In Troubled Times, Make Your Memories as Best You Can

I couldn’t get my hands on 00 flour, but I still made marubini

Photos: Jason Wilson

Of course there is no 00 flour, you asshole.

That’s not what the guy who answered the phone at Whole Foods said to me. Actually, he was exceedingly polite. Too polite. Yes, he understood that 00 flour was a specific flour for making homemade pasta. Yes, during normal times — when, say, there was not a deadly pandemic — the store certainly always stocked 00 flour.

“It’s just that there’s a shortage of all flour right now, sir,” he said. “We don’t even have, you know, like, basic white all-purpose flour. The shelves are completely empty.” He apologized and I thanked him and hung up the phone. It was a ridiculous request. People were dying and I already had a bag of semolina flour in my pantry, for fuck’s sake.

Like everyone else, I’ve had a difficult time processing the complex cocktail of emotions during the isolation: the anxiety, the fear, the hopelessness, the powerlessness, the loneliness. But also the sudden manic need to do something, anything, to make the bad feelings go away. Which is why on the third Sunday of the lockdown, I impulsively decided to make an elaborate, traditional stuffed pasta from Lombardia called marubini — one I’d first eaten three decades ago as an exchange student.

Over the years, I’ve stayed in touch with my host family, the Bernabes, who live in a village near Cremona called Pieve San Giacomo. I’d intended, in fact, to see them this spring, at least before the travel bans snuffed out those plans. Yet for a couple of weeks during the coronavirus outbreak, I’d been unsuccessful in reaching them via WhatsApp. I grew more and more fearful. So many people were dying, particularly older people in Lombardia — the region hit the hardest, with almost two-thirds of Italy’s COVID-19 deaths. I worried about Anna, the family matriarch, who is now in her 80s.

Finally, I received a message from Daniela, Anna’s daughter — images of the Torrazzo of Cremona, the city’s famous 14th-century brick tower, lit in the red, white, and green of the Italian flag. This was followed by a sober video of Cremona’s overwhelmed hospital ward. Then, “Hugs to everyone. Who knows when it is over…we are still locked down, at least til mid-April, but we are all OK. xoxo.” Daniela, who teaches English in a secondary school, had been home from work for more than a month and probably wouldn’t see her students graduate this year.

She asked what I’d been cooking during the quarantine. “Nothing special,” I replied. It was true. On social media, people were using their time in isolation to experiment with showy, big-project dishes — or at least cook through Alison Roman’s book. It all seemed exhausting; we’d mostly been doing survival cooking, supplemented by takeout from favorite restaurants we hoped would not go out of business. But the question from Daniela made me think that now might be the time to finally make her mother’s recipe for marubini.

Marubini is mostly known as a stuffed pasta made during the holidays, and each family’s stuffing, or ripieno, is a secret mix of meats and cheese. Anna made marubini almost every weekend in Pieve San Giacomo, a monotonous hourslong process. But the result, served simply either in broth or with butter and sage, made for an amazing Sunday lunch. There’s a saying, in Cremonese dialect: “En piàt de marubéen el fa resusitàa àan i mòort” — “a plate of marubini can bring the dead back to life.” Only once had I tried to help, but I couldn’t get the shape correct, something Anna could do with the flick of a finger. Once I’d messed up a few, she shooed me out of the kitchen.

Anna’s recipe for the stuffing was straightforward yet vague. “I can tell you ingredients but not quantity as it depends on how you feel the filling,” Daniela said. The meats: grilled veal chop; grilled pork loin; boiled turkey or chicken breast; a thick slice of mortadella. Basically, these would have been the meats that Anna would have cooked for lunches or dinners over the course of the week, and the leftovers would be ground together on Saturday for the ripieno. Grana Padano cheese, grated nutmeg, egg, and salt were added to the meat. “Mix everything and wait for a while. A friend of Anna’s leaves her filling on the windowsill outside at night.”

