A Pasta Worth Waiting for

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To get the main message out there up front, Primograno is the pasta of the moment for me. I've been using it for my pasta with bottarga and a lot of other dishes ... and ... the more I eat, the more I like it!

Mo and I went to the Abruzzo last July to learn about it, so the pasta has been on my mind for a solid nine or 10 months now. We just actually got it here recently. If you haven't had it yet, check it out. It really is good and I'm not the only one saying that—Joy at the Deli was telling me how delicious she thinks it is, and Rodger added his endorsement as well. In truth pretty much everyone else who's eaten it has said the same thing. If you're into pasta at all it seems like it'd be silly not to try it—no reason not to add it to your repertoire of Martelli, Cavalieri, Morelli (love that one with the bran left in), and of course all the other pasta we get from the Rustichella folks.

The Primograno comes in a nice green and cream-colored package and sits next to the better-known brown bags of Rustichella linguine, fettucine, and spaghetti. It's a very limited-edition pasta so there's not a whole hell of a lot of it—as far as I know there are only a dozen or so shops that are selling it. The name means "first grain," and fittingly, the initial shipment arrived in Ann Arbor in time for our 28th anniversary. I'm honored that we get to be one of the only places in the US to get some. It's a timely anniversary gift for us from the Peduzzi family. The Primograno has a flavor that's very special, sort of luxurious I guess, but in a subtle, understated, modest sort of way that I like more every time I eat it.

Having made the Primograno regularly for the last few months—it's true, I got the sample bags before you got the chance to buy it—I will say that I really like this stuff, both for the pasta itself (it's pretty terrifically tasty) and for the spirit of the entire project. The latter is really representative of most all of the things I think go into making a sold, successfully sustainable business like Rustichella ever more special. Just as is true for the Zzang bars from the Candy Manufactory, the cream cheese from our Creamery, or dozens of other special things we do here or buy from some of our favorite suppliers, the drive to make this new and better product came from within. Gianluigi Peduzzi has been working on it for nearly a decade now.

Thinking it through, it's really no small thing. You have a company, started in 1924, that's achieved a great degree of success, whose product is sold all over the world and known for being amongst the best around. But instead of standing pat, Gianluigi has invested enormous amounts of energy, a lot of time, and I'm sure a lot of money as well, to make something special happen here. "We start to make the pasta in 2004 for the 80th anniversary of the company," he told me this past summer when Mo and I were there. "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 80th anniversary." And now five years further down the road, the Primograno is actually ready for you and me to eat regularly.

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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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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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