Table for One

The Curious Pasta Dish I Found on My Solo Trip to Italy

This week, Table for One columnist Eric Kim is back from Crema, where 'Call Me by Your Name' was filmed, and brought with him a recipe for tortelli cremaschi.

by:
November  8, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves traveling alone, and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


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.

Two strangers at Piazza del Duomo in Crema, Italy. Photo by Sony Pictures Classics

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.”

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Top Comment:
“Your experience in Crema - I am so glad that I read your sweet article - makes me think her recipe originated in this region of Italy! I am shocked because we are descendants of Southern Italians so I've always thought her recipe was born there. Every Christmas Eve, with the seven fishes, my grandmother prepared a no fish pasta dish to satisfy the few guests who were not into our Christmas Eve tradition of savoring, until it was time for midnight mass, her incredible seafood feast. It was a pretty basic linguine con aglio e olio though she added olives, nuts, and raisins to the pasta. The part that I haven't been able to piece together all these years is that she served it offering grated parmigiano or a grated Italian hard chocolate biscotti that she would order from a bakery in Brooklyn, New York. I still remember all us kids yelling - if we weren't asking when we could open our presents - I want pasta with chocolate cookie! I have questioned tons of talented Italian home cooks not to mention notable chefs and colleagues (I am a private Chef having years of experience serving high profile individuals) always getting that quizzical expression accompanied by a shrug. Eric! Your journey and the random landing in the local known cafe near the Duomo, and the servers note pad left with you at the table while she fetched your acqua, and the pasta that spoke to you as you read her notes, may have cracked my case! In the words of my beloved Nona Graziela, "Lifa...she isa craza" (translation: Life, she is crazy. ”
— leslie
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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.

Interesting penmanship. Photo by Eric Kim

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.

“Cookies?”

“Cookies.”

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.

Cookies.

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.

petrichor: n. a pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather

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.

I thought: Is there anything more satisfying than making a single portion of pasta from scratch?

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.

Photo by Some kind stranger on the street

Tortelli for One

1 egg
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.

Photo by Eric Kim

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.

Have you ever tasted this pasta dish? Let us know in the comments below.

P.S. Is there anything you'd like to see Eric write about in this column? Send your Table for One tips to [email protected], or tell him yourself on Twitter.

Somewhere in Northern Italy

Photo by Eric Kim

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Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

53 Comments

Whats4Dinner November 15, 2019
Hey Eric,
I've been reading and enjoying your stories for awhile. Being a fellow Korean American, I must ask, did you experience any racism in northern Italy? I've been to France (with my caucasian husband) and experienced none. I just wonder if an asian woman traveling alone in Italy might have a different experience.
Thanks,
Sarah
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 18, 2019
Great to hear from you, Sarah. I can only speak for myself, but in my week there I did not experience any racism—especially in Crema, where everyone was absolutely lovely to me. Overall, I'd say it's a town that loves tourists and is especially kind to solo travelers and diners. But I'd be curious to hear from others on here, especially women.
 
Winifred R. November 15, 2019
These sound fascinating. Somehow in our much too short trip last year we missed Crema, or at least missed this dish. It was a blur to me, and food wasn't our high point -- art and scenery were more of our interests for Italy, the archaeology for France the next week. I honestly think I need months where we/I can explore food and localities and . . .
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 18, 2019
I don't blame you; there is much art and scenery to be seen in Italy.
 
Patty L. November 12, 2019
Eric,
Your experience in this tiny Italian town is what dreams are made of. I long for the day that I can do something like this. Thank you for the beautifully written piece. It made me wistful, yet very happy. And I’m dying to try this pasta as well. Much love.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 12, 2019
Thanks, Patty. Hope you get to visit Crema someday soon, as well. Yours, E
 
Ashley R. November 12, 2019
Those weird words Luselote (?) Egrono (?) are actually "insalata" di pollo and rucola "e grana" (padano). Now you can sleep easy. Tortelli Cremaschi- sounds yummy.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 12, 2019
Ha! Thank you, Ashley. Can't wait to catch up on those z's now that the mystery is solved...
 
Meredith November 12, 2019
I look forward to your column each week, Eric. Beautifully written and moving as always :)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 12, 2019
Thank you, Meredith; that's so nice.
 