I didn’t have any leftover meats, so I used my one weekly run out of isolation to visit an Italian butcher near my home. The owner set up a little table outside the door with plastic gloves and hand sanitizer and posted a sign saying only 10 customers could be in the store at one time. Inside the mood was tense, everyone trying to keep their distance from one another. No one smiled or engaged in chitchat. I couldn’t help but stare intently at the blue-gloved hands of the guy who cut my mortadella. I bought veal tips instead of a veal chop, a tiny chicken breast, and a pork loin that was probably too lean. They didn’t have Grana Padano and so the basic parmesan I had at home would have to do.

When I got home, I immediately cooked the meats, grilling the veal and the pork, boiling the chicken. I don’t have a meat grinder and so my Ninja blender had to do. Once I finished the filling, I let it sit outside on the patio to cool.

That’s when I realized I didn’t have the right flour. Semolina flour is much more coarse, harder to knead and work with. Marubini are supposed to be much more delicate. Powdery, fine-milled, high-protein 00 gives pasta a super-silky texture. I’m not saying this is anything other than sheer madness, and I’m not proud, but this is the moment when weeks of isolation nearly broke me. For some crazy reason, in mid-meltdown, I was convinced I absolutely needed to run out to another store, ignoring all social distancing logic, to buy a bag of 00 flour. I called three Italian specialty stores, Wegman’s, Acme, and finally Whole Foods before common sense prevailed. There is no flour, jackass. Get a grip. Use the semolina in your pantry and save a life.

I took a breath, then poured out the whole pound-and-a-half bag of yellow flour on the wooden pastry board. I shaped the coarse yellow flour into the classic moat shape. I remember Anna using a lot of eggs in her pasta dough, and so I cracked six eggs into the moat. I started stirring, then gradually blended the flour, then kneaded as the dough solidified. Eventually, I rolled the dough through the hand-cranked pasta machine, stretching it paper-thin. I saw that this dough was completely fine, and I began to relax a little. I fetched the ripieno from outside, opened a bottle of wine, put on a playlist of ’60s Italian pop, and was set to craft marubini to the sounds of Edoardo Vianello.

I scooped the meat filling onto the fresh-cut squares and folded it into what I thought was a marubini. It immediately fell apart — too much stuffing. As did the next, followed by one with too little meat and too much dough. Clearly, I was just as bad at making marubini as I had been decades ago. Strangely, though, I felt fine as I gave in to the tedious, Zen-like process. I poured a second glass of wine and began forming the pasta into what I could manage: the shape of maybe a tiny hat, sort of like cappelletti, but not exactly that either.

I’m not saying this is anything other than sheer madness, and I’m not proud, but this is the moment when weeks of isolation nearly broke me.

As I worked, making dozens of tiny meat-filled hats, I began to recognize why I’d gotten so worked up over making the marubini “authentically.” I knew I would send photos of the finished product to Daniela, and I craved Anna’s approval. The last time, the only time, she’d let me cook something alone in her kitchen, it had been kind of a disaster.

About 20 years ago, I became obsessed with this weird pasta that was traditional in the neighboring city of Crema, called tortelli cremaschi. While the pasta itself follows the basic egg-and-flour recipe, the ingredient list for the filling reads like a performance artist’s absurdist creation: amaretto cookies (nearly a pound); candied citrus; mint candies; raisins; egg yolk; grated lemon zest; grated cheese; nutmeg; Marsala wine; mostaccino, a local cookie that is sort of like a gingersnap. It’s like a stuffed pasta a kindergartner would design. But tortelli cremaschi is real and dates back to at least the 16th century, when Crema was under the rule of the Republic of Venice. There is an Accademia del Tortello Cremasco, and an annual festival. In fact, it’s fairly typical of Renaissance pastas, which were historically sweet. The dish fit with the types of spices and candied fruit that Venice’s traders imported from the East.

