COOKING THE PASTA FOR OUR MIDDAY MEAL was a serious matter in Abruzzo, the region of Italy where I grew up. At age five, I was assigned to the pasta watch. Every day at noon I would stand at a strategically placed window and wait for the arrival of Uncle Filippo. The moment he appeared at the corner of the piazza, I would run to the kitchen and order the plunging of the pasta into the boiling water, which stood at the ready.
The pasta going into our pot on most days was the dried type from a local factory. Although Annina, our family cook, would make her own fresh pasta on special occasions (often with a rich, long-simmered ragù or a stuffing), like all Italians she'd turn to dried pasta whenever she wanted to toss together a light meal. And Abruzzo produces some of the best dried pasta anywhere--and exports it around the world.
Despite the fame of its pasta, Abruzzo itself is little known. Like most of Italy, this region just east of Rome is packed with vineyards, olive trees, Roman ruins and Romanesque churches. The area along the Adriatic does attract vacationers to its family-oriented resorts, yet parts of Abruzzo are so pastoral that shepherds still herd their flocks along ancient sheep tracks and heads turn when a tour bus pulls into town. Abruzzo is separated from Rome by the highest peaks of the Apennines, and those mountains explain why the region has had so few visitors (there's now an autostrada from Rome) and also why the pasta is so good (it's made with crisp, clean mountain water).
Recently I made a trip to the town of Fara San Martino, the epicenter of dried pasta in Abruzzo, where pasta factories cluster at the foot of the Maiella Mountains. Some of these plants are large and high tech, producing hundreds of tons of pasta a day; others are small-scale operations where workers might stuff packages of spaghetti by hand. Whether the factory is big or little, "the water is the main thing," says Miro Bianchi, a manager at Delverde, which last year exported over 10,000 tons of pasta to America. Ever since Delverde was founded in 1970, the pasta maker has used only water from a local spring. But water is just one of several factors that determine quality. De Cecco, which opened in Fara San Martino in 1887, also credits its special blend of high-gluten semolina flours. The pasta maker, the second biggest in Italy (behind Barilla) and another major exporter, buys its flours from several countries. Combining the different kinds in the right proportions creates the desired aroma, color and consistency.
Abruzzo's large factories turn out delicious pasta that's low-priced and readily available. However, when I want a pasta that has a true wheaty flavor or one that can really grab on to a sauce, I buy the expensive kind produced at smaller, more artisanal operations. The Giuseppe Cocco factory still makes dried pasta the way it did 50 years ago. Machines mix the flour and water in four steps, in a rhythm that approximates hand kneading, then slowly force the dough through perforated bronze dies, or blocks, so that the pasta takes on the dies' rough texture. While some large factories blast the pasta with high heat to dry it, the artisanal ones use "solar" temperature, which mimics the gentle drying that would occur if the pasta were set out in the sun.
The pasta of Gianfranco Zaccagni in Gissi, about an hour southeast of Fara San Martino, sets a standard for artisanal varieties. Although the brand was purchased by another local pastificio, Nonna Luisa, three years ago, Gianfranco is still chief pasta maker at the factory, which has changed little since his father opened it in the Thirties. But Gianfranco considers the real founder of his family's pasta dynasty to be his great-great-grandfather. Back in the 1870s, Old Zaccagni had his own farm, but he also tended those of his neighbors, the signori who lived in Rome, Naples and Spoleto and came to Abruzzo in horse-drawn coaches to inspect their properties and hunt. Zaccagni entertained his visitors with handmade laganelle and sagne, typical Abruzzese pastas similar to pappardelle, and then dried some for them to take back to the city.
Gianfranco is also a consultant for Nonna Luisa's Due Pastori brand, from a modern, higher-volume operation. Both the old and the new factories produce excellent pasta, and I'm hopeful that one day these will be exported to the United States. "When the pasta is good," Gianfranco says proudly, "people note the pasta and not the sauce." And when the pasta is very good, people also note the talent of the cook.
Gianfranco's words made me think of Annina, my family's cook in Abruzzo. I remember that as Uncle Filippo rounded the piazza in the afternoon, Annina would get down to work, with my grandmother orchestrating all the moves. At my signal, Annina would move to the pot, which was large enough to let the pasta swim around but light enough to allow the water to come to a boil quickly. She'd add coarse sea salt to the boiling water and then toss in the pasta, giving it a quick stir while my grandmother intoned, "Cover the pot. Cover the pot." Annina let the pasta cook for several minutes, then tasted it a few times to make sure it was al dente before pouring a cup of cold water into the pot to stop the cooking. Armed with thick pot holders, she'd race to the sink to drain the pasta, then pour it into a shallow bowl with a layer of sauce covering the bottom. After she had tossed the pasta with more sauce, she'd graciously add a small ladle of sauce to the top "for beauty," as my grandmother would say, and perhaps a sprinkling of cheese. The dish wasn't elaborate, but it was delicious--dried pasta at its very best.
The following pasta recipes are from cookbook author Anna Teresa Callen and FOOD & WINE Associate Test Kitchen Director Marcia Kiesel.
Text and some recipes by Anna Teresa Callen, a cooking teacher and the author of four cookbooks, including Food and Memories of Abruzzo, Italy's Pastoral Land (Macmillan).