Elizabeth Ronzetti’s favorite part of the workday is making pasta. At 18 Bay, the Shelter Island restaurant she owns with her husband (and co-chef), Adam Kopels, every shift begins with her measuring out flour and cracking eggs.

On a day like any other, she heaped the flour, mostly finely milled soft Italian “double zero” with a little semolina mixed in for strength, into a mound on her worktable, excavated a well in the center and poured the eggs into it. She beat them lightly with a fork and, with her fingers, gradually tumbled the flour walls into the eggs so that, within a few minutes, she was left with a shaggy, yellow dough.

Left: Chef Elizabeth Ronzetti at 18 Bay on Shelter Island. Top: At 18 Bay, fresh pasta is made the traditional way and begins with soft-wheat flour and eggs. Bottom: Ronzetti cuts a sheet of pasta on a stringed tool called a chitarra. Photo credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Then it was time to knead, pushing and pulling the dough to activate the gluten (the proteins in wheat and some other grains) that will endow it with elasticity and bounce. “Maybe I romanticize it,” she said. “But I think I do a better job than the machine.” Even if it isn’t better for the pasta, it’s unquestionably better for the chef. Ronzetti views the practice as one part exertion, one part meditation. “It’s not just the nuts and bolts of kneading dough,” she said. “It’s about the intention. You can see it on my face: When I’m making pasta, I am in the zone.” Silence wasn’t necessary for her to achieve peak pasta performance: She and Kopels (who was in his own zone, contentedly butchering fish) chatted about their weekly menu, how they would transform their market haul into the seasonal four-course menu that changes every week. 

Ronzetti knew the dough was done when an impression she made with her thumb sprang back ever so slowly. Then she wrapped it in plastic film to rest for 30 minutes while she turned her attention to another kitchen task.

At Osteria Umbra in Smithtown, Sabrina Vallorini was engaged in the same pursuit.

Adjacent to the kitchen run by her husband, chef-partner Marco Pellegrini, she worked at a long butcher-block counter that was installed to suit her diminutive height. Her process followed the same general outlines as Ronzetti’s but there were differences: She beat the eggs with her fingers, and her dough contained whole eggs and a few yolks, plus a little olive oil and salt.

Chef Sabrina Vallorini in the kitchen at Osteria Umbra in Smithtown.

Chef Sabrina Vallorini in the kitchen at Osteria Umbra in Smithtown. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Ronzetti grew up in East Meadow; Vallorini was born and raised in the Italian region of Umbria. But both of them share a passion for pasta. And the reputations of both restaurants rest, in no small part, on their skill in making it. “It’s a job, but not really a job,” Vallorini said. “I work with love, and the pasta is how I express myself.”

Pasta dough needs to rest so that the gluten relaxes enough for the next step in the process: rolling it out. Vallorini, who makes enough pasta for a 100-seat restaurant, uses an electric Lineapasta sheeter imported from Italy; Ronzetti, whose dining room is smaller, uses the roller attachment on her KitchenAid stand mixer. Feeding the dough multiple times between the rollers as they are shifted ever closer results in a sfoglia, a “leaf” of dough, thin and pliant as silk. The sfoglia is the starting point for a fantastic array of fresh pastas.

If you cut it into large rectangles, for instance, and layer them between ragù, Parmesan and bechamel, you’ve made lasagna. At 18 Bay, Ronzetti uses these simple rectangles to make fazzoletti (“handkerchiefs”) with an herbal twist: She carefully places parsley leaves between two sheets of dough and feeds the sandwich through the roller until it is as thin as can be. As the dough stretches, the parsley leaves break up and elongate, so they look like ghostly fossils in the finished noodle. This is the pasta used in the restaurant’s primavera, which shows up as the weather warms and features the first vegetables to reach the market; spinach, peas, spring onions. To keep the sauce as light as possible, she uses whipped cream. 

Chef Elizabeth Ronzetti makes homemade fazzoletti pasta pressed with parsley at 18 Bay on Shelter Island. Photo credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Ronzetti could substitute another soft herb for her fazzoletti, but she knows the flavor of parsley works with the other ingredients in a way that, say, tarragon or dill would not. “Every element must have a reason for being there,” she said. “The dish has to make sense in your mouth.” 

At Osteria Umbra, the menu changes seasonally but there are always about eight pastas on the menu, including three “ribbons.” All start with a sfoglia that Vallorini cuts into foot-long rectangles. She folds the short edges toward the middle again and again until she has a neat package, and with a sharp knife cuts it into noodles. Pappardelle, at half an inch wide, might be served with Bolognese sauce and tagliatelle, at a quarter of an inch wide, could wind up with duck ragù. Taglierini, barely an eighth of an inch wide, are the basis of what has become the restaurant’s most famous dish, pasta tossed with cheese in a hollowed-out wheel of Parmesan cheese.

Taglierini flambéed in a Parmesan wheel with black truffle at Osteria...

Taglierini flambéed in a Parmesan wheel with black truffle at Osteria Umbra in Smithtown. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Osteria Umbra spent $35,000 on Parmesan last year and arranged the tables in the dining room to accommodate the cart that rolls into the dining room so Pellegrini or one of his sous-chefs can make the dish tableside. The cheese is ceremoniously set on fire to melt the surface before the pasta is added, along with grated cheese and crushed black pepper to make cacio e pepe. Depending on the season (and the patron’s budget), there might also be guanciale (cured pig jowl) or black or white truffles.

Such a fuss would have been unimaginable to Vallorini when she was growing up in the Umbrian village of Casco dell’Acqua. She learned to make pasta from her mother and grandmother and uses their recipe to this day. But the dishes they ate were humble in the extreme. Typically, there would be a sauce comprising hunks of beef, chicken feet, roughly cut vegetables and white wine. “It would cook for a long time,” she recalled. “Some of the meat would fall into the sauce and we would eat that with tagliatelle. The big pieces we would have as a second course.”

