Maria Pellicci’s Christmas Ravioli
Elide Pellicci looks down upon Maria & Nevio Pellicci
If you should spot a light, gleaming after hours in the back kitchen at E. Pellicci in the Bethnal Green Rd at this time of year, it will be Maria Pellicci making the Christmas ravioli for her family as she has done each year since 1962.
Maria originates from the same tiny village of Casciana near Lucca in Tuscany as her late husband Nevio Pellicci (senior). And, to her surprise, when Maria first arrived in London she discovered his mother Elide Pellicci, who came over in 1899, was already making ravioli to the same recipe that she knew from home in Italy.
Elide is the E. Pellicci celebrated in chrome letters upon the primrose yellow art deco facade of London’s best-loved family-run cafe, the woman who took over the running of the cafe in the thirties after the death of her husband Priamo who worked there from 1900 - which means we may be assured that the Christmas ravioli have been made here by the Pelliccis in this same spot for over a century.
Thus it was a great honour that Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven & I were the very first outsiders to be invited to witness and record this time-hallowed ritual in Bethnal Green. But I regret to inform you that this particular ravioli is only ever made for the family, which means the only way you can get to taste it is if you marry into the Pelliccis.
“It’s a Tuscan Christmas tradition – Ravioli in Brodo – we only do it once a year and every family has their own recipe,” Maria admitted to me as she turned the handle of the machine and her son Nevio Pellici (junior) reached out to manage the rapidly emerging yellow ribbon of pasta. “My mother and my grandmother used to make it, and I’ve been doing it all my life.”
In recent years, Maria has been quietly tutoring Nevio in this distinctive culinary art that is integral to the Pellicci family. “I was going with the boys to see Naples play against Arsenal tonight, but that’s down the drain,” he declared with good grace – revealing he had only discovered earlier in the day that his mother had decided the time was right for making the special ravioli, ready for the whole family to eat in chicken broth on Christmas Day.
“He’s a good boy,” Maria declared with a tender smile, acknowledging his sacrifice, “years ago I used to stay here on my own making the ravioli until eleven o’clock at night.”
“She’s trying to hand it over to me,” Nevio confirmed proudly.
“Nevio’s good and he’s got the patience,” Maria added encouragingly, as Nevio lowered the pasta carefully onto the ravioli mould.
“I’ve got the rubbish job, I have to fill the ravioli,” he complained in mock self-pity, grinning with pleasure as the two of them set to work with nimble fingers to fill the ravioli. Although the precise ingredients are a fiercely guarded secret, Maria confided to me that the filling comprises beef and pork with Parmigiano and Percorino, along with other undisclosed seasonings. “Everyone does it differently,” she confessed modestly, making light of the lifetime of refining that lies behind her personal recipe.
Already Maria had cooked the mixture slowly for a hour and added a couple of eggs to bind it, and – now it had cooled – she and Nevio were transferring it into the ravioli mould. “We used to do this by hand,” she informed me, turning contemplative as she watched Nevio expertly produce another ribbon of yellow pasta to sit on top of the mould. “We rolled the pasta out on the table before we had the machine. Sometimes, large families used to fill the whole table rolling out enough pasta to feed everyone on Christmas Day. When my mother was small, they were poor and lived in a hut but they had their own flour and eggs, so they could always make pasta.”
It was Nevio’s task to turn the mould over and press it down hard onto the table, binding the layers of pasta together. Then, with intense concentration as Maria waited expectantly, he peeled the ravioli away from the mould, revealing a sheet that looked like a page of neatly upholstered postage stamps. Making swift work of it, Maria wielded her little metal wheel by its wooden handle, separating the individual ravioli and transferring them to a metal tray.
In the kitchen of the empty restaurant, mother and son surveyed their fine handiwork with satisfaction. Each mould produced forty ravioli and, in the course of the evening, they made eight batches of ravioli, thus producing three hundred and sixty ravioli to delight the gathered Pelliccis on Christmas Day – and thereby continuing a family tradition that extends over a century. Yet for Maria, Ravioli in Brodo is more than a memento of her origin in Tuscany, making it here in the East End over all this time incarnates this place as her home.
“I am happy here and I know everyone in Bethnal Green,” she admitted to me, “It’s my village and it’s my family.”
Maria & Nevio rolling out the pasta
Maria sprinkles semolina in the mould to stop the pasta sticking
Maria & Nevio placing the meat filling in the ravioli
Nevio presses down on the ravioli mould
The ravioli are turned out from the mould
Maria cuts out the individual ravioli
Over three hundred ravioli ready for Christmas Day
Elide & Priamo, the Pellicci ancestors look down in approval upon the observance of making Christmas ravioli for more than a century in Bethnal Green
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
E.Pellicci, 332 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 0AG
You may like to read my other Pellicci stories