The hilltop town of Gragnano may not boast sweeping views like its neighbors on the Amalfi Coast but it has a noteworthy legacy of its own: it’s the birthplace of dried pasta. While Northern Italy is famous for fresh pasta like tortellini and tagliatelle, Southern Italy is the unrivaled champion of dried pasta, including penne, spaghetti and maccheroni. And thanks to its strategic position in the Gulf of Naples, Gragnano is at the epicenter of its production.
“The people of Gragnano have been able to produce and dry pasta in the streets for over 1,000 years because the climate was working in their favor,” says Giuseppe Di Martino, CEO of the Di Martino Pasta Company. This dried pasta is such an integral part of the town’s history and identity that it is referred to as the “Oro di Gragnano” – the gold of Gragnano.
Located South of Mount Vesuvius and a short drive from Sorrento, Gragnano lies sheltered by the Apennine Mountains and benefits from a sea breeze that brings humidity from the coast. Add to this the presence of watermills and you have the perfect conditions for producing and drying this distinctive pasta.
According to Mr. Di Martino, there’s an important difference between Pasta di Gragnano and just any other pasta. “It is like comparing ham with Prosciutto di Parma,” he tells me. In fact, once you have had a taste of this toothsome pasta, it’s hard to imagine eating anything else. The flavors of the wheat shine through each noddle and the structure of the pasta has a real bite to it, making it the star of the dish instead of a mere accompaniment used to scoop up the sauce.
The European Union has recognized Pasta di Gragnano to be a PGI product (“Protected Geographical Indication”), meaning it meets rigorous criteria to earn its label. First, the pasta dough must be extruded through a bronze die which gives the pasta a rough texture that helps the sauce cling to each noodle. Second, Pasta di Gragnano must use high-protein Durum wheat which helps keep the pasta al dente while it cooks. Third, the dough must be made with water from Gragnano which is very light in calcium and other minerals, so it doesn’t change the structure of the semolina. And lastly, the pasta must be dried at a low-temperature to maintain the quality and flavors of the wheat.
Today, over 200 different pasta shapes are produced in Gragnano. “Pasta is the main ingredient of the Italian diet, especially in Southern Italy, so the variety of shapes lets you taste something different every day. The sauces are prepared to suit the size, texture and shape of each type of noodle,” Mr. Di Martino explains.
Italians are fastidious when it comes to tradition, so pasta pairings are a serious matter. “If you make a sauce with minced meat, you want to use a shelled pasta that will contain the ingredients. If you eat a bean soup, you should use small tubes, so the beans are trapped inside the noodles. And if you have tomatoes, the best shape you can use is spaghetti. This is the secret of the Mediterranean diet: we use staple ingredients and enjoy a diversified diet by incorporating the season’s produce, meat and fish.”
With a passion for pasta and a lifetime of expertise, it was only a matter of time before Mr. Di Martino set off on a mission to create the best pasta ever. So when Pastificio Di Martino, his family’s third-generation factory, was nearing its centennial anniversary, he decided to take a leap and make a good product even better.
“With a family business, you need to find a way to innovate while staying loyal to the older generation that created and developed the company,” Di Martino explains. “I wanted to honor the past and still experiment with the product in the most traditional way. And because I understood the importance of raw materials, I wanted to improve the quality.”
His research led him back to the source: the wheat. At the time, most wheat was imported from Canada and the US despite the fact that Italy itself produced over 300 different types of grain. Di Martino decided to take a gamble and start reinvesting in Italian farmers and their fields in order to create a more authentic, local product.
To make high-protein wheat, the farmers would reduce their yield and rotate the crops in the field so the soil could rest in between harvests. Essentially, this meant the farms would produce half of the yield only once every three years – an enormous reduction that came at a high cost. If the experiment worked, however, the financial tradeoff would be a superlative product farmed in a more sustainable manner.
In order to track the progress, Di Martino created a database with each plot of land, the names of the farmers, the wheat varietals and the latitudes and longitudes of the fields. What began as an organizational tool quickly turned into an integral part of the new pasta’s branding. When he realized he could plug the geographical coordinates into Google Maps, he decided to share the provenance with his customers. Each Pastificio Dei Campi box features photos of the farmers and the fields – in addition to the latitudes and longitudes – serving as a roadmap to track the origins of the product.
“We created a total tracking system which was a complete revolution in 2009. Our company is fully transparent: we tell people where we grow the wheat and help them understand why the product is so unique,” he says. “Any purchase you make is ultimately a political decision, so it is important to know where your food comes from and how it was grown. This is especially important nowadays because in order to preserve the planet, we need to make decisions that are sustainable.”
In less than a decade, Pastificio Dei Campi has become an established name among pasta connoisseurs, chefs and other leaders in the industry. “We gave it to experts like Massimo Bottura, Peppe Guida, the Michelin-chefs of Italy, and they all fell in love with it. It has become a reference in the market of pasta,” Mr. Di Martino says.
Today, the brand is involved in creative initiatives, such as its pop-up dinners hosting young chefs from the Association of Jeunes Restaurateurs d’Europe, champagne-and-pasta pairing dinners, an annual festival to celebrate the wheat harvest and more. Di Martino has also recently opened the trendy Sea Front Pasta Bar in Naples which features a gourmet pasta tasting menu, showcasing the versatility of this ultimate Italian ingredient.
Italian film director Federico Fellini said it best: “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”