Vallorini could never have guessed that her marriage to Pellegrini would bring her to Long Island, working first at Caci in Southold from 2014 to 2018, then to Osteria Umbra. Nor could she have imagined that her pastamaking skills would be critical to her family’s livelihood. “When I was a child, I made pasta for fun,” she said. “Now it is my responsibility.”

Tagliatelle with duck ragu at Osteria Umbra in Smithtown.

Tagliatelle with duck ragu at Osteria Umbra in Smithtown. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Ronzetti also learned to make pasta at home from her mother and grandmother. But her career as a chef took her on a journey of discovery that ranged from the Long Island Culinary Academy (now defunct) to Il Panino in Huntington (ditto) where she met Kopels, another chef and alum of Babbo in Manhattan. Yearly trips to Italy inspired her to experiment with the full panoply of the country’s pastas. “There were failures along the way,” she admitted. “But the more you do anything, your repertoire and your skills evolve, and it becomes second nature.”

In a plastic storage bin is Ronzetti’s cache of arcane pastamaking tools she’s collected over the years, including stamps for making corzetti (the medallions of pasta popular in Liguria) and combs for making garganelli, from Emilia-Romagna. The comb is actually an iPhone-sized piece of wood with a grooved surface. To make the garganelli, you roll a square of dough around a thin dowel while simultaneously pressing it into the grooves. The result is a delicate cylinder with ridges that hold whatever sauce it is dressed in.

Then there’s the chitarra. Italian for “guitar,” this tool is indeed stringed, although instead of the vaguely feminine shape of the musical instrument, its wooden form is rectangular with thin metal wires strung along its length. To make the pasta alla chitarra, you lay the sfoglia across the strings and, with a rolling pin, gently push it through. When the sfoglia is as thick as the intervals between the strings are wide, you get resulting strands that are square in cross section and about as hearty as fresh pasta gets. 

At 18 Bay, spaghetti and clams, a dish usually made with dried spaghetti or linguine, is made with spaghetti alla chitarra. In a nod to the herb traditionally used in New England clam chowder, the clams are steamed with thyme. “Then when we serve, we take the clams out of the shell,” Ronzetti said. “Otherwise, they’ll weigh down the pasta.” She and Kopels bring this level of analysis to everything they serve. “We see what’s in the market, we figure out how to best show it off, then we pair it with the right shape of pasta,” she explained. “In the spring there’s the parsley fazzoletti primavera. In the fall, when the pumpkin comes in, we will stuff it into cappelletti.”

Caramelle stuffed with a filling of beets, house made ricotta,...

Caramelle stuffed with a filling of beets, house made ricotta, and parmesano, served with brown butter and tarragon at 18 Bay on Shelter Island. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Stuffed pasta is the most sophisticated expression a sfoglia can achieve, and of all the pastas Vallorini makes, her favorite is green ravioli. Most green pasta is made with spinach, but she prefers using basil, even though the herb limits the ravioli’s versatility: Such clean brightness doesn’t marry well with long-cooked or meaty sauces. Instead, it inspires a dish with the flavors of a Caprese salad.

To make the ravioli, Vallorini lays a seven-foot-long sfoglia on her board and uses a pastry bag filled with buffalo ricotta and burrata to pipe out two rows of equally spaced, equal-sized mounds of filling. She cuts the sfoglia lengthwise through the center and then flips the pasta over the mounds, pressing her fingers around each mound to securely encase it.

Using a fluted cutter, she stamps out more than 100 semicircular ravioli. At dinner service, their brief time in boiling water will heighten their color to an almost neon green, then they will be briefly sautéed with cherry tomatoes. Summer on a plate.

At Osteria Umbra, no one but Vallorini makes pasta. She carefully portions it out: 95 grams of pappardelle for the Bolognese, 100 grams of tagliatelle for the duck ragù, 135 grams of taglierini for the cacio e pepe. Most nights, she plates the pasta herself during service. “I’m a perfectionist,” she explained. “I can’t be sure that another person is going to do it the right way.

Restaurant information

18 BAY: Shelter Island House; 11 Stearns Point Rd., Shelter Island (new location; slated to open at the end of April); 631-749-0053, 18bayrestaurant.com

OSTERIA UMBRA: 197 Terry Rd., Smithtown; 631-780-6633, osteriaumbra.com

Fresh versus dried pasta

Fresh pasta, like that made by Vallorini and Ronzetti, is made by hand with soft-wheat flour and eggs, and is usually rolled out into a sfoglia, or sheet of dough, before being cut, giving the result a soft, tender texture and clean flavor.

Dried pasta is not inferior to fresh, it’s just different. Machines are used to knead the dough, made from flour and hard durum wheat (semolina), and too tough to manipulate by hand. It’s extruded through various dies to form long noodles such as spaghetti or linguine, or short macaroni such as penne, rigatoni or fusilli.

The quality of dried pasta varies from industrial brands to artisanal pasta that’s extruded through bronze dies, lending it a rougher texture (with more surface area for sauce to cling to) than that produced by the usual Teflon-coated dies. No matter what the price point, dried pasta should have a wheaty flavor, and when cooked al dente—so that the center is just slightly underdone—it has a wonderful firm chewiness.

It’s become fashionable for local restaurants to extrude their own pasta, and when Osteria Umbra opened in 2020, Pellegrini bought an extruder for the kitchen. “We used it once,” he said, “but it wasn’t worth it. We can buy high-quality extruded pasta.”  For the few dishes that call for dried pasta, the kitchen uses Rummo from Campania. Rummo, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, Giuseppe Cocco and other artisanal pastas are available at pork stores and other specialty markets as well as from online sources.