When Catherine Wong arrived in Ravenna, a coastal city in north Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, she had no idea that she would be returning to Hong Kong to start Il Mattarello, making fresh pasta every day and delivering it personally to a crop of fiercely loyal customers.
“My mother said, ‘Oh, another Chinese person coming to steal our ideas,’” recalls Filippo Sintoni, her partner. Nevertheless, his mother, who runs a grocery store, did invite Wong to make pasta with her.
“I came back to Hong Kong and started making fresh pasta for friends’ parties,” Wong says. “Everyone was asking me to come over.”
Soon, she decided there was enough support for her to start a business, and she persuaded Sintoni to come to Hong Kong to partner with her.
Sintoni grew up making pasta, bread and other basic food at his mother’s store. “The city decided they wanted to redevelop the whole street, which included my mother’s shop, so she sold the business. I learned to make pasta from her. In Italy, usually the grandmas are the ones making the pasta, and everyone else just eats it.”
In Hong Kong, the pair make everything by hand and to order.
“Many people outside of Italy don’t know this, but each region of Italy has its own style of pasta. The pasta we make is a northern style, so we use eggs. Traditionally, egg pasta was made for celebrations and special occasions, and also because people had to work hard on farms, so they needed heavier food,” says Sintoni.
One of their signature items is cappelletti, meaning “little hats”, a filled pasta not unlike ravioli. Sintoni says the style is native to Emilia-Romagna, and its recipe was immortalised by Pellegrino Artusi, a 19th-century writer who penned one of the first Italian cookbooks, La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene (“the science of cooking and the art of fine dining”).
“With dry pasta, you usually rely on a sauce, but with filled pasta, you can just eat it once it’s cooked,” says Sintoni. With fillings such as ricotta and walnut, porcini, pumpkin and parmigiano reggiano, and pasta sheets that can incorporate vegetables like spinach and pumpkin, Wong says, “It’s a complete meal. Many of our customers make it for their children and don’t have to worry about them not eating their vegetables.”
Fresh pasta must be eaten almost immediately, or stored in the freezer, and is very different to the packaged versions you find in supermarkets, says Wong. For those varieties, factories make the pasta harder, which makes for a very different eating experience.
“Fresh pasta is light, but still has some bite,” says Sintoni. And it cooks incredibly quickly; their fettuccine, for example, takes just 30 to 40 seconds.
To source the best flour, the pair looked at what the top restaurants in Hong Kong and Italy were using. Their search led them to a small mill in Le Marche, an idyllic agricultural region in eastern Italy.
“They’re not a big factory, but they mill very precisely for each kind of product,” says Sintoni. While many people are familiar with the terms “0”, “00” and “000”, which denote how finely a flour is milled, there are grades in between.
Il Mattarello started out making classic wheat flour-based pastas, but selling online and direct to the consumer has allowed them to accommodate more requests. Recently, the pair launched a gluten-free range, using a complex recipe of flours.
“People say they can’t tell it’s gluten-free,” says Wong.
They also make pasta sauces. Sintoni says they will continue to make everything manually for the time being – after all, Il Mattarello means “rolling pin”, and what would a rolling pin be without hands to manoeuvre it?
For more information, go to ilmattarellohk.com