"I wanted to make a product the way it was in 1924," he told me while we were sitting in the sun in the square of the beautiful little Abruzzese town Scanno on a Sunday afternoon. His kids were running around the square, but his mind must have been more on generations past than present. As he talked, I realized that although he wanted to recreate the pasta of his grandfather's era, he was in fact driven, respectfully, to make one even better than that. "In 1928," he told me, "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. With San Carlo," he explained, "we can make the pasta again with 100 percent Abruzzo wheat. San Carlo is 80 percent, but we also blend in 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."
The Primograno project is, I think, a holistic, long-term, and very sound approach to what Gianluigi and we are both working to do. While the idea of the Primograno was triggered by the pastaficio's 80th anniversary, this isn't just about doing a one-off pasta for PR purposes. To the contrary, it's all very long-term—the idea is to get the San Carlo grounded in the 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 the farmers with something special to grow that makes their work more viable. "I wanted to work with the farmer," he 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 the big thing is that 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 also two euros for every percentage protein over 16 percent. So about 20 percent more."
All the other good stuff I've talked about in my longer pasta essay goes into play. The milling is done at Rustichella's usual spot in the north of Puglia, one of the smallest in Italy now, that specializes in custom work like this. The grain is brought back over the border to the plant in the Abruzzo. The dough is mixed and then extruded through the old-style bronze dies, and then dried very slowly for about 48 hours. The pasta cooks up fairly quickly actually—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. Like I said, almost everyone who's been eating it has loved it. Elizabeth Minchilli, who writes about food, grew up in St. Louis, and has lived in Rome for over 25 years now, loved it. (FYI, she's also featured as Guanciale Girl in Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.) Given where she lives (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," she said. "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 in which Gianlugi's grandfather got the pastificio going back in the '20s, are quill-shaped. And finally, the squiggly-edged, really cool looking Sagna a Pezzi. Try 'em all. It's a pretty special taste of the Abbruzzese past and future all combined into one very, very good plate of pasta.
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