Perhaps you are familiar with this ritual. The “pasta night” preparation, which for many in North America means going into the grocery store and basically closing our eyes as we pick out a random box of pasta (along with the sauce, and other things we need for our best imitation of Italian food).
There seem to be hundreds of dry pasta brands to choose from. There are the nationally advertised brands and brands who use buzz words like “natural",“whole wheat”, or an Italian sounding name (even though they aren't Italian). What do I do? How do I know what to look for in a good pasta? Oh, the decisions!
I decided to visit the Felicetti pasta company’s factory in Predazzo, Italy in the Italian Alps to solve my pasta aisle problems once and for all. Family owned since it’s founding in 1908, the Felicetti company is committed to producing the highest quality, best-tasting pasta on the planet. The first distinction they have from others is their location. It's in a place that seems like you would have to go out of your way to be producing something of low quality. After all, all you have to do is look around at the fresh streams and stunning high peaks to be inspired to be healthier.
My guide for the day is CEO Riccardo Felliceti whose grandfather started the pasta company over 100 years ago. To understand pasta I am told, you must start with the grain. Keep in mind that all grains are not created equal as Felicetti explains, “every acre of land is different. It’s different in terms of sun and moisture so the result of the grain might be different.”
Lesson One: All grains are not created equal
I’m in a room where they test the quality of semolina which is the grounded heart of durum wheat. The semolina flour will later be mixed with water (not just any water but fresh water from the Dolomites, the gorgeous mountain chain which surrounds the factory) which become’s the dough for pasta. Felicetti only uses organic grains. They are able to trace back every batch of their pasta to the field where the grain was grown, now that's commitment!
Lesson Two: Know your pasta types
Felicetti produces 100 cuts of pasta, but don't worry you don't have to remember them all. Different pasta isn’t just for choice it's also for the type of meal you want to have. Italians are quite serious about pasta types and what sauce pairs with each (which would require another entire article to do justice explaining).
The pasta is then put through cutters or rolled into large sheets and then cut depending on what type of pasta it will become. It then is placed in a drying tank for up to 12 hours (depending on the type of pasta).
Lesson Three: Don’t overlook the love Italians have for their craft
Riccardo Felicetti employs people from the town where he grew up (Predazzo the exact same place where his factory is). The small town atmosphere creates accountability for his product. When he talks about the quality he isn’t just talking about pasta he also mentions another key ingredient the “quality of the people”. It may sound trivial, but I could see the passion in the faces of his workers. This small mountain town doesn’t have too many year round industries to support local communities and the success of Felicetti pasta has helped to maintain a quality of life for the hundred local townspeople employed there.
Next time you're in a pasta aisle I hope that my experience can help educate you to cut through the marketing noise and figure out what to eat. There is far too much bad pasta, and far too few “Italian nights” to not enjoy quality pasta each time you cook it. (I suppose a shortcut would be to just buy Felicetti pasta but hey maybe I'm biased.)
Bonus lesson: Don’t call everything spaghetti
After learning from Riccardo I immediately feel embarrassed that I have been using the word “spaghetti” to refer generically to all pasta for most of my life. Don’t do what I’ve done. Let's stop the cycle here and now.