Have you ever looked at a photo in a cookbook that left you breathless? For years, I saw images of corzetti stampati, thin rounds of fresh pasta embossed with a decorative pattern, and felt equally moved and bewildered, as if they were simply too beautiful to actually exist beyond those pages.
I casually searched for a corzetti stamp to create these little-known pasta discs, a specialty of Italy’s Liguria region, and never found one until I read about Terry Mirri. Mirri is the owner of Artisanal Pasta Tools, a small company based in Sonoma, Calif., that makes a variety of handcrafted specialty wooden pasta tools—some of which aren’t even for sale in Italy.
It’s difficult to believe that until about five years ago, Terry had never picked up a chisel or file. He used to own a gift business that specialized in selling service awards to major corporations. He’s also been a real estate speculator and was mayor of his hometown of South San Francisco.
“I pretty much retired until my love of cooking drove me to what was supposed to be an avocation, but has morphed into a vocation,” Mirri says.
Mirri grew up in a vibrant Italian-American community about 12 miles outside of San Francisco. His father was born in Italy to parents from the northern regions of Emilia-Romagna and Liguria and passed down his native language and culture to his family. The South San Francisco of Mirri’s youth was an entrepreneurial community where Italian immigrants owned businesses and property and supported their neighbors in much the same way as they had in the Italian villages from which they emigrated. Elaborate dinners with family and neighborhood bocce games with friends were a way of life.
A lifelong avid home cook, Mirri describes his philosophy on Italian cuisine as traditional yet experimental. “It allows you go wherever you want within certain parameters,” he says. About five years ago, he took a trip to the southern Italian region of Puglia that included a life-altering, 10-course, farm-to-table meal at a masseria, a working farm that offers dining and accommodations. He returned home to California inspired to recreate the dishes he had savored during his travels.
As Mirri’s passion for Italian home cooking grew, he became increasingly curious about the traditional pasta tools that are so important to Italy’s regional cuisine, among them the corzetti stamps from his grandmother’s native Genoa (see glossary below). He began searching for corzetti stamps in the U.S., and found them in only two places, both of which sold mass-produced versions from China. He hoped to commission a company that might be willing to manufacture them wholesale, but the cost was too high.
That’s when his entrepreneurial spirit kicked into high gear. He resolved to learn how to make the elusive tools himself. He found a private woodworking teacher, an Englishman based in Sonoma County, and impressed him with his skill and drive. After a year of study, Mirri launched Artisanal Pasta Tools, selling hand-carved corzetti stamps and experimenting with different patterns and designs as he became more accomplished.
“I’ve been very involved with the Italian-American community throughout my life and it has been very good to me. I wanted to give something back and be a part of the revival of traditional cuisine,” Mirri says.
He has since branched into other specialty pasta tools, including a cavarola board, which presses a decorative pattern onto pasta sheets, and his personal favorite, the intricate garganelli board used to make short, ridged pasta tubes. (see glossary below). Mirri uses 23 types of wood from the U.S. and Europe to make those tools, as well as customized rolling pins, polenta boards and other pasta implements.
Artisan Pasta Tools is essentially a one-man show. Although Mirri enlists help to prepare the wood, he does all of the whittling, carving and cutting himself, without using a template. His work has attracted a global clientele, with customers from as far as Israel and Russia, and he has developed an almost cult-like following among Italian chefs, cooks and food bloggers in the U.S. He stopped advertising because he couldn’t keep up with demand and now relies on word of mouth and the recommendations of his customers. (Currently there’s a minimum two-week wait for one of Mirri’s tools.)
Times have changed since Mirri’s youth in South San Francisco, and concentrated Italian-American communities are now few and far between. Still, he continues the customs of feasting and fellowship that defined his Italian upbringing, cooking often for friends and keeping up with his weekly bocce game.
And Mirri says he loves his new job. “I haven’t had this much fun since I was mayor of South San Francisco.”
Glossary of Pasta Tools
Corzetti stamp – A wooden hand tool from Liguria used to make corzetti stampati, small, thin rounds of fresh pasta that are embossed with a decoration. Named after old Genoese gold coins, corzetti date back to the Middle Ages and were originally served by wealthy maritime families who imprinted the discs with their coat of arms and served them to guests at banquets.
