A project of Straus Communications, this column originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on January 23, 2002.



Cooking Fresh
What's even better than pasta? Fresh organic pasta
By Laurel Miller - CONTRIBUTOR

I love pasta. Truly. Madly. Deeply. A former roommate of mine used to make fun of what she called my daily "trough" of pasta.

A bowl of perfectly al dente noodles tossed with a garlicky infusion of tomatoes, dry-cured olives, anchovies and capers with lashings of Parmesan and fresh basil elevates me to the kind of euphoric state usually associated with more mind-altering substances.

So it was with a deep and profound sense of joy that I discovered Phoenix Pastificio several years ago. This pasta shop-cum-cafe is on a stretch of Berkeley's Shattuck Avenue not far from the famed "Gourmet Ghetto."

Owners Eric Sartenaer and his wife Carole turn out exquisite organic pastas and sauces featuring ingredients from local farms. Although practicality dictates the pasta must be made by machine, Phoenix Pastificio's mission statement assures that they are made "with as much human interference as possible."

Sartenaer was born in Belgium, and credits his culinary awakening to his Belgian grandmother, Basque mother-in-law and Carole, a talented baker. He arrived in Berkeley in the 1960s, and in 1983 he and Carole opened Semifreddi's bakery. They sold Semifreddi's in 1987, and after a brief stint owning a bakery in Oregon, returned to the Bay Area in 1994 with a mission -- to create the ultimate pasta using organic flours and free-range eggs.

At the time, Sartenaer had only experimented with making pasta at home, but, he says, "It's really simple to make good pasta. There are challenges that come from variable factors such as climate, but nothing that can't be overcome. I'm amazed by how a few ingredients can come together to make something so wonderful."

Sartenaer, who believes he is a "home cook" in his heart, feels that most pasta dough recipes are "overly rich with egg, salt or oil." He prefers to use one large egg per pound of pasta dough, enough to create a supple yet dry dough, which is easier to work with and results in a tender noodle with a bit of bite.

Phoenix Pastificio offers an array of pasta shapes and flavors featured in such prominent local restaurants as Bay Wolf, Citron, A Cote, Rivoli, and Lalime's. One of my favorites is an earthy chestnut pasta, which is ethereal when paired with wild mushrooms, while Meyer lemon and black pepper noodles go well with seared scallops. The orange-fennel pasta compliments the seductive richness of mussels or salmon.

Sartenaer says he always chooses fresh pasta over dried because "while dried can have a nice texture, most of the flavor is gone. It's dead, missing something."

Overcooking can also be the death of any pasta, but fresh noodles are especially vulnerable. They require only the briefest immersion in gently boiling, salted water -- from approximately 45 seconds for fragile cappellini to two minutes for the widest pappardelle.

Sartenaer's dedication to supporting local growers is evident in his use of seasonal ingredients. In the spring, he uses nettles foraged by organic farmers, such as Fresh Run Farm's Peter Martinelli, to create a subtle pasta that is delicious when tossed with sauteed artichokes and caramelized onion. Phoenix Pastificio also sells a delectable array of housemade soups, sauces and pastries, in addition to locally made artisanal food products such as cheese and olive oils. The next-door cafe, overseen by chef Steve Lucas, offers simple, delicious fare such as porcini fettucine with braised oxtail and Meyer lemon fettucine with swordfish, caramelized peppers and vermouth.

Phoenix Pastificio is at 1786 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley. Call (510) 883-0783. The retail and wholesale store is open from 4 a.m. to midnight weekdays, and from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. The cafe is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Sartenaer plans to open the cafe for dinner sometime in February.

Phoenix Pastificio products are also available at the Berkeley Farmers' Market and at Whole Foods in San Rafael. Phoenix will also send orders of pasta to Bay Area restaurants near your home so you can pick up your order.

ERIC SARTENAER'S
BASIC EGG PASTA

¾ pound unbleached flour
½ pound semolina flour
2 eggs
6 tablespoons water

Place the flours in a large bowl and form a well in center. Place wet ingredients in the well and, using your fingers or a spoon, stir dry ingredients into wet until a firm dough develops.

Place dough on a pastry board and knead as you would a bread dough, until dough is firm, but malleable enough to hold together. You may mist dough with water from a squirt bottle if it seems too dry, but remember that pasta dough should be fairly dry. You may add more flour if dough seems too wet and sticky.

Roll dough into a log, and slice off disks as you need them, and run them through a hand-cranked pasta machine according to manufacturer's instructions. The dough will keep, wrapped in plastic, for up to a week.

Makes 1¾ pounds of pasta, enough to serve 8.

Per Serving: 273 Calories; 2g Fat; 9g Protein; 53g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 47mg Cholesterol; 15mg Sodium. Exchanges: 31/2 Grain (Starch).

E-mail Laurel Miller at kaukaukids@hotmail.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org




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Last modified: March 26, 2002