Monday, March 4, 2024

Truly, the art of pasta: Nonna Mercato’s 12-day long, chef-centric celebration of the carby wonder

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In the world of Long Beach’s stellar and continually growing pasta scene—La Parolaccia, Michael’s on Naples, Vino e Cucina, Wood & Salt, Ellie’s…—it remains wildly baffling how underrated the pasta dishes of Chef Cameron Slaugh at Nonna Mercato in Bixby Knolls are.

The pasta itself is gorgeously complex while the dishes are deliciously simple: The hand-rolled masterpiece that is sopressini—a from-beginning-to-end handmade endeavor that results in square cuts of pasta whose corners are melded and inverted to create brilliant little pockets to scoop up sauce—is layered with oyster mushrooms and charred’n’fried broccoli spigarello in a citrusy, mascarpone sauce.

These entirely handmade wonders are met with the pasta machine-d creations like Slaugh’s bucatini, currently lathered in a wonderfully hearty salsa all’amatriciana, where the fat of guanciale melds with the brightness of simmered tomatoes.

Since his inaugural menu, Slaugh has had torchietti, the coiled pasta that he wrapped in a creamy, citrusy concoction where layers of mint, green chickpeas, and preserved lemon, which provided a beautiful, Moroccan bite that could be unfamiliar if you’ve been sadly dismissed from the Mediterranean-North African-Levantine staple.

There was a chitarra on their inaugural menu that was an umami-meets-savory bomb of Dungeness crab and guanciale with the subtle heat of Calabrian chile; something that I still dream of today.

In other words, Nonna Mercato is a pasta heaven that is serving up unquestionably some of the best pasta not just in Long Beach, but the region—and he will be flexing this mastery of the carb-y wonder through a 12-day long, different-pasta-each-day extravaganza honoring Italy’s most cherished culinary canvas.

The world of pasta, according to Chef Cameron Slaugh of Nonna Mercato

Slaugh’s approach to pasta is one of the city’s most refined—and its most humble: “I haven’t rolled tortellini in about eight years,” he said as prepared one followed by ten as an example of what to do with a square cut of pasta. “Clearly not that good but the muscle memory is coming back.”

Slaugh did this after he masterfully rolled his mattarello—a roughly meter-long wooden pin, purchased while he was in Italy—over a piece of dough that was formerly a ball into a large disc. Laying it delicately over the edge of his massive wooden plank, cascading his hands outward and inward along the pin, he’d lift up the disc to shine a light through it, holding his hand in the back to see how opaque (or not) the disc was.

Afterwards, he’d take a small plastic round and use it to hand-cut squares, creating everything from sopressini and tortellini to farfalle and fusilli.

“Hand-rolled pasta requires your entire attention,” he said, continuing to roll the dough into a disc. “It dries out much quicker than sheeted pastas ran through machines. I can’t just walk away from this sheet even for a little bit otherwise it wouldn’t be malleable enough to form into shapes.”

He points to the minuscule air bubbles that his newly flattened disc has—something a sheet press would have easily and perfectly disintegrated—how the texture of the wood pin and surface relate to the dough… All something that is a mixture of his skill, his tools, and of course, his flour of choice: 00 flour directly from Italy.

“The farmer of this flour has been here and the moment he just let me touch it, I knew I had to work with it,” Slaugh said. “It’s beyond flour; it’s a fine powder. I feel like ‘Scarface,'” he said laughing, picking up little grips of the powder and running it through his fingers.

Slaugh is right: The flour comes off like a corn starch-gone-fine culinary cocaine to the touch and feel, light and incredibly smooth, with absolutely zero graininess to it. It’s hard not to play with, gripping it in fistfuls and watching it snow across the wooden slab.

And for Slaugh, there’s something both old-world and culinarily special about hand-rolled and -formed pastas: They are literal extensions of the hand that feeds you.

What ’12 Days of Pasta’ at Nonna Mercato is really about

Well, the pasta, of course—but entirely handmade pasta. No rolling sheet machines, no pasta-making contraptions outside of a rolling pin and one’s hands.

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“We made an advent calendar—but for pasta,” Slaugh said. “Each day, a new door will open on the calendar on Instagram to reveal what the pasta will be that day and then once the day is done, that pasta will never be back… Everything is made by hand, no sheeted pastas, no machines—just our hands.”

As for what those pasta dishes will be, that is part of the excitement and part of trusting Slaugh’s skills. He intends it to be mysterious—even to me: He brought up a couple ingredients—more crab and shaved black truffle—and the fact that they will tie as much of the “12 Days of Christmas” song into the dish as they can—”‘Seven swans a swimming’ I am thinking of seven tortellonis swimming in a broth of sorts,” he said.

Set for around $35 and including two other courses—prosciutto-wrapped grissini (crispy, thin, long breadsticks) and your choice of a cannoli or bomboloni (a stuffed Italian donut)—the rest will be left up to the imagination.

“I want people to see the depth of pasta, what it means for Italian food and Californian cuisine,” Slaugh said. “I want people to enjoy it on a different level with the expectation of something new each time.”

You’ll not just be rolling out pasta, Chef, you’ll be rolling us patrons happily out twelve days in a row.

Nonna Mercato is located at 3722 Atlantic Ave. in Bixby Knolls.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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