The Historical Twists and Turns of Traditional Pasta

pasta-single

Weird things happen when I least expect them. I was lying in bed, working my way through the Sunday New York Times, when I came across a piece by Jeanette Winterson buried in the back of the Book Review.

“Art,” she wrote, “is always about relationship.”

It made me think anew about this little piece I’ve been writing about pasta for the last three or four months. Made me realize that what I’ve been writing is — as she says — mostly about relationships. In fact, it’s about a lot more relationships than I’d even realized. The obvious one here is Zingerman’s relationship with a little company from Italy’s east coast called Rustichella, whose pasta we’ve been buying and selling (and I’ve been eating) for nearly twenty years now. But this story is also about the relationship of a boy — Gianluigi Peduzzi, who runs Rustichella — with his grandfather, who started the company in 1924. And it’s also about Italy’s relationship with pasta, mostly the less glamorous parts — you know, the stuff that might look pretty and positive on the surface but, you find out when you dig a bit deeper into the past, wasn’t always so rosy. Lastly, I suppose, it’s about my own relationship with pasta, and with history and families.

Pasta has long been pretty prominent on my list of regular foods as an adult and a cook. When I’m having a rough day, I almost always steer back to pasta. For me — and I know I’m not alone — it’s at the top of my comfort food list. I love the stuff, for whatever reasons. When I flip through food books, it’s almost always pasta recipes that catch my eye. Over the years I’ve studied it, written about it, sold a lot of it and taught classes on it. I’ve also traveled around Italy and visited some of the country’s best artisan pasta makers.

I had the pleasure — culinary, cultural and educational — of visiting the Peduzzi family, makers of the excellent Rustichella pasta. What was an already excellent relationship is now far richer, more interesting. I now see — and appreciate — pasta, and the pastificio Rustichella d’Abruzzo, more than ever. Pasta for me will never be the same.

While most of us see spaghetti as pretty stable in an often undependable world, the reality is that pasta — the way it’s produced, cooked, consumed and perceived — has actually been changing all along. What’s different for me now is that, after my visit and six months of reflection, I’ll never forget that fact again.

Pasta is the quintessential Italian food, and Italians eat it in enormous quantities. Add in the fact that you’re making exceptionally good, notably-more-flavorful-than-the-stuff-in-the-supermarket, artisan pasta, like the much-loved-at-Zingerman’s Rustichella brand (“the one in the brown bag”)… and it seems like as straightforward a recipe for success as one could possibly script.

But 1924 — the year that Gianluigi Peduzzi’s grandfather, Gaetano Sergiacomo, got going in the pasta business — might have been one of the worst times in Italian history to start making pasta — maybe akin to opening a bank in 2008. Of course, history gives us 20-20 hindsight. But take a look back at some of the stuff that Gianluigi’s grandfather would likely have been talking over with his friends and relatives when he got home from work, all covered with flour, sweaty from making spaghetti in the hot Abruzzese heat, and — if his start-up experience was anything like all the ones I’ve been through — emotionally exhausted.

For openers, the economy in Italy in 1924, while not the worst the world has ever seen, pretty much sucked. More specific to Gaetano’s work, the wheat crop in 1924 was not good, and prices were going up and up, making commercially produced pasta difficult for the average Abruzzese to afford. Most people weren’t even used to going out to buy pasta back then.

While the pasta in places like Naples and Genoa — the capitals of commercial pasta making in Italy for many centuries — was much more commonly made by artisans and sold in shops or delivered to wealthier homes, in much of the country (like the Abruzzo), what most people were eating was still primarily homemade. Back in 1924, Gianluigi explained, “this pasta like my grandfather made was a luxury product and was mainly purchased and consumed on Sundays or during the holy days.” It was called pasta comprata (purchased pasta) to distinguish it from the pasta that people made every day at home.

And the raw materials apparently often weren’t all that great either. “The wheat,” Gianluigi told me, “was terrible. Only soft wheat.” This wasn’t really a new problem: the history of Italian pasta making shows a steady back and forth between people who could get the higher-quality, harder durum wheat, and those who were working the lower end of the quality scale. Many pastai at that time offered different grades of pasta, the best made with 100 percent pure durum semolina, gradually going down in quality and cost as more and more soft wheat was blended in.

