This summer, I spent a week alone in Northern Italy. I wanted to go somewhere I could read and write and drink amaros outside all day without having to talk to anyone. It probably helped that I didn’t speak much Italian to start with, expecting to rely on the odd smile or gesture to get around—though there is something sweet about two strangers miming at each other in order to communicate.
When I flew into Milan that morning, I mimed my way to a shuttle bus that took me into the main city where the train station was located. It had just finished raining and the air was cool. I caught the 1 o’clock to Crema, a small town in Lombardy where I’d be staying for most of my trip. A few stops in, a cute boy sat down in the seat in front of me and asked to borrow my phone charger. He talked the whole way there because, in his words, he’d been meaning to practice his English for an exam he had to take at the end of the summer. I taught him a few of my favorite words, like peregrine (“having a tendency to wander”) and petrichor (“a pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather”).
I asked him where I could get an amaro in Crema. “There are four cafés in front of the duomo,” he told me. “The locals go to the one on the right; the gelateria next to it is okay, too. Whatever you do, don’t go to the one on the far left.”
When our train arrived at the station, I thanked him and wandered through town toward my bed-and-breakfast. I checked in, took a quick shower, and changed. I grabbed my novel and set out toward the piazza for a late lunch at one of the cafés where the boy on the train told me to go.
I sat down at a small table outside facing the big cathedral. I googled “water translate to Italian” so I could ask for some when the waitress came. She walked over with a menu. When I ordered un’acqua, she asked if I wanted flat or sparkling and I said the latter—not because I wanted it, but because I didn’t understand what she said and didn’t want her to think I was a tourist. If my being a Korean man in a remote town in Italy wasn’t a dead giveaway that I wasn’t cremasco, then it was probably my blank face as she went down her list, reading the specials in Italian. I could see her scanning my eyes and realizing I didn’t understand a word. She stopped halfway, chuckled, and handed me her notepad.
“I’ll be back,” she eye-smiled and walked back inside to get my sparkling water.
Her notepad had plenty of familiar words: Risotto. Pasta. Gnocchi. But I sat there with my Google Translate for some of the others: Barbabietola (beet). Luselote (?). Egrono (?). (Her handwriting was very curly, hard to decipher.) One dish in particular caught my eye: TORTELLI CREMASCHI. When the waitress came back, I asked her what made it cremaschi. She explained the best she could, not in English but in smiles and gestures and staccatoed Italian so I could follow, that it was native to this town. Pasta. Dolce. Uvetta. Amaretti.
I thought maybe something was lost in translation, but I ordered it because it was a specialty of Crema, and what better way to introduce myself to the city? I also ordered a glass of red wine and an espresso; she looked at me funny and said she’d bring out the coffee later. (She didn’t want me to mix coffee with my pasta.)
When the tortelli came out, I took a picture because they were adorable, pinched at their seams like little half-moon dumplings.
Then, I took a bite—and my brain went haywire.
These cookie-filled tortelli tasted like dessert, yet they were showered with hard cheese and drizzled with olive oil. I was so confused. After the first few bites, and between sips of the red wine, my brain started to settle and got used to the disjuncture. A couple more bites in, I was able to appreciate the chewy texture of the fresh pasta and how its savoriness balanced well with the salty cheese, the bitter olive oil, and the sweet, soft cookie filling. By the end, I fell in love with the dish. It made me think about all the sweet foods we eat as main courses back in the States, especially at breakfast and brunch, and wonder why we don’t do it for more meals. It reminded me that rules are dumb.
When I got back to my room at the bed-and-breakfast, I looked up the dish to learn everything I could about it. Filled with sweet ingredients like amaretti biscuits (cookies), raisins (oh, “uvetta”), mint candies (!), citrus peel, and nutmeg, tortelli cremaschi is the regional dish of Crema, Italy—and you can’t get it anywhere else. If the spices and dried fruits and biscuits sound random, then it's helpful to know that Crema was, historically, a territory of Venice, which held a monopoly on the spice trade with the East.
Throughout my week in Crema, I saw the tortelli on menus all over the city and ordered it a few more times. Some versions were like the one I had by the duomo; others were tossed in browned butter and sage, like the pumpkin ravioli you’d find in Mantua. As delicious as all of these variations were, it was that first bite that did me in, right there in front of the big cathedral on that sunny day after the rain.
In the city of Crema, Italy, everyone bikes or walks or swims in the river by the train. The streets are cobblestone and the buildings are pastel-colored. It’s a fairy tale of a town, as perfect and as peaceful as Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 film, Call Me by Your Name, made it out to be.
