Pasta Master: Inside Buca's kitchen with David Marcelli

From their famous duck bigoli to the elusive threads of God, Buca's David Marcelli gives David Ort a pasta primer. 

Great restaurants set themselves apart from the pack with creativity and innovation. And then they deliver on their promise of an exceptional experience with careful and consistent execution.

For operations like Rob Gentile’s Buca, that can mean finding the suppliers with top-notch products who can be counted on to sell him their very best. Or, after nearly a decade of success and 150 employees spread over three properties, it can depend on an indispensable craftsman.

David Marcelli also leads the bread programme at the original Buca on King West, but the vast majority of his time is spent making pasta. Designing pasta. Obsessively researching traditional, regional pasta styles.

On a relatively quiet weekday evening, in the basement commissary kitchen, he took me on a guided tour of five pasta shapes that just begin to demonstrate the Buca range. He showed me the delicate rolling technique that makes trofie, the light touch for braided-ring lorighittas, introduced me to the idea of cresc’ tajat made with polenta and fusi istriani coloured with pig’s blood. Familiar orecchiette, but with a rustic, sauce-grabbing texture rounded out the quintet.

The shape of fresh pasta is the first thing I notice. How often are you recreating the traditional versus making something new?

It almost always is based on a traditional shape or a traditional style of pasta. Especially something like cresc’ tajat. It’s something you don’t see very often, but I like to give my own little spin on things.

When you guys are developing a dish, is it a collaborative process?

Jorge [Fiestas, Buca’s chef du cuisine] will come and say “hey, we have this product. What do you think is the best shape?”

It could be anything. Seafood or a certain shape might typically be served with beans so whenever you get great beans in that would be the one to go with.

When you’re in development how often does the idea “let’s show diners something they haven’t seen before” play into it?

I try to not repeat too many things. I always like to push boundaries of what’s new in the restaurant. Also, it’s a lot of work. I also do bread and other things.

Is there any logic to how pasta shapes are distributed in Italy?

There is, to some extent. Typically poorer places will have more hand-shaped pastas. So, Sardinia, southern Italy will have more of the orechiette, these sort of pastas. And as you go north you get richer pasta. In Bologna, they have tortellini and even north into Piedmont they have tagliatelle which is made with egg yolks. Basically, the further north you go, the richer it’s going to be.

Being Italian, I grew up with pasta. It was always on the table.

You’re known for experimenting with flours. What’s the orecchiette made with?

This is an ancient durum flour we use from K2 Mills. It gives it a nice colour and texture opposed to a regular flour.

How important is gluten-free? Would you be paying as much attention to flour if diners weren’t asking for gluten-free?

I make the gluten-free pasta here. I use millet flour and other...different types of ingredients.

Secret ingredients?

Yeah. [Laughs]

Is the gluten-free pasta good enough that you’d eat it?

Well, I wouldn’t eat it, but it’s good enough that if I gave it to you or someone else and didn’t tell them it was gluten-free they probably wouldn’t know.

When I first made it, I was surprised at how good it is. I was not expecting that.

Your role is to develop pasta shapes, but you’re not dropping pasta in the water.

No, I’m not on the line cooking. Sometimes I’ll help develop the sauce for the pasta, but I would say 75 per cent is R&D, it’s working with the pasta itself.

What were you doing before Buca?

I was also the pasta maker at Scarpetta. So, I helped open Scarpetta here and they flew me out to Vegas and LA to help open the Scarpettas. And to train their pasta makers.

Marcelli uses a wooden dowel to shape his fusi istriani. The dough gets its distinctive colour from pig's blood

When did you decide that pasta was your thing? How does that happen? I know that cooks often decide pastry or savoury and choose that as a course, but pasta seems even more specific, more specialised.

You know, being Italian I grew up with pasta. Pasta was always on the table. I first learned how to make pasta from my mom and it’s something I’ve always absolutely loved.

It’s not that I was disappointed with the pasta in the city, it’s that I wanted to bring something new. I worked in Italy for about nine months, in Umbria, and that’s where I saw that pasta can be something more than just a daily meal. It can be an art form.

Where is the one place you would recommend people go to really get the full course of pasta in Italy?

For pasta, you really have to go to Bologna and Modena in central Italy, that’s where all the legends are. Then again, that’s not to say that the pasta in other regions is not great. It’s great everywhere – you just have to find the people who are putting their hearts into it.

We talked a bit about what pasta in Toronto was like a while ago. Do you feel like you’re participating in a pasta renaissance?

I think so. We’ve got Famiglia Baldassarre [on Geary] and others.

Does that help you in a collaborative way? Or a competitive way?

We don’t really collaborate. But it’s good to have healthy competition. It’s only for the betterment of the diners in Toronto.

I do want to ask you about the threads of God, su filindeu. Can you tell me more about that project?

I first heard of it, or I first saw it in a book I have – The Encyclopedia of Pasta. A hand-drawn illustration of it looked really interesting. I didn’t know how it was made. I tried making a version of it and it didn’t work.

But I saw a video on Youtube of a nonna actually making it and thought it was amazing. I have to try doing this myself! It’s just incredible.

What makes it difficult?

There are so many different variables, starting with: You have to get the flour right. It’s all done by hand. And it’s a pulled dough, so it’s completely different from other pasta.

It’s not rolled, it’s not extruded, you’re not shaping it, you’re not cutting it.

It’s stretched – like a Chinese hand-pulled noodle. And it’s pulled incredibly thin. To get the pasta to stretch that many times, that thinly takes a lot of time to perfect. It took me three years just to get it to stretch properly. And I still can’t get it anywhere near as thin as the nonnas. I think there are nine or ten in Italy who do it.

I still can’t get it anywhere near as thin as the nonnas. I think there are nine or ten in Italy who make it.

Buca found somebody who is willing to export it to Canada?

Yes, we get it through a company in Montreal who imports it for us and we get it in big huge boxes that last a year.

What does it taste like?

It comes like a cracker and you cook it in the broth it’s served in. It’s hard to describe. It almost melts in your mouth.

Tell me about using pig’s blood in pasta.

It doesn’t just add colour, it also gives the pasta a slightly livery flavour. We get it from our butcher, whenever we get whole pigs in, they also give us blood from that pig. And, actually, when we get the super-fresh blood with those pigs, the dough is really red.

When you’re cooking at home do you make pasta or is that an opportunity for a break?

I don’t usually make fresh pasta. I do dried. If it’s a Sunday, maybe I’ll do a fresh pasta. But I love dried pasta, too. And sometimes it is worth paying for the imported, extra-good dried pasta, depending on the sauce.

David Marcelli in Buca's commissary kitchen on King Street West

What’s one tool for home cooks who want to make fresh pasta at home?

A good roller. Your best tool is your hands, so you just need to practice and get a feel for it. Start with something simple. Just tagliatelle and from there, experiment with other styles.

You experiment with shapes, but are the actual ingredients in the dough strictly traditional?

Mostly traditional, but sometimes I’ll add something that I think will fit. I might also make the dough a bit tougher than it would normally be to accommodate a different shape I want to use it for. It needs to hold up on the plate and stand up to the sauce.

Are there any pasta dishes you can’t take off the menu?

Bigoli. The duck-egg-yolk hand-cranked pasta. That’s been on the menu since day one and it’s one of our best sellers. That’s going to be on the menu at every Buca that opens.

Is that a good thing or do you get tired of it?

That one I don’t mind. It’s a good workout to have every day!

Do you have a favourite season for pasta?

Spring time is really exciting. When you’re starting to get all the fresh legumes, you start to get nettles that are always a favourite. But I love all the seasons, there’s always something new happening.