The strange stylings of Italian politics compounded the problems. The majority of the top-grade grain used to make Italian pasta was imported, and Mussolini was adamant about reducing that amount. With less high-end grain to be had for pasta making, costs rose and quality fell — not good news for a quality-oriented pasta maker. Eating patriotically meant shifting one’s diet to polenta and rice. In 1928, the Fascist regime pushed its agenda even further by creating a National Rice Board and instituting National Rice Day. “Ricemobiles” were sent out all over the country to hand out free rice to homemakers to get them to put away the pasta and ring in a new, rice-based era of Italian culinary and economic independence.

One seeming upside might have been that the American appetite for pasta in the first decades of the twentieth century was on the increase, and the population of Italian immigrants here was ever more substantial — a new businessman might reasonably have dreamed about the potential of a big export market. Unfortunately, the closing of the shipping lanes during WWI, high wheat prices in Italy after the war and Mussolini’s Battle for Grain meant that high hopes for exports never panned out. In fact U.S. imports of pasta from Italy dropped drastically, sinking from 78,000 tons in 1913 to about a sixth of that level in 1928.

— Ari


Pasta Past

Throughout, pasta remained pretty much a local product. Every town had its pasta factory, or maybe more than one; what we now call Rustichella was just one of the small pasta producers in the Abruzzo. “Until 1981,” Gianluigi told me, “almost 100 percent of our pasta was sold at the market in the town of Penne. The production was Monday to Friday, and the market was Saturday. The customers would come to the market at six in the morning, give the order and then come back to get the box at the end to go home.” Pasta at that time, by the way, was still pretty much all sold in bulk. As Gianluigi explained, “During that period pasta was sold loose and packed only at the moment of the purchase. The quality of the product was visible according to the color of the wrapping that was red or blue.” The sort of one-pound (or one-kilo) package we’re now so familiar with came to the U.S. only in the 1920s, and in most of Italy remained little known until our own era. “Gaetano Sergiacomo,” Gianluigi elaborated, “made our first paper bag, and still today this package characterizes our products, together with the brass studs.”

It’s worth noting that while the shapes of the pasta back in Gaetano’s era were pretty much what we’re familiar with today, the pasta itself probably didn’t taste exactly like what we’re used to. As Gianluigi said, most of the wheat available in the Abruzzo at the time wasn’t all that great. Even if the flavor of the grain itself was good, it can’t have been very consistent in the all-important-to-the-pasta-maker protein levels or gluten content. And while inconsistency probably wasn’t all that big of a deal when you were making pasta on the kitchen counter at home, it’s not conducive to making something special on a wider commercial scale.

It’s also important to understand that the times were changing in terms of technology. These days, the fact that small producers like Rustichella, Martelli and Cavalieri take upwards of two days to dry their pasta in machines made to work at fairly low temperatures is considered a marvel of modern-day artisan dedication. Their commercial competitors like Barilla and DeCecco do the drying in a matter of hours, yielding a pasta that’s basically “baked” and hence is brittle and breaks up during the cooking rather than retaining the chewy al dente texture that Gaetano would have liked.

A hundred years ago, though, two days wouldn’t even have been enough to get the work started — drying then took anywhere from two weeks to over a month! Done with only the sun and ambient air, the drying process took place in big open buildings, where racks (for shorter shapes like maccherone and penne) or carts with pasta hanging on poles (for long cuts like fettuccine, spaghetti and linguine) were left to set, and the moisture in the dough gradually evaporated. Under the right conditions, the racks were placed in the open air. Older Italian pasta makers still tell stories of how they had to watch the pasta to protect it from goats, dogs and other “predators.”


Three Steps to Good Drying

Back in that era, before computers or commercial machines had mechanized the process, drying was a difficult craft to master, akin to the skillful sensory work done by prosciutto makers, who adjust airflow as the temperature, wind and humidity change in order to achieve the ultimate in flavor through traditional curing. The same was true of drying pasta. The three stages of the pasta drying were:

1. Incartamento: This is when the drying created a natural crust on the outside of the still-soft pasta. Traditionally, this was done by putting racks of fresh pasta out into direct sunlight.

