The Pasta Puttana

Jessica Volpe wants to make fresh pasta easy.
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By David Tamarkin
Photograph by Ben Reed
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Before you ask, the answer is yes. Yes, Jessica Volpe knows what the word puttana means. Yes, she knew what it meant when she named her business “Pasta Puttana.” Yes, she knows that now, wherever she goes, she’ll be known as the “pasta whore.”

And no, she doesn’t mind. “I’m kind of turning myself into the pasta whore, which I am.… I eat pasta almost every day and I obviously love it.”

Growing up in a Sicilian-American household in Cleveland, Volpe heard the word puttana so much that it was the first Italian word she learned. But the context she learned it in was decidedly different from its intended use. Instead of hearing the word as a derogatory insult for women, she usually heard it in the kitchen. “My father would be making stock on a Sunday, and sauce would jump up and burn him, and he’d go ‘Ah, puttana!’ ”

That pasta her father was using was dry. But while studying in Rome during her last semester at Loyola, Volpe tried fresh pasta for the first time. She didn’t know it then, but she was hooked for life. Back in Chicago, she spent some time freelance writing but felt herself increasingly gravitating toward the kitchen to make Italian food. Soon she was enrolled at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, learning how to roll pasta. “I just started to love working with the dough and the feel of running your hand across a sheet of pasta dough,” she remembers. “I really just kind of fell in love with the process of doing it.” After that, it only made sense that she would go to work at Terragusto, where the pasta is made daily.

There, Volpe was charged with making pasta every morning. She had to get good at making it and at making it quickly. It was messy work, but she was into that. “I’m kind of a blue-collar gal at heart, I guess, because I really like working with my hands. I really like getting dirty.… I like sweating at work. I like the physicality of [it].”

But when evening fell and Volpe moved into the kitchen to actually cook the pasta she had made, her passion took a dive. It didn’t take long for her to realize that cooking in a restaurant kitchen wasn’t her thing. So she put in her time, but in late 2007 put in her notice. She started living off her savings and worked on her pasta recipe for six months.

Volpe now sells five varieties of fresh pasta. At Edgewater’s Farmers’ Market, she sells a red-chile linguine, a golden-egg parpadelle, a white-wine tagliatelle and an herbed tagliatelle (the herbs for which change from week to week). On Wednesdays, when she’s at Green City Market, she’s not allowed to offer the red chile (the chiles not being local), so she sells a roasted-tomato linguine instead. Those chiles aside, she’s fiercely dedicated to local ingredients, and though she’s not certified organic, the flour she uses is. It makes for a product that’s a little more expensive—$10 for two very generous servings. But so far, she hasn’t had any problems selling it. In fact, if anything, the pasta has been serving the purpose she always hoped it would: turning dried-pasta addicts on to the fresh stuff. On Saturdays, she’ll often head to Dirk’s Fish (2070 N Clybourn Ave, 773-404-3475), where her pasta is also sold, and pass out samples. It’s “the best moment of my Saturday,” she says. After tasting the pasta, people will often look at her, surprised. “Oh my God,” they say. “I had no idea.”

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