The Best Pasta You've Never Had

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Photo by Ryan Stiner

From a small artisan producer near Pisa, in the western part of Tuscany, comes this noteworthy, traditionally made pasta you've probably never heard of. The Antico Pastificio Morelli is in the very small town of San Romano (population of about 1,500), which is halfway between Livorno, on the coast, and Florence, in the center of the region. It's also about 20 minutes northeast of where the Martelli family make their amazing maccheroni and spaghetti, in the really big town of Lari (8,000 people).

In fact, Morelli is actually older than Martelli--the company dates back to 1860, and the family currently running it are in their fifth generation of pasta production. By contrast, the Martellis have been at it "only" since 1926. Both families make fantastic pasta, sticking to all the important little details that the big makers have long since abandoned in their belief that "no one can tell the difference" or that "people won't pay for that old-style stuff."

I've never bought either of those theories, but I do buy a lot of Morelli and Martelli pasta. They do all the things I like in a pasta: low-temperature mixing, bronze die extrusion, and very long, low-temperature drying of the pasta.

I tend to stick with saucing options that allow the fuller--though certainly not at all strong--flavor of the pasta itself to be the star.

The Morelli family is probably best known in the food world at large for their flavored pastas. While what they make is certainly good, flavored stuff like that is generally not my thing. (Hazelnut fudge coffee and truffle honey aren't tops on my list.) As a result, I'd always respectfully not paid a huge amount of attention to their products. But my lack of attention to their work changed last winter when I met the Morellis at the Alimentaria show in Barcelona.

Although their flavored pastas were featured out front, I politely decided to stop by and take a look at their work. I told them I wasn't all that high on the newfangled flavored stuff, thinking that would be the end of the conversation. But, much to my surprise, they shifted the conversation entirely and started to tell me about a pasta I'd never had, nor even heard of. As we talked, they walked me over to the side of their booth, where they had bags of pasta a bit darker in color.

It turns out that this, not the flavored pasta, is their true passion. In Italian, it's simply called pasta germe di grano--pasta made with wheat that has its natural germ still intact. Signor Morelli explained to me that this was largely the way pasta was made a century or so ago, back when his family first got going, long before milling techniques were "perfected" to whiten the grain, as we now expect. (This is a good part of globalization--you go to Barcelona to learn about a fifth-generation pasta maker from a tiny town in Tuscany.)

Many of you will have experienced the fuller flavor that the germ brings: what the Morellis are doing is akin to the germ-restored wheat flour we use in the French Mountain Bread, or the Marino family polenta we get from the Piedmont. Since the pasta is dried and not fresh, there's no need for refrigeration.

This is the pasta people ate before the Second World War, before mills started refining the wheat more. It's very good--to me, this is what whole wheat pasta should taste like. It's more flavorful but not over the top. The color is darker (the cooking water also turns darker, as the germ is released in the pot) and the flavor is bigger.

In honesty, I've never been a big fan of whole wheat pasta, but I do love this stuff. You can serve it with most anything, but I tend to stick with saucing options that allow the fuller--though certainly not at all strong--flavor of the pasta itself to be the star. It's great dressed with just good oil and cheese. I made it the other night with a bit of sautéed squash, a good bit of good olive oil, a lot of black pepper, and some sea salt.

There are three varieties of germe di grano pasta on hand right now. My favorite is the paccheri--wide, flattened tubes, originally hailing from somewhere near Naples, that are about two inches long and an inch and a half across. They tend to collapse when you cook them, kind of capturing some of the sauce you finish them in, like one of those Chinese finger trap things we used to play with as kids. Arthur Schwartz, who's written a lot about the cooking of the region, recommends them with ricotta and tomato sauce--I'll vouch for the veracity of his pick.

His book, "Naples at Table" has a number of other good recipes for them as well. The straccetti are a flat, wide noodle that I like with a simple butter and grated Tuscan sheep cheese (pecorino Toscano), or with a meat ragu.

The Morellis also make a "double dose" of germ, which is, of course, darker and more intensely flavored. These are nice for hearty, cooler-weather dishes--I do it with bits of potato or with sautéed Swiss chard and some soft cheese (Italian Taleggio or American Teleme would be good).

Try 'em all! This is great gift for a food lover who's "had everything."