2. Rinvenimento: This second stage allowed the pasta to “recover” from its initial experience in the sun. The drying racks were put into a room that was about forty degrees cooler than during the incartamento. Pasta at this stage was stored as close to the floor as possible, or, alternatively, in cool cellars, where the lower temperature and higher humidity slightly softened
its crust.

3. Essiccazione definitiva: This “final drying” stage was usually done in shaded areas, often courtyards or attics, where the pasta was gradually dried most of the rest of the way through. For long pastas like linguine, this was particularly challenging — the pasta had to be shifted between warmer and cooler temperatures to get the drying just right. As with ham curing, the process could be managed by moving the pasta from one room to the next, or by opening or closing windows to catch the proper breezes.

You can see pretty quickly why dried pasta was a luxury item. At best, in settings where the climate was close to ideal, the necessary temperature swings could be obtained by simply sticking with the natural atmospheric changes over a period of a week or more. Drying in the winter, even in the South, took two to three times as long as it did in the summer, or in many areas couldn’t be done at all. Pasta that was to be shipped abroad was dried longer than that which was sold for local consumption in the reasonable belief that it needed to hold up longer.

With all that old-time drying in mind, imagine the pressure on production systems when — in the second half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries — machinery was introduced that significantly speeded up the mixing and then the extrusion of the pasta through metal dies. While pasta could be made much more quickly, there was no way to dry it any faster, which made for huge backlogs in the system. Not surprisingly, then, the development of modern drying machinery soon followed. When Gianluigi’s grandfather got going, drying was still done completely by feel; today the Peduzzis work with a carefully calibrated pasta moisture analyzer to target a residual “humidity” level of 12 percent. If the moisture is left higher, the spaghetti will spoil; if it’s over-dried, the pasta won’t properly ferment, and its flavor will be off.


The Advent of Al Dente

A few hundred years ago, most Italians were eating pasta that had been cooked ten to twenty times longer than I would ever dream of today. The trend to al dente originates in the South (as in Naples, not North Carolina). The tradition there positioned pasta as a street food — people bought just-cooked, steaming-hot spaghetti pulled from pots of boiling water by vendors, sprinkled it with grated cheese, then wound it around their fingers and put it straight into their bocca (mouth). In that context, al dente makes sense — you’d need spaghetti strands that didn’t turn to mush. Northerners, by contrast, generally ate their pasta only after much longer cooking — cooked ten to twenty times longer than I would ever dream of today — often to the point of making it into what Neapolitans would consider a veritable mush.

While far less extreme than in, say, 1800, that regional difference is still strong. On my visit this past summer, Rolando Beremendi, the long-time American importer of Rustichella, lamented one night at dinner how hard it is, even in restaurants in Italy, to find properly cooked — very al dente — pasta. “Really?” I asked, surprised. “It’s terrible,” he said, shaking his head. “I like it cooked for just seven minutes, with a little ‘crack’ in the middle still. But in Florence [where he lives], they kill dry pasta. And in Bologna! God forbid you should order dry pasta! They are only used to fresh pasta, so they don’t know how to cook pasta secche properly!”


Keys to Pasta Quality

For openers, there’s the extrusion. While the basic process of mechanically pushing the dough through thick bronze dies dates to the late nineteenth century, most big producers today have long since left the bronze behind and bought the easier to use, longer-lasting Teflon. Not so for Rustichella (or Martelli for that matter). “The bronze dies,” I put down on my legal pad in November of ’92, “are one of the keys.” By contrast, I continued, “big producers use Teflon. Bronze dies not only cost more, they must be replaced a lot more often. They’re softer and hence break down more quickly — bronze dies for the big selling cuts have to be replaced annually. For the other cuts, it’s every two to five years. They cost about $1000 each, and you have to have a different die for each cut.”

Gianluigi is equally dedicated to bronze extrusion today. The dies really do make a huge difference in quality — the surface of the pasta is much rougher, which means that it cooks better and, as it’s meant to do, absorbs a bit of the sauce, instead of having the slick, Teflonic surface of industrial pasta, leaving the sauce to run off quickly to pool at the bottom of your bowl.

Given today’s much higher volume for Rustichella, and the price of pretty much everything going up as it does, the replacement cost and frequency must both be far higher than they were in the week following Clinton’s election. One thing that has changed is that the Peduzzis have put much more technology into play. Happily, it’s all been in service of product quality, not the usual effort companies make to cut corners and production costs as they grow. The dies, I learned this time, can expand slightly from the heat as the dough is pushed through them — these days a machine reads the microscopic changes and adjusts accordingly.

The second key point, is the quality of the grain. While most folks think of pasta as being made from flour, every producer I’ve met over the years quickly corrects me if I forget and says, usually with great gravity, “grano.” Law #580, passed in 1967, required that all Italian producers use only durum semolina, and Rustichella has used 100 percent durum semolina for most of the last century. But there are big differences between great grain and the so-so stuff that mass-market makers rely on. Gianluigi told me that Rustichella was using wheat from the Abruzzo and the neighboring Molise whenever possible. Interesting, thinking back to Mussolini’s Battle for Grain, and a good preface to this year’s introduction of PrimoGrano pasta, but more on that in a minute.

Drying is the third big factor. Rustichella takes two days for the long cuts, one and a half days for short cuts at 30°C. Commercial producers dry long cuts in seven hours, short cuts in three to four. Today Rustichella uses computers to check the residual moisture inside the pasta, but the basic process is still those centuries-old three steps to good drying — with the same results. While most people assume that pasta is just flour — whoops, grain — and water mixed, shaped and dried, one of the keys to flavor is that well-made pasta is actually a fermented product. Longer, gentle drying allows for more effective, slower fermentation, which, just as with cheese making, bread baking or converting wine to vinegar, means fuller flavor. You can’t see it on the box, but you can definitely taste the difference.

For great flavor and texture the newly dried pasta must be allowed to cool slowly. Rustichella lets the temperature come down gradually — from the low drying temperature of about 90°F to room temperature over a period of twelve hours or so. “In industry,” Gianluigi explained, “it comes out at 95°C [over 200°F]. And then they must chill it quickly in a cooler before packaging. It won’t work otherwise.” The result is, again, a brittle and not very flavorful pasta. A 1987 Italian study found that high-temperature drying also destroys most of the grain’s natural nutritional value. Sample some al dente Rustichella fettuccine, and you’ll never go back to the supermarket stuff, no matter how well known and less costly the mass-market brands might be.

The difference between artisan pasta like Rustichella (or Martelli) and the mass-market stuff comes out big time when you cook it. The slightly chewy texture, wheaty aroma and full flavor of well-made artisan pasta reminds me of what classic Italian cooks have always known — the point of a pasta dish is the pasta itself, not the sauce. Interestingly, good pasta’s flavor actually improves with time! “If you taste now after ten minutes,” Gianluigi said, pointing to two bowls of pasta that we’d tried hot a bit earlier, “the taste of our product tastes like good bread. The DeCecco,” he added, “will taste like flour.”

I’ve tried this at home a few times and been amazed by how accurate he was. While I’d never thought of enjoying cold leftover pasta, Gianluigi is right on — a day or two after being cooked and cooled, Rustichella, brought back to room temperature, actually tastes terrific. I would guess that Gaetano got that one right from the get go.


PrimoGrano!: Great Pasta Comes Full Circle

All of which brings me to PrimoGrano, the new, limited-edition pasta that Gianluigi is making. The name means “First Grain,” and fittingly, the initial shipment just arrived in Ann Arbor around Christmas. I’m honored that we get to be one of the only places in the U.S. to get some. A timely gift from the Peduzzi family for long-time pasta lovers (like me), the PrimoGrano has a flavor that’s very special, sort of luxurious, but in an understated, modest sort of way. It’s now a regular on my list of favorite pastas.

