FRAMINGHAM — When Al Botti, 88, says he’s made 1.5 million anolini in his lifetime, he’s probably exaggerating. But not by much. Shortly before the holiday, Botti and his niece, Dorina Rossi O’Connell, get together in O’Connell’s kitchen here to make the northern Italian Christmas specialty, half-moons of pasta filled with a savory mixture of breadcrumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano, served in a rich homemade broth.
This duo isn’t fooling around. They make about 600 or so anolini, as part of the Christmas meal O’Connell serves to eight or 10 guests. Leftovers are frozen. O’Connell’s recipe for broth, or brodo, is also a large-scale undertaking. She makes several gallons, simmering it for hours in a 20-quart stockpot. Anolini in brodo is a simple dish — just stuffed pasta in clear broth. Its success lies in the quality of the ingredients and the care taken in their preparation.
“If you don’t have good broth,” says O’Connell’s cousin Louis Risoli, “you won’t have good anolini.” On this day, preparation is even more festive and hectic than usual. Risoli is maitre d’ and fromager at L’Espalier in Boston, overseeing the monthly “Cheese Tuesdays” events. He had plans to serve the family anolini recipe at an upcoming Italian-themed evening, so he brought along chef de cuisine Matthew Delisle. O’Connell and Botti can instruct the chef on the finer points of the pasta preparation. Also on hand is O’Connell’s dear friend Kim Kohler, while husband Fred O’Connell offers occasional commentary. The group crowds into O’Connell’s small kitchen and dining room, but the anolini-making is a well-choreographed dance, and everyone mostly manages to stay out of each other’s way as filling is mixed, dough rolled in a hand-cranked pasta machine, and anolini formed.
“My uncle always makes the filling,” O’Connell explains. As Botti stirs together crumbs, cheese, and just enough brodo to moisten it, the two talk about their family ties and about the community of northern Italians that once thrived in Framingham. The area along Route 135 at the Ashland town line was known as “Tripoli,” they explain. O’Connell never knew where the name was from until she visited her grandmother’s hometown and saw that the main street was Via Tripoli.
The province of Piacenza, in the Emilia-Romagna region, where the family has its roots, “is also called ‘Food Valley,’ ” says O’Connell. Botti’s family — he is an uncle by marriage — came from nearby Parma, and he was raised on the same regional specialties, including anolini.
O’Connell recalls her grandmother Dorina Rossi rolling the dough by hand, turning out thin, fine, pasta sheets 4 feet long “in no time,” says O’Connell, “she was a magician.” Risoli, too, remembers making anolini with his mother and aunts the week before Christmas: “Growing up, my aunts would compete to see how many they could make. One aunt made 1,000 one year.” Needless to say, it was an all-day affair.
A batch of 600 is nothing to sneeze at, either. For these, breadcrumbs are from a fresh loaf, preferably the pasta dura bread made only on Tuesdays by the Framingham Baking Co. Cheese must be aged Parmigiano-Reggiano; O’Connell picks it up on one of her frequent trips to Italy or buys it at Teitel Brothers in the Bronx. “My cousins in Italy,” she says, “make the filling with all cheese. But because my grandparents were not too wealthy, they made it two-thirds cheese, one-third breadcrumbs, so that’s traditional for us.” For the pasta, she favors King Arthur’s Italian Style Flour, a low-protein version that makes a smooth, supple dough.
Delisle runs that smooth egg dough through the pasta machine to create long, narrow strips about 30 inches long. The chef makes it look easy, but O’Connell admits it takes a bit of practice to get the sheets to the requisite thickness, or, as Botti explains, “the thickness of a scudo,” a coin used in Italy until the 19th century.
On the dining room table, O’Connell lays out a sheet of pasta, Botti dots it at regular intervals with filling, near the midline of the pasta, so when it’s folded lengthwise, the filling is in the fold. The pasta between the filling dots is pressed together, and then Botti deploys his secret weapon. There is a tool known as an anolini cutter — basically, a small cookie cutter with a handle — but Botti will have no truck with such newfangled nonsense. He does it the old-fashioned way, with a thin-rimmed shot glass, cutting out the filled half-moons and setting them aside on a board covered with a clean kitchen towel. The anolini must dry in a cool spot for a day.
On Christmas Day, after the anolini comes a meat course — the beef and poultry from the broth. Because the meat is a bit dry, O’Connell serves it with mostarda, a fruit preserve with mustard she prepares in the fall. For dessert, there’s fried ravioli with a sweet filling made of chickpeas, chocolate, and more mostarda. “These were controversial,” Risoli says, as O’Connell fries up a batch. “Half of us loved them and half hated them.”
But the main event is the anolini. The tender pillows plump up with brodo as they simmer — a bit like Chinese soup dumplings, as Risoli points out — and the filling, with its tang of good aged cheese, makes a wonderful counterpoint to the rich broth. More cheese is sprinkled on the soup at the table. Holidays, after all, are a time to be profligate with luxurious ingredients.
Botti and O’Connell have made their Christmas anolini together for some 30 years.“Whenever we cook together, it brings back my fondest memories of watching my Nonna Dorina in the kitchen,” she says. “I’ll never stop the tradition.”