Gordon November 12, 2019
Could you give some examples of the amaro you like to use? For drinking and going out with friends I prefer to drink Frenet Branca. Which is a powerhouse of flavors. And NOT the one with mint in it either!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 12, 2019
Montenegro is a favorite right now; I also enjoy Averna. Fernet-Branca is delicious. (Interestingly enough, the tortelli filling traditionally calls for grated mints!)

For this recipe I used amaro because I had it and was drinking it anyway, but I actually think any fortified wine would do, like a Marsala or sherry.
 
leslie November 11, 2019
For decades I have been trying to solve the mystery of the origin of one of my grandmother's Christmas Eve pasta dishes. Your experience in Crema - I am so glad that I read your sweet article - makes me think her recipe originated in this region of Italy! I am shocked because we are descendants of Southern Italians so I've always thought her recipe was born there.
Every Christmas Eve, with the seven fishes, my grandmother prepared a no fish pasta dish to satisfy the few guests who were not into our Christmas Eve tradition of savoring, until it was time for midnight mass, her incredible seafood feast.
It was a pretty basic linguine con aglio e olio though she added olives, nuts, and raisins to the pasta. The part that I haven't been able to piece together all these years is that she served it offering grated parmigiano or a grated Italian hard chocolate biscotti that she would order from a bakery in Brooklyn, New York. I still remember all us kids yelling - if we weren't asking when we could open our presents - I want pasta with chocolate cookie!
I have questioned tons of talented Italian home cooks not to mention notable chefs and colleagues (I am a private Chef having years of experience serving high profile individuals) always getting that quizzical expression accompanied by a shrug.
Eric! Your journey and the random landing in the local known cafe near the Duomo, and the servers note pad left with you at the table while she fetched your acqua, and the pasta that spoke to you as you read her notes, may have cracked my case!
In the words of my beloved Nona Graziela, "Lifa...she isa craza" (translation: Life, she is crazy.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 11, 2019
That's amazing! Thanks for sharing, Leslie. It's true, the cookie in the tortelli cremaschi recipes I've seen call for amaretti gallina, which is a chocolate biscuit. What kind of raisins did your grandma use?
 
leslie November 11, 2019
I don't know where she sourced her raisins but, no doubt, they were from Italy. She was an amazing baker as well as cook and her Italian baked goods were very much about citron, nuts, and raisins.
We grew up eating polpetti with pignoli nuts and raisins and our broccoli rabe always includes toasted pignoli and raisins - molto bene!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 11, 2019
I love that.
 
Linda R. November 10, 2019
Eric, I just discovered you this Sunday morning on Food 52. I loved your article about your trip and I LOVE the way you write, very poetic. I can relate to your feelings. Glad to know a new word about the rain. Such a comforting word. I will be a new follower on IG for sure. You inspire me to take a trip alone...Thank you Eric.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 10, 2019
Linda, thank you! So glad you found me, and that you liked the piece. Hope you're having a relaxing weekend. E
 
Easty L. November 10, 2019
What a delightful post! Traveling solo always has its challenges but making it a food discovery moment has always worked for me. On a recent trip to Milan and Parma (grandparents hometown), I discovered that when you open yourself to learning about people by what they eat, you level the playing field and become one with them. Will be following you!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 10, 2019
Food is the great equalizer. x
 
LarryChef November 9, 2019
Eric, always enjoy the solitude of your solo cooking posts, and leisurely drinking. Then, experiencing the Cremona trip, your hand-selected CMBYN images, and the "fireplace scene," was another extensive treat. Please know that your words/images are vividly appreciated.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2019
That means a lot to me, Larry. Thanks so much.
 
gourmet B. November 12, 2019
Great scene.
 
Kim November 9, 2019
I’ve been enjoying many of your articles. This one taught me a new word and has inspired me to attempt making pasta for myself. Thank you! I’ve also discovered how much I enjoy watching Nigella videos and have tried some of her recipes. I hope to travel some day like you do. Looking forward to reading more from you.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2019
Thanks for reading, Kim, and for the kind words.

Aren't Nigella's videos relaxing? They've taught me so much about cooking, as well.
 
judy November 9, 2019
"even the bad parts were beautiful". Your comment on your trip. that is how feel about traveling. Most trips have some "bad parts" and events. sometimes difficult and frustrating to go through, but, on reflection late, even they were good. Ir really enjoyed your journey, especially as it is one I will never be able to do. You tell it well, not to mention the food find.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2019
Thanks so much, Judy.
 
Jennifer November 8, 2019
So glad you taught him "petrichor"--how could anyone survive in English without it? Only kidding (since I'm 59 and a native speaker and it's the first time I'm conscious of having heard the word)--but I do love languages, and this is an utterly captivating post...
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 8, 2019
I'm 100% sure it helped him pass his exam. xD

(Thank you, Jennifer.)
 
Susanna November 8, 2019
Thank you for this wonderful piece and for introducing me to a dish I’d never encountered on my trips to Italy, though that’s likely because I haven’t made it to Crema. Curious as to how you chose it for your solo week—because of the movie? Is it seeing more tourism now for that reason?

I laughed at your efforts to decipher the menu. Some of the words you couldn’t find were no doubt obscure Italian ingredients, sure, but some presented difficulty because of the Italian handwriting style, I’d bet. For instance, what you read as “Luselote” seems to be ”insalata,” based on the photo you posted.
 
Susanna November 8, 2019
(That salad: chicken, potatoes, celery, spinach, olive, cheese, and grilled zucchini)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 8, 2019
Insalata! Oh my goodness. Interesting a’s over there. Thank you for the translation after the fact.

Yes, I imagine Crema is seeing an influx of tourists due to the film—though when I was there in late August, I felt like a total usurper/the only non-Italian.
 
Titi November 11, 2019
Your second mystery word is actually two words: e grana ☺️ Roast beef with rocket and grana. So in the end you learned italian words in exchange of the ones you taught!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 11, 2019
Oh no, I missed out! That sounds delicious. xD Thanks for clearing that up for me, Titi.
 
Andrew November 8, 2019
I’ve wanted to try these since I first heard about them and you’ve made it so easy. Tortelli Cremaschi for one, per favore!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 8, 2019
Enjoy, Andrew. Thanks for reading.
 
Shane L. November 8, 2019
As always mon ami, the tales of your travels invoke my wanderlust. Your ability to transport my everyday self to places far away, to allow me to feel a bit of what you felt... it’s an amazing talent you have.

Here, in the desert, where I live, it doesn’t rain often. When it does though, the scent of rain, blending with the local sage brush, is something magical. I’ll make use of this new word, petrichor, that you taught me today; every time it rains.

This dish! I can appreciate all the individual components, I just can’t even imagine the flavor combination, it sounds intriguing, and dare I say, Christmassy?
Anyway, I’ll definitely be adding this recipe to my must try list, I’m always up for trying new things 😜

Thank you Eric
-S
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 8, 2019
Hi friend. I imagine the word will hold even more significance for you in the desert. :)

Yes, Christmasy indeed. Cloves and cinnamon would taste lovely here as well. Now you’ve reminded me of that slow, gorgeous scene at the end when Elio dances in from the snow, gets the call, and mourns in the front of the fireplace.
 
Shane L. November 8, 2019
Such a poignant scene Eric, I bawl every time 😭
I kinda feel bad for reminding you of it 😬
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 10, 2019
Well I'm a masochist, so.
 
Beatrice November 8, 2019
Beautiful story. In the Alps of Friuli (Italy) we have a stuffed pasta called Cjarsons that has a similar filling. Your story reminded me of my land and our traditions. So many dishes that Americans still haven’t discovered. It’s not all about Cacio e Pepe (luckily!!)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 8, 2019
Ohh, now I'm down a cjarsons google hole ... never heard of them; they sound divine.
 
Beatrice November 8, 2019
I know right?? ;-)
 
Amanda November 8, 2019
As with all of your writing, Eric, this is so wonderfully evocative and poignant. I've traveled in Italy quite a bit on my own and this really captures the sweet but difficult nature of being there - and discovering new foods. I've never heard of this pasta, my mind is a bit blown, and I may have to try it - along with your beautiful visuals, I'm sure I'll have a mini-vacation of my own as I eat. Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 8, 2019
Thank you so much, Amanda. "Sweet but difficult"—aptly said.
 
Liz A. November 8, 2019
deep heart pangs ... unexpected foods that i ended up appreciating ... miming at lunch. (and breakfast, and dinner). i definitely read along with little nods of understanding.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 8, 2019
Miming at Lunch and Little Nods of Understanding sound like titles for a memoir.
 
Colleen November 8, 2019
As much as I dislike sweetness in my savory food, you've almost sold me on it with description. I suppose it's worth trying at least once to see if my brain goes haywire (in a way that it is..a good thing). The heart IS a muscle ❤︎ .
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 8, 2019
Does things to your heart AND brain. Thanks for stopping by again, Colleen.