Having eaten it regularly for the last few months (it’s true — I got the sample bags before you could buy it), I will say that I really like this stuff, both for the pasta itself (pretty terrifically tasty) and for the project overall. The latter is really representative of most of the things I think go into making a special business ever more special. It’s really no small thing. You have someone who’s achieved a great degree of success, whose product is sold all over the world, is known for being among the best around. But instead of standing pat, Gianluigi has invested enormous amounts of energy, time and I’m sure money to make something special happen.

“We start to make the pasta in 2004 for the eightieth anniversary of the company,” he told me this summer. “We worked with the University of Foggia in Puglia [a few hours south of his hometown of Pianella], and we started to study the new variety of grain. We finished this variety — what we call ‘San Carlo’ — in 2002. The yield is lower, but the flavor is very good. We did the first experiment for 2003 to grow three hectares. Just to make a small amount to taste for the eightieth anniversary.”

And now, the PrimoGrano is ready for you and me to eat regularly.

“I wanted to make a product the way it was in 1924,” he told me and as he talked, I realized that while he wanted to re-create the pasta of his grandfather’s era, in fact, he was driven — respectfully — to make something even better.

“In 1928,” he continues, “there was this pasta made by my grandfather, with 100 percent Abruzzo wheat. But back then it was made without very good technology. When you cooked it, the taste was good, but the texture wasn’t as good as what we have today.”

Modern technology has actually helped make the pasta better than it was back when Gaetano got going. “With San Carlo,” Gianluigi explained, “we can make the pasta again with 100 percent Abruzzo wheat. San Carlo is 80 percent, but we also blend the Varano, Quadrato and Mongibello varieties. And now we have the techniques of today so that the taste is like it was then but the texture is much better.”

While the PrimoGrano project was triggered by Rustichella’s eightieth anniversary, this isn’t about doing a one-off pasta for PR purposes. To the contrary, it’s all very holistic and long term — the idea is to get the San Carlo grounded in local agriculture, then build enough demand for the pasta to keep it going. And in the process provide consumers with a great-tasting product and farmers with something special to grow. “I wanted to work with the farmer,” Gianluigi said. “It was the same area of the province that my grandfather bought the grain in the past. Many farmers would deliver the grain to his factory. And instead of the money he gave them the pasta.” I’m sure the farmers today get plenty of pasta as well, but Rustichella is actually paying more per kilo to keep them growing this special wheat: “We pay to the farmers 10 to 15 percent more for the San Carlo than for the normal market of the grain. Plus, we pay one Euro for the farmer to cultivate only this variety. And two Euros for every percentage protein over 16 percent. So about 20 percent more.”

All the other good stuff then goes into play. The milling is done at Rustichella’s usual spot, one of the smallest mills in Italy now, which specializes in custom work like this. The dough is extruded through the bronze dies, and then dried very slowly (by modern standards — they still haven’t gone back to sun drying!). The pasta actually cooks up fairly quickly — Gianluigi says this is because the Abruzzo wheat is a bit lower in protein than the imported wheats that are blended into their other pastas. The flavor is wheaty, delicate and really pretty delicious.

Elizabeth Minchilli, a food writer who grew up in St Louis and has lived in Rome for over twenty-five years now, loves it. Given where she lives (in the middle of Rome) and what she does (food writing — the woman can get pretty much any pasta she wants and has probably tried most everything at some point or another), that’s no small compliment. “I really liked the taste of the pasta. It didn’t seem so neutral like most pasta, but had a distinctive, sort of nutty/wheaty taste to it. Also it was chewier, and more resistant, and had a better texture.” I’d agree.

We’ve got the PrimoGrano in three shapes. Chitarra are the traditional square-shaped long pasta of the Abruzzo. Penne, bearing the same name as the village where Gaetano got the pastificio going back in the ’20s, are quill shaped. And finally, the squiggly-edged, really cool-looking Sagne a Pezzi. All definitely have that nutty delicate deliciousness. To bring out the best of the wheatiness, I’ve been dressing it lightly — just fruity green olive oil and grated cheese; sautéed zucchini and bits of fried pancetta; white beans, fresh rosemary, a touch of well-sautéed celery and a generous dose of good olive oil.