Every morning, I woke up late and walked to the square to start my day. I loved that I could just sit at a table outside for hours, reading and sipping €2 amaros, and not be bothered or rushed to leave. I found Crema to be especially friendly to solo diners, not least because many of the locals around me were eating and drinking alone, as well. I imagine this friendliness was because it was summer and the town had an off-season unhurriedness to it, but I’d like to think it’s because everyone’s just always that chill.
When I wasn’t walking, I rented a bike and biked around. I didn’t swim in the river, but I watched people do it and read my book and wrote on the grass. I liked reading and writing by the train tracks; the sound of the trains going by would lull me to sleep, which of course meant I never got much reading or writing done. When it rained one day, I went to the museum and drank coffee in the little café inside. Each day of my trip was like this—slow and sleepy, no schedule. Just a solid week to explore and eat and do nothing.
Even the bad parts of my trip were beautiful. After day-drinking by the river one afternoon, I went back to my room to take a nap and woke up with a huge knot in my chest. I texted my friend B: “I’m in this gorgeous Italian villa—why do I feel so sad all of a sudden?”
“Traveling by yourself can be a lonely affair,” he wrote. “At the risk of sounding cliché, that is the beauty of it also right?”
I sent back the vomit emoji.
I’d never felt more like a tourist than in that moment, realizing that I was using Crema to escape my loneliness back in New York, when even I know that’s not how it works. You can be lonely anywhere; that doesn’t change just because you’re in a different time zone.
What is it they say about the heart? That it’s a muscle?
Weeks later, back in my kitchen in New York, I decided to make fresh pasta for the first time. I took an old Nigella Lawson recipe and quartered it. I mounded the flour onto my kitchen island, made a well like she says, and cracked the egg into it. Using my hands (though I immediately regretted not using a fork), I mixed the two together and was surprised at how wet and sticky the dough was; I’d watched chefs on TV do it a thousand times before and wasn’t expecting my hands to get so messy. I sprinkled in more flour, kneaded the dough, and was eventually able to form it into a neat, taut ball. I thought: Is there anything more satisfying than making a single portion of pasta from scratch?
I covered my dough-baby with a kitchen towel and let it sit for 30 minutes as I made the filling.
Remembering the spicy-sweet flavor of the tortelli cremaschi I ate in the piazza that first day in Crema, I gathered my ingredients for a makeshift filling. In the food processor, I blitzed together a single almond biscotti, a little cocoa powder and nutmeg, raisins soaked in Montenegro, grated Grana Padano, and a fat pinch of salt until the mixture was smooth and pasty. I tasted it and, to offset the sweetness, added more cheese, more salt.
Thirty minutes later, I rolled the dough out as thinly as I could and, using a jigger, cut out two-inch circles. I filled each circle with a little filling, folded them in half, and crimped the edges like dumplings. I tossed my tortelli into a pot of heavily salted, boiling water and cooked them for five or so minutes. I drained and plated them, drizzled them with olive oil, and grated over a heavy shower of cheese. I wondered if the boy on the train remembered my word for “a pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather.”
I took a bite and my brain went haywire again, but eventually found its way back to that small town in the summer, somewhere in Northern Italy.
Tortelli for One
1/2 cup flour, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons raisins
2 tablespoons Montenegro, or other amaro
1 almond biscotti
1 ounce grated Grana Padano cheese, plus more as needed
Unsweetened cocoa powder, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
In a small bowl or on a clean surface, fork together the flour and egg until well combined. Using your hands, knead the dough a few minutes until smooth and taut. As Nigella says in Nigella Bites,
Kneading involves no more than pushing the mixture away from you with the heels of your hands and then bringing it back toward you. If you've got an electric mixer with a dough hook, then use that, though for some reason I don't find it makes the pasta cohere any sooner. And you don't get the relaxing satisfaction of making it by hand.
Cover dough with a kitchen towel and let rest 30 minutes to an hour.
Meanwhile, prepare the cookie filling: In a small container, combine the raisins and amaro and let sit to plump, about 10 minutes. In a food processor or mortar and pestle, grind together the biscotti, amaro-soaked raisins, cheese, cocoa powder, salt, and nutmeg until homogeneous and smooth.
After pasta dough has rested, roll out as thinly as possible (if you don't have a rolling pin, an empty wine bottle works just as well). You can cut about eight or so 2 1/2–inch rounds from this amount of dough, but don't stress about it. Once you have your little circles, dot each with about 3/4 teaspoon filling. Crimping these tortelli couldn't be easier: Just moisten the edges of the rounds with a little water or amaro, then fold them in half so you've got half-moon shapes. Then, using your fingers, fold the edges together to create a ruffled effect (it doesn't matter how you do it, as long as you're sealing the tortelli shut).
Let sit to dry as you bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Cook the tortelli 5 to 7 minutes, drain, then toss with browned butter or olive oil and shower with more Grana Padano.