None of this mattered to Anna. No proper Cremonese kitchen would ever prepare tortelli cremaschi. So if I wanted to introduce this heresy into her home, I was told to make it myself. The only place I could buy all of the random ingredients for tortelli cremaschi was at one old-fashioned drogheria in Crema’s town center. When I returned home, she shook her head. “Matto,” she said. Crazy. She tossed me an apron and handed me her mezzaluna knife. As I chopped the cookies, and the candied fruit, and the mint, and everything else — all while Anna watched, bemused — I grew nervous. As I added the chopped mint candies to my filling, and then the egg yolk, it dawned on me that I might not be invited into the kitchen again. Anna helped me shape them into proper tortelli. “What do we serve with these?” she asked. “Broth? Butter? Sage?”

To make matters more stressful, Daniela had invited a couple of sophisticated friends from Milan to join us for dinner. The husband, who worked in finance, had just come from the golf course. Daniela told him I was an American food writer, and he seemed extremely skeptical. Anna and I served the tortelli cremaschi, with butter and sage, as a first course. Everyone sat and took a bite. Silence. The guy from Milan winced a little. Everyone gingerly took another bite. Oh my, yes, it was very sweet. And gooey. Anna and Daniella spoke quietly in dialect. Eyes around the table darted at me. Anna looked at me and said, “Troppo dolce.”

Everyone began chuckling at the quirky American. “Ah, our Jason!” said Anna, making that hand gesture that basically translates to “this knucklehead!” Anna treats me exactly as my own mother does. No matter how old I get, in her eyes I will forever be a dopey 19-year-old, the same one who arrived at her door wearing Birkenstocks and a University of Vermont Bong Team T-shirt, a man-child with a shaky grasp of Italian grammar.

“Wait a minute!” I protested. “I didn’t invent this dish! You can’t blame me for this recipe! Blame the Venetians who ruled Crema!” Everyone nodded. It was agreed that the people of Crema must be completely crazy.

“However,” said the guy from Milan, in English. “Your new nickname will be Tortello Cremasco from now on. You should use that as your alias when you review restaurants. Or when you appear in pornographic movies.”

Strangely, though, I felt fine as I gave in to the tedious, Zen-like process. I poured a second glass of wine and began forming the pasta into what I could manage.

Twenty years later, during much more dark and dire times, I had once again become Tortello Cremasco, making stuffed pasta with the wrong flour and shaping it incorrectly into hats. When I was finally finished — after about three hours of pasta-making — I cooked the marubini for my own family two ways, with butter and sage and in broth (albeit with chicken broth because I didn’t have the proper vegetable broth). The pasta was much heavier than Anna’s and the ripieno was a little drier and slightly less flavorful, but I was still proud of my effort. My kids scarfed it down in about 8 minutes and went back to their video games and Netflix.

Perhaps this is a lot of drama, too much drama, in telling you about how I made some pasta last week. Certainly, there’s a common complaint that food writers ramble on and on. Mindy Kaling was the latest to join this lame sort of criticism: “Why do all online recipes have endless pages of the chef’s whole life story about the recipe and then on the 12th page is the actual recipe? I just want the recipe! I don’t need the Modern Love essay on how you came up with it!” I guess I can empathize a bit, though I would say: The recipes are free, and you can always just scroll.

I would also say that in telling the story of dishes like marubini, we are trying to document what may be disappearing faster than any of us can fathom. Italy, for instance, is the oldest country in Europe, with almost a quarter of its population over 65 years old. Nearly 18,000 people in Italy over age 60 have died due to COVID-19. This is the generation born into the postwar Italy that we’ve long mythologized and now lives mostly in memories. What will die with these septuagenarians and octogenarians?

I know. Modernity never stops. Who but an Italian grandmother has a whole Saturday afternoon to make pasta from scratch anymore, amirite? Well, right now, I do. I can’t do anything except stay in my house. Maybe the least I can do is honor someone important in my life by trying to replicate their most coveted dish.

As I was cleaning up, I texted some photos of my marubini to Daniela. I acknowledged that the shape was incorrect. A little while later, a reply came back. “Great! Anna approved,” she messaged. “Even the shape fits the time. It’s like a crown. So let’s call them Corona Marubini.” This was followed by an emoji of a heart.

Editor, Planet of the Grapes. Author of Godforsaken Grapes, Boozehound, & The Cider Revival. Series editor of The Best American Travel Writing. jasonwilson.com

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