Cavarola board – A wooden board traditional to Puglia that is carved with a decorative pattern. When a sheet of pasta dough is placed on the board and passed over with a rolling pin, the impressions from the board’s carvings are imprinted onto the dough. The dough is then cut into squares called stracenate.
Garganelli/gnocchi board –A wooden board used to form ridged, tubular garganelli pasta typically used in Bolognese cooking. A thin wooden dowel is rolled over a flat, square piece of pasta dough across the board’s surface, creating a ridged hollow tube. The board may also be used to create ridges on gnocchi.
Mirri advises his customers to keep the wooden tools and boards floured to prevent sticking. Although not always traditional, he advises the addition of semolina (hard durum wheat) flour to the dough of the pasta varieties described above.
Corzetti, an embossed coin-shaped pasta, is a specialty of Liguria, in northern Italy. The pasta dates back to the Middle Ages and was traditionally served by wealthy maritime families who imprinted the discs with their coat of arms. A special hand-held wood tool is employed in the cutting and embossing of the disks. Terry Mirri, owner of Artisanal Pasta Tools, who makes and sells corzetti stamps, advises cooks to keep the stamps floured to prevent sticking. He also adds semolina flour to the pasta dough to make it easier to handle. The corzetti are dressed in a simple sauce of herbed butter and toasted pine nuts.
- 3 cups “00” flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
- ½ cup semolina (durum wheat) flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup cold water
- 1 stick good quality unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts*
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh marjoram or oregano
- Freshly ground black pepper
For the pasta, in a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flours. In a small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the water. Make a well in the center of the bowl of mixed flours and pour the egg mixture into the well. Mix with a fork until all the flour is moistened and starts to clump together.
Lightly flour your hands, then gather the clumps and begin kneading right in the bowl, folding the mass over repeatedly until you’ve formed a cohesive lump of dough. Turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface and continue kneading for 5 minutes or so, until the dough is smooth on the outside, contains no lumps and feels elastic. (If the dough seems too sticky or too hard after it has been kneaded for a minute or two, adjust the consistency with very small amounts of flour or water.) Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Cut the dough into four equal pieces. Work with one piece and keep the others covered. Lightly flour the work surface and your rolling pin. Press the first piece of dough flat, then dimple it with your fingertips. Begin rolling it into a rectangle, about twice as long as it is wide. Working from the center of the dough, roll up and down and left and right. Flip the dough over occasionally and dust it with flour, turning the dough 90 degrees from time to time as you work. Continue to roll and stretch the dough until the sheet is 1/16-inch thick.
Corzetti stamps are in two pieces. The bottom piece serves two purposes: its bottom side is like a round cookie cutter and its top side is carved to leave an impression on the pasta dough. The top piece of the corzetti stamp has a handle and its underside also is carved to leave an impression. Cut the pasta sheet into discs using the cutter end of the bottom piece. Let them rest for a minute or two. (Discard the dough remnants.)
Place a disc of pasta on the carved side of the bottom piece of the stamp and with the top piece, press down firmly so that each side of the disc is embossed with the carvings. Allow the corzetti to dry on cookie sheets lined with non-terry kitchen towels dusted with semolina flour for at least 1 hour. If the pasta does not dry long enough, the impressions will disappear in the boiling water. (You may also freeze the corzetti by placing the entire cookie sheet in the freezer until the pasta is frozen and then transfer the pasta into zippered plastic bags.)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a full boil. Gently shake off any excess flour from the pasta in a colander or with your hands. Drop the pasta into the boiling water in several batches, stirring with each addition to separate the pieces. Let the water return to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta rises to the top. Reduce the heat slightly and taste for doneness - the pasta will be done in about 2-3 minutes.
About a minute before you add the pasta to the pot of boiling water, place the butter in a wide skillet over medium heat and melt until the edges begin to caramelize. Add the toasted pine nuts and fresh herbs and sauté for a minute or so, stirring often. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of cooking water, and add the pasta and reserved cooking water to the butter and herb sauce, tossing for 30 seconds or so until the pasta is well coated. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.
*To toast pine nuts, place them in a dry skillet and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until they are golden in spots, about 3 minutes. Immediately transfer the pine nuts to a bowl to cool.