CHEFS ARE TODAY’S PASTA DESIGNERS

6.4

In most of the world, pasta spells Italy. And, in Italy pasta conjures up images of wheat, golden fields, threshing machines, women gleaning the corn, pasta making machines, quality control, the sfogline’s skilful hands bringing flavours from the past into the present.
During the 1980s, a swathe of designers were creating maccheroni so fashionable you felt like a VIP just by eating it. That era is thankfully over.

Using designers to invent new kinds of pasta is still fashionable, but the prevailing trend today is to create a shape that holds and absorbs the sauce better, enhancing the flavour in a way to enrapture the person eating it in an ecstatic embrace.

There are many kinds of pasta: short, long, concave, convex, ridged, smooth, pasta with holes and without holes, and pasta made using a variety of ancient Egyptian wheat that has been resuscitated – thanks to the sheer willpower and stubbornness of  farmers, and there is also pasta made with a special kind of wheat carefully grown according to specific instructions from a team of chefs, as my friend Carla Latini explained to me. And Carla knows, because she is a pasta producer. Her bucatino was created with the approval of Gianfranco Vissani, while her spaghetto was endorsed by Sultano of Sicily, a two-Michelin-starred chef.

Chefs are today’s designers, so to speak. They know better than anyone else what shape best enhances the sauce. And vice versa. Gennaro Esposito from Vico Equense in the region of Campania, a chef honoured with two Michelin stars, is reputed to have come up with the idea of De Cecco and the creation of the ‘leftover’ pasta shape: broken penne, cracked spaghetti, smooth and ridged pipe, round or square pieces mixed all together and used  in pulse soups. Gennaro was inspired by his beloved peasant cuisine, where soups were thickened with the leftover pasta found in the pantry. Is has been a great success, also among those, like me, who remember the mixed pasta dishes we found in front of us on a weekly basis: my grandmother used to recycle everything, as she didn’t like anything to be wasted. She had survived two wars after all, so who am I to criticise? On the subject of pasta, even the great master of Italian cuisine Gualtiero Marchesi had this to say recently.  On the occasion of the Expo, Marchesi said wheat ‘is one of the greatest inventions of mankind.

And with reference to art, he succeeded in making pasta inspired by the swirls of wood shavings, the bits that end up on the floor after the creation of a sculpture.  The swirl attains the status of a work of art so the saffron and black rice sauce chosen by Marchesi for this pasta gives it a kind of social mobility.

Like any good Italian, I eat pasta in moderation. Above all, I eat pasta with friends: eating spaghetti is still the open sesame of a gathering. I favour fresh pasta, considered more aristocratic, and once only prepared on a Sunday and the only one restaurants used to serve until 30 years ago.
Then chef Aimo Moroni broke the ice and put dried spaghetti with spring onions on the menu, and chef Alfonso Iaccarino added the classic spaghetto al pomodoro, which appears simple on the surface but which is still dreaded by those who have to do a cooking test.
In some restaurants, like La Francescana which is owned by triple-starred chef Massimo Bottura or Il Pescatore triple-starred chef Nadia Santini’s restaurant, you can find wonderful fresh pasta dishes, hand-made by the famous sfogline. In both places I’ve dined beautifully on pasta and felt replete and satisfied.

There’s no doubt that taste and flavour in Italy are based around pasta. Strange, if you think that maccheroni was invented by the Arabs in 1000BC.