In this pasta feature from the UK, we look at an enterprise that actively enjoys preparing and promoting its pasta dishes. Steve Woods tells us about his Cambridge restaurant, Trattoria Pasta Fresca where they take great pride from their passion for homemade pasta.
A love of fresh pasta
Trattoria Pasta Fresca has been trading on the same Cambridge site at 66 Mill Road since 1989. As owners, myself and my wife, Annalisa, both have Italian backgrounds, and consequently have always eaten pasta as a major part of our diet. However, homemade fresh pasta was generally reserved for special occasions, such as Christmas and weddings. My first experience with fresh pasta at other times was while backpacking around Europe with two Italian friends. We traveled light, but always carried the survival kit, namely some spaghetti, a block of Parmesan, salt and olive oil!
Whilst attending a small vineyard wine festival outside Bordeaux, we were invited to stay with a local couple. Money was tight, and so as a "thank you" we offered to make and cook them a fresh pasta meal. This was received enthusiastically, but word soon travelled around the village, and we ended up making pasta for around 50 people cooking from a small four burner gas hob! Much fun was had by all, though, and the relaxed attitude and laid back atmosphere meant we were able to feed all, and with fresh pasta cooking so quickly, yes, we did finish cooking before Christmas!
In the 1980's, some large companies were experimenting with themed pasta restaurants, but the dishes were Anglicised, and to be frank the pasta was not as we, personally, would have liked. The other pasta offerings were in the more traditional Italian restaurants, with pre-cooked pasta with a basic sauce offered as a small part of the menu.
Our passion for pasta made us start to think. Wouldn't people enjoy a relaxed, informal "Trattoria" setting, and have the pasta and sauce made for them as we would at home? We then found out that our current site was for sale, and low and behold it was the same building in which Annalisa's family had run a gelateria, back in the 50's. The omens seemed good, and Trattoria Pasta Fresca was born.
Our concept is simple. We make all our own fresh pasta. Each portion is individually cooked to order, just as at home. All our sauces are traditionally made and slow cooked over several hours, again to give the authentic home made taste. The other criteria we have are to use the best ingredients possible. Making pasta this way is very labour intensive, and there is little point in going to all that trouble if people don't notice the difference! Why save a few pence on ingredients if it spoils the end product? So we use 100 percent durum wheat, and at least five fresh eggs per kilo of pasta.
Three dishes have always been on our menu, namely fresh spaghetti with home made pesto (Annalisa is now definitely the pesto queen, having taken my crown), the classic spinach and ricotta cheese-filled tortelloni (which we serve in a creamed mushroom sauce), and fresh spaghetti with ragu (the traditional sauce from Annalisa's home village, Valvori). However, we are always looking to provide interesting and innovative dishes. The last few years have seen the filled pastas becoming the most popular, with a pumpkin-filled pasta tossed with sun dried tomato strips, olive oil and chilli, our current favourite.
In the past, we have served quail, apple and calvados filled pasta in a red currant sauce, hare and Barolo wine-filled pasta in a bitter chocolate sauce. Currently we also have wild boar and pancetta-filled pasta in thyme butter, and at Christmas we often make fresh black pasta filled with lobster served in salsa verde, and chestnut and mascarpone filled pasta in a wild mushroom sauce.
We have often been described as a "hidden secret" with our non-main street location, but find ourselves being recommended by national newspapers, and have received a number awards over the years, including PAPA's Pasta Restaurant of the Year, which is a great compliment. Cambridge has a transient population, but it is nice that our old customers include us as part of their schedule on return visits. One summer, an Italian family found us, and ate with us every day and evening for their two week stay! Recently a family flew in from Ireland for two days and came to us on recommendation!
All our chefs are trained in house, as we have yet to hear of anywhere else doing quite what we do, as we do. Often new chefs will try to convince us of the ease of bulk cooking methods, but it doesn't take long for them to change their minds. We will continue with the original plan to enjoy evenings of providing good home cooked foods and wine, at reasonable prices, in a relaxed style. Having just started our 15th year with many of our original customers growing old with us, I think we can rightly feel we must be doing something right.