I grew up in a largely Italian-American community outside of Pittsburgh where, at least once a week, I ate pasta. When Sundays rolled around, my family would queue up in the long, snaking line outside Ladies of the Dukes, where, for more than 40 years, local, Italian women prepared and served homemade meals of spaghetti, cavatelli, ravioli and zesty red sauce. Because this feast happened only once a week, customers would bring along stockpots to fill with take-away dinners. Unquestionably, we were passionate about pasta in my hometown.
In recent years I’ve had a troubled relationship with this childhood love. Spurred by the desire to eat more healthfully, I abandoned the traditional semolina-and-water combo for whole-grain pastas. Chocked full of fiber, minerals and vitamins, these new spaghettis seemed both sensible and wholesome. Described by my husband as resembling “wet cardboard,” they have not, however, been the most appetizing to eat.
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My family is not alone in its struggle to adapt to these newcomers. In fact, our complaints seem fairly universal. We all crave the neutral flavor and al dente texture of regular pasta but with the added nutritional benefits that whole grains provide. What I don’t want is an overwhelmingly sweet or nutty taste or a limber consistency, traits that whole-grain pasta possesses and that clash with my heartier pesto, white and red sauces.
Around the time I decided to chuck whole grains altogether and return to traditional pasta, I came across an unusual organic farro fusilli from the Italian Alps. It was unique not only in its firm form and subtle, pleasing flavor but also in its mountainous origins. Dried pasta does not normally hail from northeastern Italy.
According to food historian and cookbook author Francine Segan, southern Italy produces and consumes more dried pasta than the rest of the country. “Because it was a poor man’s food and the south was poorer but also because the south grows the best grain — Puglia is called the ‘breadbasket of Italy‘ — and the air currents and water are ideal for pasta making, more than half of Italy’s pasta is produced in the lower third of the country,” says the author of “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013).
As a result of its proximity to Austria, Switzerland and Lichtenstein, northern Italy has far more in common with the cuisines of these regions than with the rest of Italy. Instead of pasta, people there eat dumplings, polenta and spätzle, Segan says.
Northern Italy takes pasta challenge
Although making and consuming dried pasta may not be the norm in the north, Valentino Felicetti decided in 1908 to do just that. Reputedly because of a challenge from a southern Italian friend, Felicetti started a small, eponymously named, family-operated company in the Valle di Fiemme of the Dolomites Alps, says great-grandson and current head Riccardo Felicetti. Lucky for me that he accepted this dare; Felicetti Monograno produces the whole-grain fusilli that I’d adored.
Working with fresh spring water, mountain air and locally farmed soft wheat and barley, Felicetti’s first creation was a short pasta similar to rigatoni. Today the company uses what Ricccardo refers to as ancient grains, durum wheat, kamut or Khorasan wheat and spelt, which Italians call “farro.”
Organic whole grains, pure spring water and clean air of this idyllic region are what set Felicetti apart. “Polluted air or water would release within the dough a strange taste,” Riccardo says. He adds that, along with the pristine, local water, unspoiled Dolomites air is pumped into the production site.
Could the air and water have the much affect on taste? Yes and no. “The influence of water and air should be zero. Pasta should taste like the grains. Pure spring water and clean air will not influence the taste of our pasta,” Riccardo says.
That’s where my struggle to find both healthful and palatable pasta existed. Many brands claim to offer whole-grain products, but too often they’ve added fillers to their mix. Instead of merely air, water and grains, the pastas are enriched with modified starch and a host of other ingredients. These extras taint the taste and texture, resulting in one of those dreaded “wet cardboard” meals.
With this knowledge, my culinary crisis ended. I’m now happily eating pasta — nutritious, tasty and whole-grain-only pasta — again.
Farro Pasta With Jerusalem Artichokes
Pasta ai topinambur
Recipe courtesy of Francine Segan and “Pasta Modern.”
1 large onion, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided.
4 to 5 large Jerusalem artichokes
1 pound farro pasta, long or short
3 to 4 tablespoons pine nuts
Parmesan or other aged cheese, grated
1. Sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil until golden. Meanwhile, scrub the Jerusalem artichokes with a brush, then thinly slice. Add to the onions and simmer over a very low flame until very soft.
2. Cook the pasta until al dente.
3. Purée the onion-artichoke mixture with 2 tablespoons olive oil so it’s smooth like pesto.
4. Return the purée to the pan and toss with the pasta for a minute or two, adding a little cooking liquid if dry.
5. Serve topped with pine nuts and grated cheese to taste.
Top photo: Various types of pasta. Credit: Kathy Hunt