Pasta Showdown: Artisan vs Industry

Do you know your noodles? The author explains why small-scale producers are the way to go.


Photo by chispita_666/Flickr CC

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.

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.



Even more important, rapid drying really short-circuits the flavor of the finished pasta. While most people assume pasta is merely grain and water mixed, shaped, and then dried, one of the keys to its flavor is that well-made pasta is actually a fermented product. Gentle drying allows for slower fermentation, which, just as it does with cheese, bread, vinegar, or just about every other traditional food, means fuller flavor.

With such good pasta, it's extra important to not overcook it. How al dente you do it is of course up to you, but over the years I've come to cook it even less—as in very al dente! In Italy, traditionally, the farther south you went the more al dente it was cooked. (Old northern recipes often weren't that different from crazy American recommendations to cook maccheroni for an hour or more.) Be sure to salt the cooking water well. Cooking the pasta without salt is akin to eating unsalted potatoes or unsalted bread.

The difference between artisan pasta like Rustichella (or Martelli, etc.) and the mass-market stuff though comes out big time when you cook it. The slightly chewy texture, wheaty aroma, and full flavor of well-made pasta make me realize every time what classic Italian cooks always say: the point of the pasta dish is always the pasta itself, not the sauce.

Interestingly, with artisan pasta like Rustichella the flavor actually improves after it's been cooked and cooled! "If you taste now," Gianluigi said last summer, pointing to two bowls of pasta that we'd tried hot a bit earlier, "after ten minutes the taste of our product is like bread. The De Cecco ," he added, pointing to his far better known competition, "will taste like flour." Since coming home I've tried this taste test and been amazed by how accurate he was. While I'd never thought of cold leftover pasta as being anything other than passé, Gianluigi is right on—a day or two after being cooked and cooled Rustichella, brought back to room temperature, actually tastes terrific.

One of the classic pasta sauces of the Abruzzo is a tomato ragu with lamb, which is ideal for this time of year. You can find recipes online I'm sure. I looked to Joyce Goldstein's book Italian Slow and Savory , which, like all her work, is a good reference for traditional recipes. It's a pretty basic sauce that counts on long cooking.

Slowly sauté some chopped pancetta (you could use lardo too). Keep the heat moderate so you don't brown it. Add a little chopped onion with a bit of fresh rosemary and cook that in the pork fat. Add some ground lamb and brown it gently, and add a glass of white wine and cook slowly still 'til it's absorbed. Add some chopped tomatoes—this time of year from a can—and a bit of tomato paste and cook for a long time. You'll want to use the juice from the tomatoes or a bit of added water because you're then going to cover it and simmer at low temperature for about two hours. For most of us, this is going to be a day-off dish.

If you want a reasonable shortcut you could brown the lamb and simmer it in some bottled Rustichella tomato sauce. The sauces are quite good—they're actually Gianluigi's mother's recipes. I'd add a bit of water and some white wine to allow for longer simmering.

[Curator's note: You might even like the sauces better than the pasta! I'm a loyal Rustichella sauce fan, and a diehard Martelli loyalist, despite my always-loyal-to-Ari appreciation of Rustichella pasta too.]