of dish locals conduct spirited conversations about–how the flour should be milled, how to fry the garlic, the ideal age of the cheese. Everyone has an opinion that remains intact at the end of the discussion.
After consulting several recipes, including one from The Silver Spoon and another from a Slow Food collection of recipes from Italy’s osterias, I concluded that there’s room for variation in ingredients and proportions as long as the essentials are retained. For instance, the most authentic mountain cheese would be Valtellina Casera. But other, easier-to-find Alpine cheeses can be substituted–Italian Fontina Valle d’Aosta, French Comté or Swiss Gruyère.
Most recipes call for piling the steaming mixture onto a platter, but I gravitated toward layering the pasta, vegetables and cheeses to create a casserole for baking briefly. It can be held after assembly for a while and, if any is left over after cooking, reheated successfully the next day.
Don’t count on leftovers, though. Pizzoccheri is an absolutely delicious dish and I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to discover it.
Like any dish made with homemade pasta, pizzoccheri takes time but is especially worthwhile because you’d be hard put to buy buckwheat tagliatelle. It’s a great group project–my husband and I had a blast making pizzoccheri with our friends Maria, Mel and Vivian.
Next on my Valtellina cooking agenda is sciatt, a dialect word for “toad.” I’ll have to look into the story about that, but only after test firing a batch of these cheese-filled buckwheat fritters, served on a bed of chicory.
This buckwheat pasta dish is a specialty of the Italy's Valtellina area, close to the Swiss border.
- ½ cup butter 8 tablespoons
- 2 large onions thinly sliced
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- 2 large potatoes peeled, diced small
- 5 cups shredded cabbage preferably Savoy
- 2 or 3 garlic cloves peeled, slivered
- Leaves from 2 sprigs sage snipped in ribbons
- 1 pound buckwheat tagliatelle recipe follows
- 6 ounces Alpine cheese such as Italian Fontina Valle d'Aosta, French Comté or Swiss Gruyère shredded (about 2 cups)
- 2 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese shredded (about 1 cup)
- Freshly ground black pepper
Use 1 tablespoon soft butter to coat a large baking dish.
Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a large skillet. Saute onions until soft and golden brown. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small skillet. Saute garlic and sage until bronzed but not browned. Mix with sautéed onions.
Bring a large saucepan two-thirds filled with water to a boil. Add a small handful of salt. Cook potatoes 5 minutes. Add cabbage and cook until vegetables are just tender. Dip vegetables out with a strainer (an Asian kitchen “spider” works best) and transfer to skillet with onions. Mix gently.
When water returns to a boil, add tagliatelle, stirring gently to separate strands. When water returns to a boil, cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Using a strainer, transfer to a bowl. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter in bits and toss gently to coat as butter melts.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Assemble dish: Spread one third of tagliatelle on bottom of prepared pan. Spread one third of potato-cabbage-onion mixture on top. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add one third of fontina and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses. Repeat layers twice.
Cook uncovered until heated through and top is lightly browned, about 20 minutes.
These noodles, cut shorter than regular tagliatelle, are used in the Valtellina to make a dish called pizzoccheri.
- 1¾ cups buckwheat flour about 200 grams
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour about 200 grams (preferably Italian doppio zero), plus more flour for the counter
- 2 large pinches kosher or sea salt
Make tagliatelle: Whisk together buckwheat and all-purpose flour with salt in a bowl. Drizzle with water, mixing with a fork, until dough begins to cohere (about 1 cup altogether). Knead until smooth and not sticky, about 10 minutes. Cover with a towel and let rest 10 minutes.
Break off a piece of dough the size of an extra-large egg. Flatten into a square, dust with all-purpose flour and run through widest setting of pasta maker.* Change setting to next slot and run pasta through again. Continue to narrower settings, stopping on the second or third to last. Cut sheet horizontally in half if necessary for length of about 8 inches. Lay sheet on floured counter or tray, and continue in same way with remaining dough.
Attach handle to pasta cutter. Cut each sheet to make tagliatelle. Place on floured trays, with a tea towel or waxed paper between layers, or on spokes of a pasta dryer. Dry for at least 20 minutes before cooking.
* Alternatively, roll the piece of dough until very thin and cut in narrow strips.