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In Pasta Veritas

To Studio Café on Thursday for an all-pasta dinner organized by Jim Savona of Brunello Imports in honour of Gianluigi Peduzzi, proprietor of the Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta company. At the bus stop I realized the coins in my pocket were English not Canadian so I ended up walking, which gave me some time to reminisce. I’ve known Jim for 20 years —since I was a rookie food writer trying to think of story ideas that might interest editors and he was just starting his food and wine business, slogging around from restaurant to restaurant with sample products in the trunk of his car. We hit it off from the start. Around 1991, when the sudden recession meant very lean times for freelancers, my wife and I were forced to take drastic action, plucking our children out of school, renting out our house and setting off on a six-month road trip that carried us from London in a long meander through France, Germany, Austria, Italy and North Africa, researching and writing food and wine stories as we went. Jim furnished us with invaluable contacts in Italy, including an introduction to Gianluigi, whose gorgeous products, cleverly packaged in brown paper bags, were just arriving in Toronto.

It was a hot walk up to the Four Seasons on Thursday but not as hot as the afternoon in 1991 when we reached Pianella, a small town in the mountains behind Pescara. A scorching, malevolent wind, charged with the fine red dust of the Sahara, had sand-blasted skin and pummelled tempers. I left the family to rehydrate by the hotel pool while Gianluigi drove me to his old-fashioned factory in the dusty little village of Penne. He talked about pasta, and his driving became increasingly fast and reckless as he warmed to the subject. My knuckles were white on the dashboard by the time he began to describe the glories of Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta itself.

For as long as anyone cared to remember, he explained, the Peduzzis had been millers, buying grain from Puglia and selling flour to pasta makers in the Abruzzi. Then, in 1936, his father had taken it all one step further and had built his own pasta factory. The business did reasonably well, but when Gianluigi and his sister came into their inheritance in the 1980s, they saw at once that changes had to be made. The antiquated machinery and tiny output of the factory offered no competition to Italy’s pasta-producing giants, who bought cheap, imported Canadian durum wheat and churned out second-rate maccheroni on ceaseless production lines. The Peduzzis decided to make a virtue out of necessity and set about making the best pasta in the world. They even came up with a new motto for the company—In Pasta Veritas.

After reaching the factory—a pre-war building with a little shop at the front—Gianluigi started by showing me the kitchen where Rustichella’s 100 different kinds of pasta and egg noodles are made, ingredients all measured by hand. The flour is the best in Italy—durum from Puglia, whole wheat and farro from Abruzzo. Where other manufacturers use four eggs per kilo of flour in their noodle recipes, Rustichella uses seven. Where the big companies dry their pasta for eight hours at 100 degrees, Gianluigi’s antique ovens operate at 30 degrees and take 50 hours—cool air-drying that enhances the flavour of the grain.

I was a convert then, and I remain a convert now. Jim and Gianluigi were waiting at Studio Café at a table set for 16 guests, each place surrounded by half a dozen wine glasses (always a promising sight). An all-pasta meal might sound a tad heavy on a hot July night but it wasn’t the case. We began with little hors d’oeuvres of sautéed gnocchi with roasted pistachios in foie gras foam—delicious with a refreshing Prosecco. A crisp Friulian pinot grigio was perfect with a dish of lemon-thyme-steamed clams, roasted asparagus, ricotta cream and “trenne” —a triangular penne invented by Gianluigi. Papardelle, bright yellow in colour from all those eggs, was divinely light, freckled with double-smoked bacon and delicately sauced with a purée of yellow heritage tomatoes. The garnish was opal basil sprouts and other colours and kinds of miniature heritage tomatoes—yummy with two Castello Vicchiomaggio chiantis, the 2003 Jacopo and the 2001 La Prima. We drank Ripa della Mandorle 2003 with the main course—mushroom-flavoured stuzzicarelli (toothpick) pasta with oregano-scented olive oil and chunks of garlic fennel sausage. Dessert was one of Four Seasons executive chef Lynn Crawford’s whimsical delights—lollipops of ice cream rolled in an apple walnut crust and skewered onto small slabs of nippy old cheddar. A good time was had by all, especially Gianluigi, who is particularly happy these days now that the no-carb diet fad has finally dwindled away.

While on the subject of wheat and veritas, I notice that Amy Pataki, in Saturday’s Toronto Star, has repeated the old chestnut about the Earl of Sandwich inventing the sandwich so he wouldn’t have to leave the gambling table to eat. I’m afraid the truth is much more mundane. John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, did indeed invent the sandwich but he did so in order to go on working long and uninterrupted hours at his desk. A very gifted and capable First Lord of the Admiralty during the 1770s, and fiendishly busy fighting a war against France, Spain and the American colonies, he had little time for cards or dinner. A slice of salt beef between two doorsteps of bread helped him plan the revitalization of the Royal Navy, which eventually helped keep Canada Canadian. We all owe a serious debt to the sandwich.

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