On March 13, 2020, Gianna Vacirca’s world stopped. She was finishing up the show Noises Off at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre when theatres all across the country started to shut their doors. The industry that took the words “the show must go on” quite literally, that prided itself on keeping its doors open no matter what, was closed by COVID-19. Vacirca found herself unemployed, the contracts she had for the next six months now cancelled.
The baking trend that took off in the initial stages of the lockdown seemed to ignore pasta and skip straight ahead to sourdough bread. “Even though pasta takes very little effort to make,” Vacirca says. “It’s just eggs and flour.” With a lot more time on her hands, Vacirca made pasta, and it has evolved into a business named bell’uovo, “the beautiful egg.”
Cooking was the way she connected with her paternal Italian family as an adult. As the pandemic continued to unfold, Vacirca worried for her family in Italy which was hit hardest. She connected with her great aunt, with whom she not only shares her name, Gianna, but also her love for pasta.
“She was an adventurous, modern, old woman, who wore a lot of colour. I never knew her as a young woman,” Vacirca says. The great-aunt she had never previously met accepted her with open arms and nicknamed her Little Gianna. Her great aunt’s love for colour inspired Vacirca to take it one step further.
Coloured pasta is not a new concept. It dates back to the ancient times, when Italians would use spinach water and squid ink for their noodles. Vacirca didn’t have any food colouring, but she had a lot of vegetables. So, she experimented. “[Great Aunt] Gianna wasn’t a traditionalist, and watching me colour my pasta didn’t disturb her,” Vacirca says. Beetroot, she explains, gives a lot of colour, but blueberries and algae powder are gelatinous, so they don’t work as well in the dough. Turmeric and paprika have a little bit of heat, but it’s usually not noticeable.
“I remember one day, where I was just going to make a proper palette of all the colours,” she says. “I started to work with it and experiment with how I could mix colours. I felt like a kid.”
Vacirca grew closer to her Italian roots. She used cookbooks and YouTube videos to perfect her craft in, what Italy calls, “the art of tiny sculptures.”
“We in North America see it as mass manufactured dry food. But for chefs in Italy, it is a creative act,” she says.
The crucial point that kick started her business was when Vacirca grew frustrated about the increasing numbers of domestic abuse during lockdowns. She wanted to do something to help, and saw the growing interest in her coloured pasta. She sold her pasta to fundraise for WINhouse, a women’s shelter. Within three days, she was able to donate $1,000. Her largest supporters for the cause were the out-of-work actors in her community.
Vacirca’s great aunt passed away in September 2020, but, by then, she had already become a big part of Vacirca’s inspiration and business. Pasta is all about the eggs — the yellowness of the pasta comes from the yolk, not the semolina — and Vacirca wanted to incorporate that. “We talked about the name and she was like, it must be Italian,” says, Vacirca.
“You’re Italian, it must be Italian.”
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This article appears in the May 2021 issue of Edify