A half-mile above sea level in the Dolomites, the fourth-generation pasta-maker Riccardo Felicetti is leading a quiet revolution in the Italian pasta industry.
Thanks to innovations that Felicetti introduced as chief executive of the pasta company founded by his great-grandfather in 1908, Pastificio Felicetti is a 21st-century marvel, bristling with arrays of computer controls and a small army of seemingly autonomous robots that manipulate pallets of penne, rigatoni and spaghetti with uncanny speed and precision.
But the real change Felicetti and other small pasta-makers are creating is something more fundamental: using durum wheat grown exclusively in Italy.
The move is paying off in flavor and sales, capitalizing on growing interest in expressions of terroir and feeding Italian pride at a time in which the country could use it.
Italico, a new restaurant in Palo Alto, California, has built its menu around all-Italian-wheat pastas, and New York chef Mark Ladner will use them at Pasta Flyer, the chain he plans to open after he leaves Del Posto this month.
One might assume, on opening a box of pasta marked “100 percent durum wheat, made in Italy,” that all the grain used had been grown in Italy. But almost without exception, Italian pasta companies use a mix of about 70 percent Italian and 30 percent imported durum wheat.
This is nothing new. In the early 1900s, Felicetti said, the nation imported about four-fifths of its durum wheat from Russia. After the Russian Revolution, Italy began importing grain from North America, and later, from Australia and other countries.
The reasons have to do with both appetite and geography. Every year, an Italian eats on average about 60 pounds (27.2kg) of pasta (compared with about 20 pounds for an American). Although Italian farmers grow an enormous amount of durum wheat — 4 million tons annually — they cannot meet the domestic pasta industry’s demand, which requires 5 million tons or more.
While the bigger pasta companies cannot subsist on Italian wheat alone, for smaller manufacturers, it is an increasingly appealing option.
Felicetti began his foray into domestic wheat 16 years ago, inspired by another Italian specialty: grappa. In the early 1970s, Italian distillers, which had long made virtually indistinguishable grappas from mounds of undifferentiated grape pomace — the freshly crushed skins, seeds and pulp — began using the carefully selected pomace of single grape varieties.
“Once, there was grappa — period,” Felicetti said. “Now there are monovarietal grappas — chardonnay, pinot nero, etc.” He added: “Around 2000, I began thinking you could do something similar with pasta. Instead of using a mix of Italian and imported grains, we could use monovarietal grains, grown in a specific place. Certainly, it would be a lot more complicated, but it would have a distinctive value and a competitive advantage.”
In 2004, after extensive experimentation to determine which wheat varieties performed best in particular regions, Pastificio Felicetti began manufacturing a line of pasta called Monograno, or “one grain.” Tasting notes on the packaging resemble the jottings of a sommelier: “stone cooked bread, butter and bamboo shoots” or “peanut butter and red date.”
Pastificio Felicetti makes about 400 tons of Monograno pastas annually, about 15 percent of its total production. In 2014, its Monograno Spaghettoni, made from a variety of wheat called Matt, grown in Apulia in southern Italy, won the Specialty Food Association’s Sofi Award in the pasta, rice or grain category. Another Monograno pasta won the same prize in 2016.