Pici, pinzi, umbricelli, strangozzi, lunghetti, ciriole, serpentelli, different names for the same pasta: very long and chubby spaghetti-like tubes of fresh pasta generally made only with flour and water, typical of Toscana, Umbria and Lazio. When cooked, they acquire that pleasant, slightly chewy and slippery texture of all “pasta povera”, that is pasta made without eggs.From what I understand (the sources are contradictory), pici were traditionally made with soft wheat flour (sometimes a little hard wheat flour, semola rimacinata, was added too) and warm salted water; occasionally, the dough was enriched with a little extra virgin olive oil and, in more recent times, even a little beaten egg would find its way into the making of pici. This is ancient pasta (pici go back possibly to Roman times), and for the sake of taste, texture and authenticity (if you care about this), you want a flour that is not too refined – it is worth remembering that well into the 19thcentury, due to less efficient milling, white flour was not as refined as it is today. I have also seen versions of pici where wheat flour was mixed with chestnut or spelt flour and all this sounds pretty authentic to my Italian ear.
Judging from Youtube Italian grannies making them, pici should be very long although such length is not essential; in fact it can be undesirable – try twisting your fork around never-ending strands of pasta – so messy! The message is: do not stress too much about length, as long as your pici are 30 to 40 cm, you are on course. Thickness is far more important: pici should be not much thicker than bucatini, otherwise they will end up, once cooked, like bicycle inner tubes and will taste pretty gross. To be able to roll them this thinly requires some skill, but nothing than cannot be achieved in a few pasta sessions and some patience.
The dough should be firmer rather than supple. I kneaded it both with a food processor and by hand: no major difference to report. Use whatever is more convenient for you; I used cold water for food processor kneading (otherwise the dough overheats and this just might damage the dough); I used barely warm unsalted water for hand kneading, going against tradition that calls for salted water: again, I tried both versions and I could not find any difference, but I found adding a pinch of salt to the flour was easier that dissolving salt in the water. Of course, you can also make an unsalted dough and salt the cooking water.
In order for it to be rolled into pici, the dough must rest. I made a few experiments, resting the dough from anything between one hour and 10 hours and I could not detect any major difference. I even tried to refrigerate the dough (well wrapped in cling film) for a few days and, apart from a darker appearance of the refrigerated dough, the taste of the finished dish was indistinguishable from one made from freshly made dough.
There is a special knack in rolling the dough. Check the videos at the end, much better than any description I can provide. Just one tip: when the dough starts resisting being stretched into bucatini-thick pici, dampen your palm and carry on rolling. The pici will ever so slighty stick to the board and you will be able to reduce them to obedience. Rolling pici by hand gives them a nice rough texture and this will be a good thing when combined with the sauce.
As a rule of thumb, the ratio of water to flour is 1:2 (e.g. 100 g water: 200 g flour)
For 3 portions of pici, I used
250 g flour, consisting of: 25 g semola rimacinata, 25 g fine wholemeal flour (the one used to make chapatis) and 200 g 00 (low protein content) flour or UK plain flour
5 g salt (that is: 2% of the flour weight)
Mix to combine. Gradually add barely warm water and start mixing with one hand; stop adding water when you get a dough similar to a rather stiff bread dough (as I said: generally a little less than half the flour). Do add the water very gradually. Knead until the dough is supple and smooth. Wrap in cling film and rest for at least one hour.
Get a rolling pin and roll the dough into a round about 25-30 cm in diameter; brush it with oil (this will prevent the dough from drying out) and cut it into ribbons. Start rolling, as per the videos.
You can eat the pici straight away but you can also let them dry completely – the flavour and texture will be the same.
How to eat pici: try it simply with oil, black pepper and pecorino or with a wild board ragù, or a basic tomato sauce. It’s also good with a punchy oil, garlic & anchovy sauce.
Check these useful videos