TEXT BY PHILIP SINSHEIMER
PHOTOS BY CESARE ZUCCA Have you already been to Abruzzo? No? Well time is due to discover this Italian region, due East from Rome, encompassing part of the Apennine mountains down to the Adriatic Sea where sits its capital: Pescara. But that, you may know already if you’ve had the chance to visit this region that locals like to nickname “Tuscany without the marketing”!Personally, my first Abruzzian experience dates no further than last July, in spite of many trips to Italy, both for pleasure and for research on my book on the history of Italian pasta (Les Pâtes du Terroir Italien. I knew that one of the most typical shapes of pasta in the region was the long threads resembling square spaghetti obtained by pressing down with a rolling pin a sheet of pasta dough against the strings of an instruments called a Chitarra (as it resembles in some way a guitar)One would want to also associate the region with the famous penne pasta (meaning pens or feathers) since there is a town by that name sitting less than 20 miles from Pescara. This brings me directly to the occasion of my four-day trip invited, by one of the most respected pasta manufacturers of not only Abruzzo, but the whole of Italy: Rustichella, a family owned mid-size company which origins go back to the 19th century in the town of Penne.The occasion was the annual celebration nicknamed Primograno (literally “first grain”) by the company in honor of the beginning of the wheat harvest in the area. It is the occasion for the family to host a selected number of importers, chefs and some happy few journalists, and here I am! The generosity displayed was beyond this world… yet, absolutely rooted in Abruzzo! arrived the evening of the big celebration where all guests were united under a tent set in the middle of a field name ? to experience a culinary experience not to be forgotten in the breeze of a warm summer night.
Despite the number of tables and the absence of a professional kitchen, dishes arrived one after the other perfectly plated and magically hot. Chefs not only showcased the quality of the company’s Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta, but had at heart to offer some other delicacies, such as this incredibly moist and tasty roasted guinea hen (called faraona in Italian). The magic continued after the dinner with a live band under the stars to shake off on the dancefloor those few extra calories of gastronomic indulgence, but also a firework display like no other. A man in costume at a rather close distance started to dance on a traditional music that was going to stick with our group for the rest of the stay covered with a hat shooting thousands of fiery spurs. Besides the food and the fun, I began to wonder how connected to reality was the celebration.
Was Primograno a mere nostalgic reference to a past when Italy was actually producing most of the hard durum wheat necessary to the making of dried pasta. Is this a question?My research had led me to discover that nowadays the great majority of durum wheat is imported from the US and Canada, fulfilling both quantity and quality necessary to fulfill the avid and well-advised Italian market for pasta, first consumer per capita in the world and by far.I was soon to discover that for Rustichella this celebration was “for real”, honoring the actual beginning of local wheat harvest that was going to end-up in form of semolina in their factory. With the development of local sourcing of ingredients and the “farm to table” craze, Rustichella, very smartly, developed indeed a line of pasta made only of local wheat. It is not only a marketing move, it’s an ecologically and socially responsible investment.A specific green packaging has been created for this 100% local pasta. Like a “cru” of wine, you could almost know which parcel of wheat was at the source of the handful of spaghetti you are holding in your hand. An approach very far from the industrial standardization at stake with the giant pasta manufacturers, for which uniqueness boils down to their single named brand not the actual pasta you’re about to drop in your pot!
Among the various shapes offered in this locally made and sourced line of pasta, I discovered two that I had never heard about. The first one, called “virtu” , is not a single shape, but a collection of little broken bits and pieces of seven shapes of pasta. It is to be used for a very special occasion, once a year, in celebration of spring. A hearty dish combining 7 shapes of pasta, 7 grains and legumes, 7 vegetables and 7 herbs. Now that is purely Abruzzian.The other discovery was the “traghetto” shape. This is a pure creation of the Rustichella R&D department, showing that innovation can work hand in hand with local and tradition. From a distance traghetti look like spaghetti, but they actually have a triangular section (thus the “tra” in their name), as if three capellini had been glued together on all their length. They are in fact extruded from a special bronze drawn that leads to this unique shape of long pasta, not to be seen anywhere else. The result? A different sensation in the mouth and a shape that will capture more sauce than a simple round or flat shaped pasta.The Rustichella team took Primograno as an occasion to have our happy group experience various highlights of Abruzzi from the inland the beauty of rolling hills where wild horses graze the grass to the coastline where one can breathe the salty breeze of the Adriatic while strolling on the beach or eating a fabulously fresh and piping hot fritto misto. Among Abruzzi’s specialties, I really loved those little grilled meat skewers, traditionally made with lamb.I was also really impressed with different local wines that I had never heard about before. For the whites, I loved the “passarina” that we got to try, made from the grape of the same name yielding an incredible fresh acidity smoothed by a round fruitiness. In several occasions, we got to have fantastic rosés, notably. No doubt about it, Rustichella had it at heart to have us experience the best of their products, but also their region in general. And you should too. You will only regret to have to go back home… But I have good news for you. First, if you fly back using the airport of Pescara, you will be able to purchase various gastronomic treats at the airport shop and stock up on Rustichella’s 100% Abruzzian green line of pasta. Unlike liquor, no limit there except the size of your luggage! Bring along a pack of traghetti, you will make your landing easier with a little piece of Abruzzi with you. Actually, chances are your trip may be prolonged in your home country, as Rustichella has decided to dedicate most of its production to export. In the following piece I’ll show why and how famous chefs around the world decide to use Rustichella as their primary source of pasta. In the meantime, look around because if you can’t make it to Abruzzi, Rustichella has perhaps already come to you!INFO