As she opens Tortellante, a pasta project and shop in Modena with her husband and Osteria Francescana co-owner Massimo Bottura, Lara Gilmore talks about the power to transform a community by stepping out of the comfort zone. She spoke in San Francisco at #50BestTalks: Voices for Change, presented by Miele.
If asked what he would transport to a desert island, according to his wife, Massimo Bottura would take tortellini, the handmade egg pasta typical of Bologna and Modena that is filled with prosciutto, mortadella and parmiggiano cheese. More than just a comforting food, tortellini is a tradition that brings together a community, and one that sparked a new project that began three years ago and now takes on a new form with the opening of Tortellante.
“More than food, they are a religion,” says Gilmore. “If you don’t believe in God, you can always believe in tortellini. But making tortellini isn’t a solitary act; it’s a communal one.”
Tortellante began in project form three years ago when a friend of Gilmore and Bottura approached them with an idea – could they teach special needs children to make tortellini? Bottura and Gilmore’s son, Charlie, was 14 at the time and has special needs.
“The question struck me to my soul,” Gilmore says. “I had never taught him to make tortellini, and how amazing would that be? But I wasn’t the best one to teach him. Who could be the best teachers for these young boys? We thought about it, and thought of the rezdora – they’re the heart and soul of Italian families, the grandmothers, the aunts, your nextdoor neighbour who make tortellini for you. They know the recipe not by heart but by their hands.”
Tortellini (image: Tortellante/Lara Gilmore)
The project began with a small group of special needs children, including Charlie Bottura, with Modenese grandmothers teaching the teenagers to make the pasta dough, then fold it over the filling, around a large, communal table. As the weeks went on, more kids joined the group, and the teenagers became faster and more skilled at making the pasta together.
“For the families, the project was a way of seeing their children in a different light – with a future,” says Gilmore. “For the rezdora, it was a chance to finally pass on what they knew to someone who was not only interested, but looking for an identity, for a skill, for a future. The teens were seeing themselves as part of a group, having a name; they were proud to walk around with their hats and aprons, to be tortellanti.”
With the success of the project, Gilmore and Bottura began to think about setting up a permanent home for the tortellanti – the pasta-makers – to supply tortellini to the public while continuing the social benefits of the concept. The shop opened yesterday in Modena, under the slogan ‘Pasta libera tutti’ or ‘Pasta frees everyone’.
“We began envisioning Tortellante as a way of empowering these young, special needs adults to have a future,” Gilmore says. “A future as independent as possible and where they could make a positive contribution to society.”
Gilmore says Tortellante has already received more pasta orders than it is able to fulfil, and she hopes it will go on to be a successful business that will allow her son and other special needs children to grow up to become pasta teachers themselves. Having led Osteria Francescana to No.1 twice in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and with their Food for Soul community kitchens project gaining momentum since 2016, Bottura and Gilmore certainly have the determination, clout and experience to make it work.
“When we stepped out of our kitchens and into our communities and connected with them – with the rezdora, the special needs adults, with those most in need – we learned that anyone can be a voice for change,” says Gilmore. “For all of us in hospitality, what we do matters. We cook, we welcome, we share, we restore, we care, we do. Just by doing, by taking action, maybe we can make the world a little bit of a better place – or at least a more delicious one.”
Watch Lara Gilmore's full speech from #50BestTalks: Voices for Change in San Francisco:
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