“Pasta is to the Italians somewhere between a sacrament and a psychotropic drug.” So said Slow Food co-founder Folco Portinari of his countrymen’s food habits at a conference 20 years ago. He offered the startling fact that anthropologists studying Italy’s gastronomical landscape had tracked down as many as 1,000 forms of pasta. In the dried category alone, there were 350 variants, from the familiar spaghetti and fusilli to exotic shapes such as Ave Marias, cecamariti (“husband blinders”) and the racy cazzetti. Yet every now and then, a pasta maker comes up with another one.
The latest was recently introduced by Rustichella d’Abruzzo, which has been turning out some of the best dried pasta in the world for four generations — good enough for Pavarotti and Michelin-starred chefs alike. Its new product, recently launched at a New York City press event with considerable splash, is so revolutionary in the pasta universe that it could be likened to the discovery of a planet. Pasta Rapida 90″ is an artisan spaghetti conceived to cook in 90 seconds to commemorate the firm’s 90-year anniversary, the makers said, and to “end the controversy between Futurism and spaghetti.”
The comment refers to the Italian artistic and political movement that had its heyday in the 1920s — coincident with the founding of the company in 1924 by Gaetano Sergiacomo, maternal grandfather of proprietors Stefania and Gianluigi Peduzzi. In 1932, Futurism’s leading spokesman — poet, social reformer, misogynist and crackpot F.T. Marinetti — wrote “Cucina Futuristica,” a manifesto against pasta. He led a crusade to convince the Italians that their pasta “addiction” had produced a nation of dreamers that was mired in the past and would bring the country to ruin. Marinetti designed menus to prepare them for the “more aerial and rapid” lifestyle of the 20th century, but his campaign failed. Mussolini made the sleek new aluminum trains run on time, but he couldn’t outlaw pasta. Rustichella prevailed.
Tradition meets innovation
The funny thing about the Italians is that while they are steeped in tradition, they are forever embracing new ideas, whether they are designing Ferraris or making pasta. Rustichella is no exception. It is produced in the Vestina hills of Abruzzo, a region wedged between the Apennines and the sea that is rich with artisanal food traditions, having changed little since the sixth century, when it was described by one Ottavio Mamilio as “a breast that dispenses milk and honey.” The producers say it is the valley’s wheat — exceptional for its high protein content, mixed with mountain water, then extruded and dried at low temperatures for up to 56 hours (compared with 4 to 6 hours for industrial brands) — that makes their pasta so good.
From Abruzzo, then, you would expect the slowest of slow foods. Instead, Rapida 90″ is designed to cook in the shortest time possible — “without any sacrifice in flavor or porosity,” the proprietors said at its debut. Though it is made with the same raw materials and passed through the same bronze dies as the company’s traditional spaghetti, giving it the desired roughness that sauces cling to, its creation required a serious engineering effort that took nearly two years. Rapida is not pre-cooked; there is no messing with the wheat endosperm where the proteins reside; there are no additives. The secret, which is under international patent, is in its shape. A conventional spaghetto is a cylinder with a hole in the middle invisible to the naked eye. As it boils, the gluten fills in the hole, cooking in about 10 minutes. Rapida, by contrast, is designed with a gap along its length that looks like a seam. It opens during cooking, enabling faster penetration of water. Seconds before the pasta is done, the “memory effect” of glutens causes the gap to close again, returning the strand to its original form.
To the home cook, the breakthrough may not seem important, but for the professional chef, it is revolutionary. One of a restaurant kitchen’s biggest challenges is juggling simultaneous cooking procedures for multiple orders. Hence the all-too-common shortcut of pre-cooking the pasta, at risk of wasting portions that go unused. Rapida eliminates such waste, and the reduced cooking time, factored exponentially, means less energy use to boot.
After talks with Rapida’s chief designer, Giancarlo d’Annibale, I discovered that the new pasta has some health advantages as well. Because exposure to heat destroys wheat’s complex gluten structures, the shorter cooking time preserves more of the pasta’s protein.
I tasted Rapida at its debut, where Michelin-starred chef William Zonfa tossed it in a saffron-tinted sauce specked with leek confit and guanciale. Rapida has the rich flavor of durum wheat that only semolina pasta delivers, but because the invisible gap makes the strands less dense, it slides down the throat like delicate, fresh egg pasta. It was in my stomach before it left the pan.
All in all, we’d have to conclude that Rapida is a keeper. These pasta makers were using their noodles when they invented the new spaghetti-of-speed.
Last-Minute Lemon Sauce for Speedy Spaghetti
© Julia della Croce 2014
Make this quick sauce while the water for one package of Rapida is boiling.
Prep time: 4 minutes
Cook time: 2 minutes
Total time: 6 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil
6 small garlic cloves, halved and bruised
Zest of 4 large organic lemons
6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
In an ample, heavy skillet over low heat, warm the olive oil with the garlic for 2 minutes, pressing the cloves without smashing to release their flavor. Turn off the heat. Stir in the remaining ingredients just before adding the cooked pasta to the skillet. Serve piping hot.
Main photo: Speedy spaghetti with last-minute lemon sauce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt