Making the Disderide Family’s Pasta with Butter and Basil

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews

A marvelous way to highlight great butter

One of the many amazing people I’ve gotten to know because of my writing over the years is Rocco Disderide. While few outside his family will recognize his name, Rocco and his wife Katherine have, quietly, been an important part of Zingerman’s history since well before we opened: in the late spring of 1902, the couple, both then in their early 40s, built what has become the Deli’s building at the corner of Detroit and Kingsley. Their plan was to construct a corner grocery a few blocks up from the town’s increasingly busy train station (which had, a few months earlier been the site where locals had staged a send-off for the Michigan football team en route to play in the very first Rose Bowl). In the process, they also created a nice apartment for themselves and their daughters to live in above the new store. Eighty years later, the Deli settled into the storefront the Disderides had decided to build all those years ago. We have lived and worked in their building since that day, and their kind, community, and food-focused spirit has lived in us since 1982.

Rocco Disderide was born in September of 1857 near Genoa, in Liguria, which Americans may know better as the Italian Riviera. He emigrated to New York, in 1882, when he was 25. Catherine was born, Caterina Caramella, in the Ligurian village of Neirone, in the hills to the northeast of Genoa in the spring of 1860. They married after arriving as new immigrants in New York City in 1882. Ten years later they made the move to Ann Arbor where her brother was running a small grocery shop. They were only the fifth Italian family to arrive in town. Rocco began working first as a cigar seller. In the 1899 Business and Professional Directory of Detroit and Surrounding Towns, Disderide is listed twice. First, for cigars and then, again, as a confectioner, both at the address we all know so well: 422 Detroit Street.

To give you some historical context, in 1899, about half of Ann Arbor’s population of 15,000 or so people were, like the Disderide family, immigrants. There were, per last week’s piece on Albert Wheeler, about 500 African American families in town. The business listings for that year included two oyster wholesalers, five bakeries, four banks, one boilermaker, and nearly 30 shoe stores. The book also showed 17 barbers, a number of whom were at the core of the developing Black business community, most prominently, Henry Clay, whose shop was close to the Disderides, up on East Ann Street. Ann Arbor Fruit and Vinegar Company was at 212 South First Street. There was one flour mill, owned and run by the Almendinger family. If you wanted to call the Ann Arbor Gas Company, you would go to the phone and ask the operator to connect you with 66. That said, only about one listing in five in the directory featured this still relatively new technology. There were, though, about two dozen lawyers, a locksmith, nine restaurants, 30 saloons, and six newspapers, one of which was published in German.

This simple and delicious pasta was not listed in the Directory but it was most definitely already one of the Disderides’ favorite dishes. With butter on my mind, this dish has been my dinner more than once in recent days—as we move closer to the fundraising dinner for Safehouse Center, “The Beauty of Better Butter” on Tuesday evening, March 5—I have butter on my mind. (Come to the dinner for a superfine five-course meal all based around this amazing, world-class cultured butter.) Like most of what I like, it’s easy to put together. The key is, of course, the quality of the ingredients. As I shared in Part 4, I learned about this recipe while gathering stories from Rocco Disderide’s great- and great-great-granddaughters: “… the eyes of all four of the women at the table lit up when they started to tell me about this dish!”

To put the pasta together, let some good butter come to room temperature. Not melted, not cold from the fridge—in either of those cases the dish won’t work. The butter needs to be soft and at room temperature. Cook your pasta (better pasta makes a BIG difference) in well-salted water until it’s very al dente. Put the butter into a big mixing bowl. Add a bunch of freshly ground black pepper, a handful of torn fresh basil leaves, and a good bit of Parmigiano Reggiano. When the pasta is ready, remove it and place it in the mixing bowl. Toss gently. Taste for salt. Adjust as you like. Eat!!