I was recently chatting with Nick Anderer, chef of Danny Meyers' Maialino about his incredible poached eggs (I became enamored of them a few weeks back when I had them at brunch*) and we got onto the subject of pasta, something which is dear to both of our hearts. At Maialino, they have both fresh, house-made pasta and dried pasta on the menu, which, according to Anderer, "are like two completely different beasts. We should almost have different sections on the menu for them."
You'd never make a spaghetti alla carbonara out of fresh pasta, for example, just as a dried pappardelle wouldn't do justice to a rich suckling pig ragú. His favorite brand of dried pasta? Pasta Mancini, a small artisanal brand created by Massimo Mancini, a third generation wheat farmer who is attempting to bring back the old tradition of vertical integration back to pasta. That is, his hand is in every step of the process, from growing and harvesting the wheat, to making, drying, and even promoting the pasta.
"I love that even with the dried pasta, there's a handmade look," Anderer told me. "If you look at the mezze maniche, for example, each tube is a slightly different length. It makes the dish more interesting to eat."
As it turns out, I actually had the chance to meet with the 42-year-old Mancini a couple weeks ago when he was visiting New York. As as former consultant for mega-brand Barilla, he's seen both sides of the spectrum—the industrial, and the artisanal—and as a consequence, has no problems mixing old tradition with new technologies. "Often people think old things are better, but I don't think so. Technology changes, and it's best to try out the new to see how it works with the old."
Tradition and Technology
Massimo grows two varieties of hard durum wheat in the hills of Monte San Pietrangeli, and while his mill and pasta factory (located amongst the wheat fields) are outfitted with fully modern equipment and controls, there are a few key steps that he still does the traditional way. First, rather than using the high speed Teflon-coated dies favored by many industrial brands on their pasta extruding machines, he uses brass dies. They require a slower, more deliberate extrusion in order to prevent overheating.
The advantage is that rather than a perfectly smooth surface, the pasta comes out with scratchy, well-defined ridges, supposedly helping their sauce-adhesion characteristics. Slow drying at low temperatures also helps maintain the distinct qualities of the wheat, he says.
And like wine, according to Mancini the small production of his wheat fields means that the pasta changes from season to season, with some years producing a chewier pasta that takes slightly longer to cook than others. Apparently the 2009 "vintage" was a particularly tasty one. Chef Anderer confirmed that when working with the pasta, it's important to keep an eye on it as it cooks, as one batch from one season may take 8 minutes 15 seconds to cook, while the next may take 30 seconds longer (after drying, the pasta is good for three years).
So does it really live up to its reputation? I hit the kitchen to find out.
First off, comparing it to low-end generic store brands, there was no contest. The Mancini pasta blew it out of the water. The regular pasta cooked up smooth and slick, practically slipping through the sauce when compared with the rough textured Mancini. Higher end supermarket brands, like DeCecco (pictured above), however, gave it a run for its money.
You can see that the Mancini is slightly more roughly textured when raw, a difference that seemed to multiply when cooked. In a simple sauce of butter and Pecorino, the sauce clung significantly better to the Mancini than the DeCecco. Flavorwise, I had more trouble distinguishing the two.
Another serious advantage was the quality of the pasta cooking water. The Mancini produced a viscous, golden liquid that helped thicken my sauce better than the thin, milky liquid produced by the DeCecco.
Cooked with a simple tomato sauce, the difference becomes even more apparent: If you look at the shade of the Mancini pasta which has been tossed for the same length of time in the same amount of sauce as the DeCecco, you can see that it absorbed a fair amount more sauce, tinting the noodles a darker red, and translating into more flavor in each bite.
The problem, of course, is that Mancini Pasta, available through Primizie, is significantly more expensive than the mass-produced stuff. At over $6 a pound ($39.99 for 6.6 pounds), it's about twice as much as the DeCecco, and three times as much as a generic store brand. Is it worth the price?
It's up to you. If you're the type for whom pasta is a quick and easy filler-upper—the kind who cracks open a jar of sauce on a busy week night, tosses in the boiled noodles and calls is a day (and there's no shame in that!), then there's certainly no need to go all premium on your pasta.
For me, pasta is most often a special occasion dish. I spend lots of time on my sauce, so I want the best pasta to go with it. I'm perfectly willing to shell out a few more dollars for a product I know will taste spectacular, and comes with a pretty good story to boot.
*A full slideshow of the interesting process is in the works.