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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.
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Gragnano's Crisis in a Pasta Pot

In the tradition of many religious objects, the origin of pasta is steeped in mythology. The story that Marco Polo introduced pasta from China has largely been debunked. Scholars say that Arabs brought it to Sicily in the Middle Ages. But there are also indications that the Etruscans, neighbors of Republican Rome, also made something akin to spaghetti 3,000 years ago. A serrated rolling pin was found in an Etruscan tomb. Possibly, it was used to cut flattened dough into strips.

Gragnano's place in pasta history is rooted in its location. It stands just below the crest of mountains that separate it from the Amalfi Coast, where steady, salty breezes mingled with plenty of sunshine yielded ideal conditions for drying before the advent of heaters. The wide east-west Via Roma main street was laid out to capture the breeze. Springs and mountain streams provided running pure water for blending the dough and turning mills. Faded photos show Via Roma filled with long rods holding strands of noodles hanging like laundry.

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)

A 19th-century railroad line led directly to the port of Naples, just a few miles away. In 1815, the Pastificio Di Martino factory exported its first shipment through the Panama Canal in pursuit of Italian immigrant customers on the West Coast of the United States.

The word "pasta" itself is a relative newcomer to the ways it has been marketed. Until about 25 years ago, Italians referred to spaghetti, linguine, candele, capelli d'angelo, fusilli and the scores of other shapes and sizes of dried noodle simply as macaroni. But the word fell out of favor because it was associated with poverty. Neapolitans were once nicknamed macaroni eaters because of their love for the dish, which for a long time was served on the streets of the city and eaten by hand.

Pasta, which simply means "dough," came into fashion and has stuck.

Lately, Italian shelves have filled up with pasta labeled "artisanal," suggesting the use of old methods, including the bronze strainers and lower heat. Exotic shapes were revived, among them calamarati, shaped like sliced squid, and lumacone, which look like giant snails.

The urge to upgrade follows a trend incited in part over the past decade by European Union rules that permit local food producers to copyright their merchandise, in effect, based on recipes and even manufacturing location. Makers of everything from Parma ham to Naples' pizza and buffalo mozzarella have applied for special designations.

For the moment, pasta has remained pasta no matter where or how it is produced. The consortium wants to place a stamp on the packaging of Gragnano pasta similar to the city's seal, which depicts a fistful of wheat.

Consortium president Di Martino said the standards it has proposed are strict enough to ensure high quality. Bronze makes the surface of the pasta slightly pitted, allowing it to hold sauces better, in his opinion. Nonetheless, he insisted, Teflon is only marginally inferior, and drying temperatures of up to 138 degrees are still low enough not to "burn" the ingredients and kill the aroma.

Di Martino's ancestors bought the factory complex in 1912. Its current owners -- his father and uncle, third-generation members -- live in apartments at one corner of the family property. DiMartino's own office is littered with iron parts of an old pasta press that ushered in the age of mechanization in Gragnano.

"I want to stay and work the factory," said Di Martino. "I consider myself a custodian of this tradition. I remember as a teen coming back home from nights at the disco and smelling the aroma of wheat. It stayed with me.

"We are fighting against the mass homogenization of pasta. We want people to know there's a difference. There's color, there's flavor, there's texture. It's no different than distinctions between fine wines. We want to be the vintners of pasta," he said.

Marchetti, president of the cooperative, is in accord with Di Martino's sentiment but takes on the role of a purist. "Any cheapening of the process will hurt small producers who are protecting the true tradition," he insisted, showing off an old bronze plate with holes in it used to mold dough into spaghetti. The cooperative was formed in 1980 after an earthquake damaged the Pasta di Gragnano premises and the proprietors left. The workers took over and kept it alive. Marchetti, a restaurant owner, joined the group.

Pasta di Gragnano produces about four tons a day, Di Martino about 160 tons.

"We think the space exists for really craft-driven pasta," said Marchetti, who also took up the wine analogy. "A gourmet can sniff our pasta and know it was made right."

Daniel Williams is The Post's Rome bureau chief. His last article in this series was about the little plates of Venice.

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