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Latini Artisanal Pasta

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

“No man is lonely while eating spaghetti,” quipped actor Robert Morley, who was as much a staple on the game shows I watched as a child as pasta itself was at our dining room table. Of course, we didn’t call it “pasta” in those days. Even as recently as the mid-seventies, I was chastised for employing the word instead of the more plebian “macaroni.” I’ve since learned that the term maccheroni is preferred in Naples and the Italian south, pasta in the country’s north. In North America, we’ve come to call it all “pasta,” unless it goes into the comfort food we call macaroni and cheese.

The pitfall of our having adopted the word “pasta” into English is that we tend to think of the food behind the word as little more than a stomach-filling commodity, varied as to shape, perhaps, but something of a side show to more important main courses and vegetables. Proponents of “artisanal” pasta, like the Latini family in Italy, disagree. The Latinis grow their specialty grain in the Italian region of Le Marche, on the Adriatic south of Venice, often referred to in English as “The Marches.” They insist that their pastas are more than just sauce vehicles, or, at the least, superior sauce vehicles. Latini, in fact, produces craft-pastas using a number of different kinds of specialty wheats, including farro, a close cousin to spelt used since classical times, and the source for the Italian word farina, meaning flour.

Artisanal pasta should vanquish commodity pasta in taste, texture, nutrition, and contribution to the foods with which it is mixed. My supermarket pasta set me back 50 cents for a one-pound package, while I could pay more than ten times that for the stuff in the evocative box. While five, six or even seven dollars would make a cheap luxury indeed, no one wants to see their dollars gurgle down the drain with the pasta water.

Our analysis here deals with commercial dried pasta. Fresh pasta is really a different food entirely, since it uses softer flours and is bound with egg. Dried pasta is made from semolina flour, a product of hard durum wheat, mixed with water. Italian laws mandate that dried pastas contain flour, water, and nothing else. The quality of the final product depends on the quality of these two ingredients, the manufacturing process, and, of course, proper cooking by the end-user.

It is the pasta water itself that gives us our first clue that artisanal pasta is more than just a pretty face. You should never rinse good pasta after draining, but you might be wise to rinse the cheap stuff. Commodity pasta will leave water that is milky with starch, a phenomenon you don’t find with artisanal pasta. The side-by-side photo comparison doesn’t do true justice to the tactile difference between the supermarket rotini (left) and the Latini farro fusilli (two short squiggly shapes as similar as I could find). Uncooked, the supermarket pasta is uniform, smooth-edged, while the Latini, even uncooked, has an uneven, almost fabric-like feel, as if you could use a few of these to massage between thumb and index finger next time you need to work out some tension. The Latini pasta is extruded through expensive bronze dies, then slowly dried; the commodity pasta is fabricated with modern Teflon dies before a speed drying in industrial kilns. Dip a stirrer into the two glasses of pasta water and you’ll really feel the difference; the commodity pasta at left is floating in starch, particles, and additives. Commodity pasta does not depend on the wheat for nutritive value; this package advertises addition of niacin; iron (ferrous sulfate); thiamine mononitrate; riboflavin; folic acid. I don’t mean to suggest you should never buy inexpensive commodity pasta for that pasta salad or to delight the kids and their friends. My real point is that if you truly care about food quality, you’ll find high-end artisanal pasta worth investigating; even the top brands are affordable in the true scheme of things when you start comparing them with luxuries like caviar, truffles, or even expensive cheeses.

Artisanal pasta, because of its texture, holds sauce well, because of its flavor, melds well with sauce for a total experience. While most artisanal pasta companies use high quality ingredients and traditional extruding and drying techniques, Latini really seems to go overboard in its array of unique Italian-grown grains (the demand for hard durum wheat in Italy is so great that more than half the durum wheat produced in the United States is exported to the Italian pasta conglomerates, with much of the remainder going into our own, immense bulk pasta factories). In addition to the fascinating, nutty-tasting farro, Latini offers a classic blend of Italian wheats they call the Red Box selection, a specialty line called the Senatore Cappelli selection, and the interesting Taganrog selection.

I find the Taganrog selection particularly evocative because of its history. The Russian city of Taganrog, in addition to being the birthplace of writer Anton Chekhov as well as a stopover for many of my own itinerant ancestors, was once the major shipping point for the high quality Russian and Ukrainian grains that were favored by nineteenth-century pasta makers in Liguria and Naples. In the mid-1990’s, the Latini family began the arduous task of planting, harvesting, and culling the Taganrog wheat in Italy. To quote the proud modern-day producers, “Taganrog is a durum wheat of golden color that stands nearly 170 centimeters tall with long blonde whiskers and large, glossy grains…The pasta, in its dry state, can have a protein value of up to 18 percent from top harvests…It holds its form perfectly when cooked, maintaining a firm bite and round, harmonious sensations on the palate.”

The Latini Senatore Cappelli selection also has a story, though the history is a bit more recent. The Senatore in question supported Italian agricultural reforms during the 1940s, based on the early twentieth-century groundwork of Italian agronomist Nazareno Strampelli. The specialty wheats involved flourished in Italian soil through the 1960s, but then went dormant in favor of lower quality varieties that produced higher crop yields and better factory through-put. The Latinis revived this strain in the early 1990s, and made it into their best selling variety.

Gustiamo sells the full line of the Latini pastas for anywhere from $6.00 to $7.50 for a 500 gram (slightly more than a pound) box, making these fascinating products the ultimate in accessible luxury. On the other hand, if your definition of an Italian luxury is a Ferrari F430 Spider, and you eat a lot of pasta, you can resort to the supermarket pasta for all your uses and have the car in…well, you do the math. Just make sure to rinse off the sticky starch. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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