The road to righteous pasta

A trip to the west side's Via Elisa

"If you don't mind," Elisa Gambino said to me, "I'm going to do away with this." She held the wrinkled tortellini I had just attempted to make at arm's length, as one might hold a dead mouse by its tail. She dropped it in the trash can. "That would have exploded as soon as it hit the water."

Elisa returned to the table in the kitchen of her shop, Via Elisa (1750-C Howell Mill Road, 404-605-0668). She broke up pieces of bright yellow dough that felt like Play-Doh to me. "No," Elisa corrected me. "I have two children and I'm very familiar with Play-Doh. It has more give than this." She put the lumps into a machine, which, after a noisy moment, shot a sheet of silky pasta into her hands. She laid it on the table and rolled a device over it twice, creating squares.

Her assistant, Cynthia Harmon, squirted lemon-spiked ricotta onto the squares, which she folded and twisted like an origami artist working at high speed. "We twist the back of it," Elisa said, "the way it should be, so it doesn't look like a wonton — like most tortellini in this town." The twist creates a ridge that captures sauce.

"It's a little tricky," Cynthia said, shaking rice flour over the tray of tortellini bound for Aria, the Buckhead restaurant. "You have to get the seam right or it will come apart in the water." Dalia Santiago joined them at the table and the three fell into silence, rapidly making Aria's three pounds of tortellini.

"That looks kind of boring," I said.

Elisa, in a white coat with her Harpo Marx bush of hair stuffed in a cap, looked at me, shocked. "I just love thinking about how people all over this city are eating my pasta and it gives me a wonderful feeling while I work," she said. "How could I be bored?"

One suspects that any boredom she experiences would be a relief after her previous high-speed life. Although born in New York City, Elisa moved to Rome with her family when she was 16. Her father was attached to the U.S. Embassy there. She lived there for more than 10 years, acquiring a love of food and cooking, although it did not become her career until about two years ago. Prior to opening Via Elisa, she spent 15 years as an overseas field producer with CNN, often working in war zones — from the Middle East to Somalia.

During those assignments, in places where good food was hard to come by, Elisa often cooked Italian in the evening, carrying her own supplies wherever she went. In fact, it was not unusual for her to take over a hotel kitchen and prepare an Italian feast for fellow news correspondents.

Her husband, Neal, also worked for CNN. "Our last foreign assignment had us living in Moscow," she said. "I admit that it would have been very hard to come to Atlanta from Rome, but we were very glad to get out of Moscow. It was a dark, cold, kind of sinister place, so Atlanta looked very good to our eyes."

In October 2002, the couple quit their jobs at CNN. Elisa soon headed to Rome and managed to convince the Gamberoni family to let her apprentice in their shop, L'Artigiano, whose fresh pasta is famous throughout Italy and favored at the presidential palace. When she opened Via Elisa, the Gamberonis sent their youngest daughter to help open it. "They wanted to be sure that I wasn't compromising their reputation."

Elisa is as fanatical as any Italian artisan. Her pasta contains no water. It is made with eggs from free-range hens and organic flour. The ricotta that stuffs some of the ravioli and tortellini is the same the Gamberonis buy from a small farm in Italy. Parmesan is grated daily. And all pasta is made daily. "Fresh pasta should be eaten the day it's made," she said.

I told Elisa that the '70s fad for fresh pasta had made me avoid it. At that time, every boutique restaurant in town had a big pasta extrusion machine and it always tasted gummy.

"Oh, that is criminal," Elisa said. "Extruded pasta is meant to be dried, not eaten fresh, and dried pasta and fresh pasta are completely different animals. Dried pasta is good with olive oil-based sauces, for example, because it doesn't absorb the oil completely. Fresh pasta, on the other hand, is better with a butter-based sauce, since it's highly absorbent and butter is lighter than oil.

"The problem with the fresh pasta you find in most of the markets, besides bizarre flavorings like lemongrass, is that it's made to have a long shelf life. They add stuff that eliminates the primary flavor, which should be the eggs." She snatched up a big plastic container of eggs and thrust it at me. "Look how yellow those egg yolks are. We crack all our eggs daily. Perfect!" Any spoilage is inhibited by packaging in a vacuum.

The proof is in the tasting, of course. Via Elisa's pasta — whether strand noodles or filled ravioli or tortellini — is completely silken. Fillings are simple and earthy, like ground porcini or ricotta with lemon zest or gorgonzola with radicchio. A luscious San Marzano tomato sauce, butter-based, is available, along with a pesto. "Marcella Hazan says it's easier to disguise poor quality in complicated recipes," Elisa said. "But when you're using a couple of simple ingredients, they have to be perfect."

Via Elisa is open noon-6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Specialty pastas must be ordered ahead, by phone or through the shop's website (www.viaelisa.com). The ravioli is also available at Whole Foods and Harry's. But you should visit the shop. Recently, Bess Boeri, who used to operate the defunct and sorely missed Salumeria Taggiasca in the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, has joined Elisa in the front of the shop, adding a cooler of cheeses, cured meats and olives. You'll also find good olive oils and balsamic vinegar. Via Elisa has thus become the best Italian market in town.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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