An illustration depicting a merchant hanging pasta to dry.

    An illustration depicting a merchant hanging pasta to dry.

    Penn Mac is pasta central in Pittsburgh, but that does not refer only to its expanded selection of fresh pasta. What many people may not know is that at the Strip’s Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. there is also an extraordinary selection of dried pasta. Don’t expect those everyday grocery-store products in the blue boxes. Instead you’ll find a large number of products from Gragnano, a small town near Naples in the Campania region of Italy that became famous in the 18th century for “white gold”—aka macaroni. Gragnano is now known as the Città della Pasta (“City of Pasta”), for the numerous companies that make their own versions of “white gold” there.

    Patrick Walsh, the retail segment specialist at Penn Mac, explains: “Pasta was developed to feed the populace using just wheat and water from the mountain. There is a steady wind flow, so when the town was built the main street was laid out to catch it. Pasta was dried right there, in the street.” The wind, which locals call marino, blows from sea to land, bringing with it humidity and minerals. A quick web search will reward you with old pictures of rows of pasta drying on racks, spaced tightly along the width of the street. The product was made by maccaronaro—macaroni makers who derived their pasta-creation tricks from knowledge handed down for generations.

    Patrick, who was instrumental in bringing the new product lines on board at Penn Mac, continues: “All four of our brands are from producers in Gragnano. Traditionally the pasta has to be dried within 24 hours, which the wind could do. The 1940s brought such a big demand for pasta that it all couldn’t be dried in the streets anymore. Production was moved to machines. It still has to meet certain requirements. Products that do, like ours, get an IGP—Indicazione Geografica Protetta, an ‘Indication of Geographic Protection’ designation.” That’s similar to when cheeses get a DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta—“Protected Designation of Origin”).

    Not that there isn’t innovation. Pastificio is one of the largest manufacturers in Italy. Penn Mac sells an antica type, Pastificio di Martino, similar to what was first produced in 1912 by the founder of the company. One of his grandsons added Pastificio dei Campi, a modern version that meets the highest standards of a Gragnano pasta but adds the modern interest in knowing the source of your food—“It is comfort about food sources and quality,” says Patrick.

    One of the fascinating things about some of these pastas is that they have a rough grain, which you can feel, due to the way they are extruded. The roughness “grabs” the sauce. And that is without considering the many shapes and how they interact with sauces. Patrick tries to stock a variety: 30 for Di Martino, 12 for Dei Campi, 40 for Gragnano, and 12 to 15 for Pastai Gragnanesi.

    As can be expected, there are numerous satisfying ways to prepare all of these wonderful pastas. You can try basil sauce with the trofie shape (region of Liguria traditions). One of the Penn Mac cheese mongers likes the Gragnanese brand of buccatini cooked in a caccio e pepe—cheese and black pepper—sauce.

    Or take a selection of pastas, one from each brand, and prepare them in a variety of ways: plain, with a bit of butter, with cheese added along with some grinds of black pepper. You can use olive oil instead of butter, more traditional in northern Italy. Is there a difference among the pastas? Yes, and there is of course a further difference with each creative preparation.

    Thank you, Penn Mac and Patrick, for all the pasta delights you’ve brought to our city.

    —Cynthia F. Weisfield

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