Cavatelli are a shape that we’ll come back to over and over again. It’s one of the simplest shapes to make—and a ton of fun to practice and build up speed—yet it’s one of the most versatile shapes that there is. The name is Italian for little caves, but to me they’ve always looked like little gravy boats, making them the perfect vessel for all sorts of sauces and accompaniments.
There are all sorts of different techniques for shaping cavatelli. Typically, you’ll start by rolling the dough out into ropes and cutting them out into right-sized pieces, and then roll them into their classic
gravy boat cave shape with either your thumb or forefinger, sometimes using a gnocchi board to give them ridges. That way is simple, but soulless.
By far the cooler way to do it is the way my Abruzzese grandmother did it, and the way folks still do it in places like the Puglian city of Bari, where handmade pasta shapes like cavatelli and its more complex cousin orecchiette are a sort-of civic art that’s passed from one generation to the next. (This short, charming documentary tells the story). Here, instead of first cutting the ropes and then shaping the pieces as a separate step, you shape each piece as you cut it with one fluent, sweeping motion. It’s a much more fun and engaging way of making the cavatelli, and, with practice, you can build up enough speed to really fly through a batch. But the real magic comes from the subtle bit of texture imparted on the pasta as you stretch the dough out over the wooden board; this texture creates a perfect surface for sauce to adhere to, and makes the final dish sing.
Because cavatelli are so versatile, they can pair well with whatever sauces or accompaniments are suitable for the season. As I write this, fall has just arrived in the Pacific Northwest and the evenings are starting to get mighty cold, but the Roma tomatoes are still available in abundance at the Portland Farmers’ Market. It’s a combination that begs for a comforting tomato sauce to sit in the oven warming the house, filling it with delicious smells. The combination of pork and rosemary that this sugo features are a wonderful fit for the season and combine with the pasta to make a rustic and satisfying dish.
To make the cavatelli, you’ll want to start with a basic semolina dough (the linked recipe makes enough for four main courses or six to eight smaller plates). After the dough rests, cut off about one-fifth of the ball and roll it out into a long coil about the diameter of your thumb. Like everything else, this is a step that gets easier and goes more quickly with practice, and the dough can be stubborn from time to time. I find that a gentle touch is usually best, and try to find the right balance between pushing downward on the dough and pulling outward to stretch it as I roll back-and-forth on the board.
Find yourself a dull, non-serrated knife and hold it in your dominant hand. Pinch the very end of the rope between the thumb and forefinger of your other hand. Slice a chunk of dough from the rope that’s about half an inch long using a confident, decisive attack with the knife. Then, hold the knife at about a 45° angle and rest your non-dominant index finger on the top/back of the knife. Using pressure from both hands, draw the knife over the dough, stretching the dough out gently along the board and using your index finger to create the mouth of the cave. As you slide the dough along the board, ideally it will curl around your index finger and complete the perfect cavatelli shape. Like so:
It may feel plodding and tedious at first, but with only a little practice, your muscle memory starts to take over and you’ll be able to settle into a nice groove. With the basic technique down—and it will probably only take you a few batches to get there—you can work on speed and consistency. Before long, you’ll be cranking them out so quickly that the shortcut of using boxed pasta starts to lose a lot of its appeal. Below is the speed at which I’m able to crank them out after maybe a few dozen go-rounds. It’s not nearly as fast as the women in Bari crank through them, but it ain’t bad, eh?
I can’t quite fit three full ones into a single vine yet, so that will serve as a useful benchmark moving forward, I guess…
As your board starts to get cluttered with cavatelli, use your dough scraper to transfer the finished pasta onto a cookie sheet dusted with semolina. When you’re finished, you can store these uncovered in the refrigerator to dry and they’ll keep indefinitely, or you can immediately get cooking. Of course, to cook them you’ll need a pot of well-salted boiling water; I use a 2-gallon pot about three-quarters full, seasoned with about a quarter cup of salt. The cooking time varies so vastly depending upon the size, thickness, and wetness of the cavatelli that I’m reluctant to even speculate on a cooking time. Almost certainly, it’ll take somewhere between five to ten minutes, but taste early and taste often—that’s the most surefire way to know when you’ve got the right texture. Be aware, however, that pastas based on this semolina/water dough won’t have quite the same al dente texture as you may be used to; I talk in some detail about this here. The good news is this pasta is pretty hard to over- or under-cook, so you’ve got a lot of room for error.
To make the pork shoulder sugo, you’ll need the following:
- ~2 lb hunk of pork shoulder
- ~ 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Medium onion, sliced thinly
- A generous glass of dry white wine, minus a sip
- ~3 lbs fresh Romas, or 1 28-oz can of good-quality tomatoes
- ~1 cup water
- Bay leaf/rosemary/salt/pepper
Step 1, if you’re using fresh tomatoes, is to prep them. I’m a bit surprised to still be seeing beautiful Romas at the market for only a buck a pound. I’ll fret about the impending doom to our planet that this represents another time; for now, it’s time to make some sauce! The easiest way I’ve found to prep the tomatoes is to cut them in half, roast them in a 425° oven for about an hour, and pass them through a food mill. When you mill, the skins and the tougher parts of the pulp are ideally left behind, so you need about 50% more fresh tomatoes by weight than you’d need if you were using canned tomatoes.
Step 2: Season the pork shoulder liberally with salt, pepper, and rosemary. Let it rest for a few minutes at room temperature; meanwhile, heat a dutch oven over medium heat. Once the pot is hot, pour in some olive oil and brown the pork shoulder on all sides. Don’t rush this step! Make sure the pot stays cool enough that the olive oil doesn’t smoke and shoot for a lovely golden brown on all sides of the pork. It takes a good 15-20 minutes to achieve this.
Step 3: Remove the pork from the pot, and pour off all fat except for about two tablespoons. Pop those onions on into the pan and let them go just until they’re translucent and seductive smelling, maybe five minutes. Pour yourself a glass of white wine—a full-bodied Chardonnay is best but any kind will do—and take a big swig. You know, to make sure it’s not corked or anything. Pour the rest into the pot to deglaze (although you’ll probably have loosened the browned bits when you added the onion). When the wine cooks off add the tomatoes, about a cup of water, a bay leaf, and a small handful of rosemary, and increase the heat to medium-high.
Step 4: When the sauce just starts to simmer, it’s time to reduce the heat to low, cover, and let time work its magic. It’ll take a good three to four hours. The usual step is to set it on the back burner on its lowest setting (or somewhere close), stirring every 15 minutes or so. The way I prefer to do it, though, is to set it in a 300 degree oven. This negates the need for the constant stirring, and makes it easier to produce consistently lovely flavors and textures. If you do that, check the sauce every 15 to 20 minutes after about two and a half hours to make sure you get the right cook on the pork and the right thickness to the sauce.
Step 5: Remove the pork and serve as another course or another meal. Skim fat as needed; the goal is to give the sauce a mouthfeel that’s unctuous, but not greasy. This requires some fat rendered fat incorporated into the sauce, but not too much. Toss it with the cavatelli, plate it, and grate a lovely, fresh cheese of your choosing (Pecorino Romano works well here) on top. Top with a pinch of micro greens if you’ve got them handy to add some color, and sprinkle a few red pepper flakes on top.
Like most tomato-based sauces, a Sangiovese-based wine works well with this dish. For something a little more unorthodox, try pairing with something like a syrah-heavy Côtes du Rhône.