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Correction to This Article
A Jan. 19 Food article cited the wrong date for an Italian pasta factory's first shipment through the Panama Canal. The correct date is 1915.
How Italians Eat

Gragnano's Crisis in a Pasta Pot

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page F01


In this small town near the Amalfi Coast, people are deeply conscious of their role as keepers of a noodle tradition for a nation.

They point out Gragnano's extra-wide main street, where pastamakers once hung strands of spaghetti from rods to dry in the sun. They usher visitors into buildings that used to house almost 200 pasta factories during the town's manufacturing heyday a century ago. They boast of the combination of spring water, mountain air and sunshine that combine to make their local product famous.

For Gragnano pasta makers, there is a right way -- some say a range of right ways -- to make, mold and dry pasta, such as this mezzi canneroni at Pastificio Faella. (Dave Yoder For The Washington Post)

Yet there's trouble in pasta paradise, and makers are at odds over what standard of pasta should properly bear the Gragnano name.

At stake here is whether pasta, which Italians consume at a rate of up to 90 pounds a year depending on the region (the south eats more, the north less), can be marketed as a niche product. The pasta makers of Gragnano, which contribute about 10 percent of Italy's national production, dream of distinguishing their pasta the way makers of Ligurian olive oil and Tuscan wine do theirs. They want to test whether buyers will pay more for a product that is ever so subtly chewier, nuttier and more roughly textured than most supermarket brands.

This may come as a surprise to casual foreign diners who find it odd that one package of simple Italian food can be significantly different from another. But the heart of the debate is in the pasta-making details, such as exactly which wheat ought to be blended with water to make dough, which material should be used to strain pasta into its myriad shapes and temperature limits for drying and hardening.

The Cooperativa di Pasta Gragnano, representing small producers in the area, declares that the dough should be made solely from Italian wheat and be pushed through perforated bronze plates to mold it, and that the resulting strands, sheets and elegant shapes must be dried at temperatures no higher than 122 degrees because, in their view, higher temperatures "burn" the dough.

The Gragnano Pasta City Consortium of 10 large manufacturers have argued for somewhat looser manufacturing rules, allowing for Teflon strainers and molds and a drying temperature as high as 158 degrees.

Both sides claim they are keepers of the pasta flame. "Real pasta can be forgotten if we are not careful," said Antonio Marchetti, the cooperative's president. "Gragnano pasta must be different from all other pasta to preserve the prestige of the name. Dilute the quality means to dilute the value."

"We also favor keeping pasta quality up," said Giuseppe Di Martino, president of the consortium. "Wheat was made by God so that men could make pasta."

Making pasta the old-fashioned way means slowing down the process. Drying at lower temperatures takes longer; so does running the dough through holes in bronze plates instead of Teflon.

In Italy, pasta is like a sacramental object whose serving is regulated by steadfast traditions. It is fed to babies as soon as they can take in solids. In Italian households, its place as a first dish at lunch or dinner is virtually a law.

It should be cooked al dente -- that is, only to the point at which it is still firm, then added to its sauce, where it's cooked a little more, then served right off the stove.

During the summer, when Italians travel abroad by the millions, newspapers issue pasta travel warnings to advise globe-trotters about strange pasta customs abroad, like the soggy German varieties served -- oh, the horror -- on the same plate as a steak or chicken, or Spanish macaroni, alleged to be served in cafeterias under infrared lamps.

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