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The Bizzarri pasta experience

Times Newspapers Online - 21 July '05 - Helen Perry

Some say too many cooks spoil the broth but and that wasn't the case when 15 or so Italian language students spent an afternoon learning to make pasta with the charming owner of Ristorante Andrea in Mission Bay.

In fact, it was a blend of flour (everywhere), eggs (galore) and laughs (a minute) which saw this group of mostly women (just two men) pretty well eating out of the hand that fed us - that of Andrea Bizzarri chef, restaurateur and, I understand, chorister of no mean singing ability.

article01While nothing could persuade him to give us a tune he did show himself to be a teacher of note and by time three hours had passed most of the group were confident they could turn out navel- shaped tortellini that look good enough to adorn a Ruben's painting.

Yes, for those who didn't know, the shape of neatly folded, round-cut tortellini is based, so they say, on a woman's navel. I'm not so sure mine (the tortellini that is) looked anything like the real McCoy but they sure tasted good.

The invitation to join this class of avid world travelers who gave credit for their admirable Italian skills to teacher Giuseppe Martegani was one I accepted with alacrity. I don't cook pasta particularly well let alone make fresh pasta with any great skill so the chance to learn from an expert was too good to pass by. Thank goodness I didn't.

From the first I was enchanted with Andrea's warm welcome, his glorious floral trousers and his instant conversion of all our names to their Italian equivalent. Jenny became Gina, Robyn, Roberta, Peter, Pietro and Karen, Carina, which means pretty," said our host with a twinkle in his eye. And in case you are wondering Helen became Elena and not once did I, or any of the others, deviate from our new identities.

For three hours we became citizens of Rome and did our best to produce good looking, great tasting Italian fare - first, the tortellini, then the gnocchi and, finally, a divine custard cake (not tiramisu but equally delectable). However, we had a lot of help. Shortage of time meant that Andrea and right hand man Antonio Agreiter had to prepare some items earlier. These included the tortellini dough, simply 10-12 size six eggs to every kilo of flour, nothing else; the mashed potato (no water or milk used) for the gnocchi; the creamed chicken filling; and the dessert custard.

article02Now I guess you're all thinking what did we do. Well firstly, we turned the mounds of dough into paper thin pastry using either the hand operated pasta-making machine or the electric model. This looked easy but required some skill especially as the pastry stretched with repeated feeding through the machine. Handling a fragile, metre-long length of pastry was hardly child's play. Once done, we used a variety of cutters to shape our tortellini cases which we then filled using a pastry bag. And if you though the twist and squeeze, managed so deftly by trained chefs, is breeze you should have seen some of our efforts.

Looking on the bright side, most soon gained the knack and before long we were a veritable production line of hardened, fast-paced tortellini makers. But, of course, the proof was in the pasta. When our masterpieces were returned to the table cooked and coated in a delicious home-made tomato sauce, self-congratulations could be heard afar although I did notice that Andrea wasn't saying a thing!

But by know we were in full swing and it was into the gnocchi - not too many problems there and finally the chosen ones went up to prepare the custard cake - layers of thinly sliced pre-baked sponge (carefully sliced by Pietro) layered with a marsala and coffee mixture, rich egg custard and chocolate chips - absolutely ruinous, absolutely delicisimo. As the dessert mounds grew so did our anticipation and while many opted for small servings I did note almost everyone went back for more!

What fun we had. We might not have begun all our cooking from scratch but the outcome was almost as big a thrill as winning Lotto - well, not quite but a minor prize at least! I thought we all did rather well and couldn't help but think of a few friends who would love the experience so I pricked up my ears when I heard that Andrea has "Cook your own Dinner" nights for groups.

Apparently they tackle very much the same sort of dishes we did and the whole evening costs just $45 per head to cover the lesson, the dinner and a glass of wine but bookings are a must. Now that is definitely worth planning for because this Naples-born chef who has cooked at New York's famous Cirque Restaurant has a way of making cooking, eating and socialising an awful lot of fun!

And just in case you didn't know Ristorante Andrea is open