Chef Christian Fontolan gives us tips on celebrating World Pasta Day
World Pasta Day is on Wednesday, October 25. Depending on where you look, this international celebration of all things pasta started in either 1995 in Rome or 1998 in Naples; either way, it was launched to shine a spotlight on Italy’s most famous dish. The day is also one for busting myths about pasta – it has been getting a bad rep in the health-food circles – and educate people around the world about the many variations (over 600 shapes, sizes and colour combinations) and dinner recipes available to the home chef.
The World Pasta Congress (yes, that’s a thing) takes advantage of Pasta Day to promote the cultural and culinary importance of pasta in Italy and around the world. The annual festival this year will be in Sāo Paulo. Industry leaders and executives gather to discuss trends and dream up new possibilities for our favourite pastas.
I spoke with Chef Christian Fontolan for the inside look at a true Italian’s perspective on pasta. Chef Fontolan is the Executive Chef at Oretta, a Toronto-based Italian restaurant led by Salvatore Mele, David Rocco and Fontolan.
While he may have made Toronto his home, Chef Fontolan is 100 percent Italian – he was born in Torino, a city in north-west Italy, and raised in Senigallia, the small beach town in Le Marche. He has been exposed to the widest variety of Italian cuisine throughout his childhood, and also his career (which started at the young age of 15). He started out working in hotels and restaurants in Italy; then, after graduating from the local hospitality high school, he travelled the world for 13 years learning everything he could about cooking (and life). His resume includes such names as Novotel in Bologna, Palazzo Sasso in the Amalfi Coast, and Villa Feltrinelli, in Garda Lake. He has cooked all over the US, Mexico and Israel, before moving to Toronto to reconnect with a friend at Vertical Restaurant, working as sous chef before launching Oretta.
Pasta is Chef Fontolan’s favourite dish to make at Oretta and at home. So he is the perfect person to talk about this Italian staple.
What does pasta mean to you?
It means home no matter where I am in the world. When I make pasta, at home or at work, I’m in my element and therefore I feel comfortable and calm. It is in these moments when I zone out and melt into another world.
How has growing up in Senigallia influenced your approach to cooking?
Growing up in a city on the sea exposed me to a cuisine that is delicate in flavours and gentle in the cooking. Dealing with fish requires calm, precision and a unique set of skills that I carried and implemented throughout my career
Why did you decided to travel after graduation and establish yourself here in Canada?
Not too long after I graduated and worked a little bit in the area, I just felt that the town was a little small for me. I lived in Bologna for about one year and I loved it. Everything about it felt right to me, from living with strangers that became best friends, constantly learning every day to being challenged all the time. I was instantly hooked. I arrived in Canada in April 2008 (I’m celebrating my 10th anniversary next year) through some connections and I ended up running into the woman that I eventually married and now I am blessed to have a family with.
How have your experiences shaped your culinary style?
Most of the restaurants that I worked at couldn’t have been more different from each other. I learned a lot in every single place and they all took a big part in shaping me on what I am today. I have worked with many different techniques, styles, cuisines just to explore. Eventually I picked the one that felt closest to me and choose what I think were all the goods and I squeezed in personality.
In your opinion, why is World Pasta Day important?
It’s a great way to get together with family and friends and have a fun day. We could all use a little more of that in our lives.
How can people celebrate World Pasta Day at home with their family?
I love this question. Open a bottle of wine and get everyone to work! Make some fresh pasta by hand (if you are short of ideas, YouTube can be a great tool) and get your kids involved, too. At the end, they can all eat what they made. It’s very rewarding.
How would you suggest people with gluten allergies or other dietary concerns celebrate World Pasta Day?
Luckily, there are a lot of gluten free alternatives that taste just as good as the real thing. Personally, I would recommend a risotto which can be very satisfying without the gluten.
What is your favorite pasta dish to make at home?
It may sound simple, but it is definitely spaghetti with tomato sauce. I just can’t seem to get tired of it. Garlic, tomato, basil, a generous amount of parmigiano and a little drizzle of chilli oil. I could have it every day
What is your fondest/favorite memory about pasta?
I have a few favourite moments. The first one I recall is running home one day – I was full of energy and starving – there it was, a huge plate of pasta that my mother had made for me. The second one I remember was nonna’s lasagna. Her lasagna was something off the charts. The third pasta memory I remember involves my beautiful daughter. I think she was nine months old and the tomato sauce was her first solid food. It was just so amazing looking at her first experience with this amazing food and getting tomato sauce all over her face.
Ravioli “Mugellani” Stuffed with Potatoes
Chef Fontolan worked with Trafalgar this year to promote World Pasta Day in Canada. Trafalgar’s other partner, Chef Libero of Ristorante Tre Pini in Florence, created this ravioli recipe as part of their project to help travellers uncover the secrets of la cucina Italiana and learn how to distinguish between fettuccini and fusilli while preparing their own delicious lunch.
500g flour “00”
Pinch of salt
300g potatoes, cooked and chopped
Pinch of salt
Pinch of nutmeg
Spoon of Parmigiano cheese
Parsley and garlic, to taste
Make fresh pasta; put flour in a mountain shape on a pastry board and practice a central hole. Add to the central hole 5 eggs and salt. Beat eggs and moving the flour from outside to inside for at least 10 minutes until the flour will be smooth and elastic. If the dough seems too hard, add 2 spoons of warm water. Wrap up the dough in a plastic layer and allow to stand about 1 hour.
Make the stuffing; cook potatoes in salted water. Cool down, peel and chop thinly. In a pan sauté garlic and parsley with oil; add potatoes, cheese, salt, nutmeg and 1 egg. Mix well.
With a “cut machine” make circles with a diameter of 15 cm. Place spoonfuls of stuffing in the center of each circle. Close to make a crescent shape and, with a fork, make the border. Position the Ravioli in a tray with lots of flour. Cook in boiling water for 3 – 4 minutes.
Serve with ragù (chianina beef and cinta senese pork).