Pasta Showdown: Artisan vs Industry

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I really can't quite explain why one cut of pasta from a particular producer should taste better than its others varieties. In the case of the great Italian pastificii we buy from—Martelli, Rustichella, Morelli, Cavalieri, and Latini—everything is pretty much guaranteed to be very, very good, but, that said, I still like certain shapes from each supplier. For spaghetti and maccheroni , I still swear by Martelli. I really like the Morelli paccheri (the ones that have a bit of the bran left in). Down in Puglia, Benedetto Cavalieri makes really good wagon wheels, a shape I don't normally go for. But for some reason theirs are just very darned delicious.

For fettuccine, though, I always go with Rustichella d'Abruzzo . Of late, I've been going with it a lot more than I ever have, and I've been doing it with ever more rewarding results. A lot of people just call Rustichella "the one in the brown bag." We've been selling it since it started coming to the States in significant quantities, back in the early 90s.

Rustichella works with one of the smallest mills left in Italy. They produce about a fifth of what the bigger mills knock out.

The business itself goes back to 1924, when Gaetano Sergiacomo—the grandfather of the current owner, Gianluigi Peduzzi—started up in the Abbruzzese town of Penne. Today they make probably three-dozen shapes of pasta, and we carry quite a few of them. While I like all of their products, the fettuccine are really my favorite. The difference is that their fettuccine are pretty phenomenal.

While many subtleties are at work, three very big factors set Rustichella (or Martelli and the makers I've mentioned above) apart from the other 900 brands on the market.

1) Bronze dies

While the process of machine extrusion through bronze dies dates to the late 19th century, most big producers have long since left bronze behind and bought the easier to use, longer-lasting Teflon. Not so Rustichella and the others we sell. Bronze dies cost more, and because they're softer they break down more quickly. It's not an inexpensive way to make maccheroni—each die costs about $1000, and remember, you have to have a different die for each cut. The bronze makes a really big difference in pasta quality. The surface is much, much rougher, which means that the pasta cooks better and absorbs a bit of the sauce as it's meant to. The slick, Teflonic surface of industrial pasta causes the sauce to run off quickly and pool up at the bottom of one's bowl.

2) Better grain

In this case, it's 100 percent durum semolina, a good deal of which comes from the Abruzzo and the neighboring Molise. Rusticella's slower, more traditional drying process (see below) actually requires the use of a higher protein wheat, which costs quite a bit more than standard stuff. (Higher temperature commercial drying allows big producers to get away with cheaper, lower-protein grain.) The results are of course way better, but not quickly visible to the casual observer who looks at two packages and sees a nice old-style label on each and a price three or four times higher for artisanal pasta.

You'll notice the difference in wheat quality when you cook. With the low-end grain in commercial versions, the starch runs right out of the noodles when they hit the water, which means it's harder to get a good al dente pasta. With Rustichella, most of the starch stays in the pasta, not in the water in the pot, contributing to its infinitely better cooked texture.

Rustichella works with one of the smallest mills left in Italy. They produce about a fifth of what the bigger mills knock out. A few hours south of the pastificio in Puglia, they specialize in the sort of special, custom work that Rustichella requires. A big percentage of what they do is organic. They have their own land where they grow grain, so they have their hands and their own money in the wheat as well. In case you get tested in a trivia game, it takes 167 kilos of grain to yield 100 kilos of high quality semolina.

3) Slower drying

Huge differences in drying times and techniques only exacerbate the impact of extrusion and grain quality. Commercial producers dry long cuts in about seven hours, short cuts in three to four. By contrast, Rustichella takes two full days for the long cuts and one and a half days for short cuts at a temperature of 30C.

There are basically three stages to the drying. During incartamento , a natural crust forms on the outside of the still soft pasta. In the old days—pre-1930s, probably—this was done by putting racks of fresh pasta out in direct sunlight. The second stage, rinvenimento , allows the pasta to "recover" from its initial drying in cooler rooms with high humidity that softens the crust. Essicazzione definitive , the "final drying" stage, was traditionally done in shaded areas, often courtyards or attics, where the pasta was gradually dried the rest of the way through. For long pastas like linguine or fettuccine, this was particularly challenging—the pasta had to be alternately moved between warmer and cooler temperatures to get the drying just right. As with ham curing, the process could be managed by moving the pasta racks from one room to the next, or by opening or closing windows to catch the proper breeze.

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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