[Free stuff by Wilfrid: October 6, 2014]
So you get these emails--you really do--promising amazing, revolutionary breakthroughs in everything from breakfast to ice cream. And you shrug, and usually you move on, and sometimes you take up an invitation. This was one I was right not to miss.
Shrouded in secrecy until last Thursday, the old pasta house of Rustichella d'Abruzzo is celebrating its 90th anniversary with the release of a dried pasta which cooks in 90 seconds flat--90" Rapida--with no loss of quality. And they proved it to us.
There's a lot to say about this, under the headings of aesthetics, design, and marketing, so let's be done with that before we get to the food.
The Futurists? Those politically iffy avant garde chancers? Rustichella boasts a futurist inspiration for 90" Rapida, and it actually makes sense; especially if you're enough of a twentieth century modernist anorak to the know that Filipo Marinetti, self-appointed leader of the band, created a futurist cookbook which derided boring old pasta as sentimentalist, bourgeois nonsense. Of course, it remained--as Wittgenstein would say--"important nonsense," not least for Marinetti, who notoriously continued to eat it.
But here we have a pasta even those prophets of speed, war, and the machine would love. Okay, well the futurist-inspired designs on the packs (there's a series of them)--racing cars, cyclists, "impassioned," "audacious" do look great, as did a series of Rapida-inspired paintings decorating the ground floor of the soaring Carriage House space on West 38th Street where we munched appetizers while waiting to witness history.
Well, they did it: made a pasta which goes from boiling water to the plate in 90 seconds, as we shall see. And it slashes the time of the quick cook pastas already on the market. How? No chemistry, just physics, said Gianluigi Peduzzi, co-owner of the firm. In other words, traditional artisanal ingredients--semola extra--are used; there's no interference with the grain; and no pre-cooking. They changed the process, not the product.
The process is patented, of course, so feel free to research it, but one important change is visible to the naked eye, it the eye is curious enough. Dried spaghetti is typically a hollow cylinder. This in itself helps cooking speed, and as the strands cook the hole collapses, and is gone when the spaghetti reaches the plate. Look along a strand of 90" Rapida, and you will actually see an open groove right down its length. This makes much more of the surface of the pasta instantly accessible to the boiling water, and it too closes as the pasta cooks. That may not be the entire story, but it's all we got. It also explains why the only 90 second pasta right now is spaghetti, and you can entertain yourselves imagining how you might get the same effect with different shapes.
In some ways, 90" Rapida sells itself. Other Rustichella d'Abruzzo dried pastas are already on the menus at some New York restaurants very well known for pasta. But it seems to me you sell this to consumers and restaurants in quite different ways. This has obvious appeal to the busy New Yorker who gets home from work at 9.30 and really doesn't want to spend twelve minutes boiling spaghetti. Equally, it saves restaurant kitchens the chore of pre-cooking, but I don't see it being advertized on menus as a special fast pasta dish. In any case, you can try it for yourselves, from the importer's website if it hasn't reached the stores yet.
I promise, watching a chef stare at boiling water for a minute and a half wouldn't please you, but here's the climax.
So did we eat it? Did we eat anything? Or had Michelin-starred chef William Zonfa been flown over simply to pose on the stairs.
With compelling Campari-prosecco cocktails, we scarfed down a parade of passed hors d'oeuvres from cheesy balls in light pea soup, through foccaccias stuffed with cheese or ham, to an Abruzzo "shepherd's stick" (skewered rare lamb), mozzarella and tomato, and a zucchini blossom stuffed with melted cheese which exploded when I bit into it. All delicious, some messy.
Upstairs--yes, up those spiral stairs--we sat down for a formal tasting of the dish chef Zonfa had demonstrated: spaghetti with a light leek confit sauce, saffron, and chips of savory guanciale.
Of course it was good. This family and company know pasta. Al dente, indistinguishable from regular pasta. And what would you expect a Michelin-starred chef to do with a saffron crème brûlée? (Saffron is a DOC crop in Abruzzo.)
"The past is necessarily inferior to the future. That is how we wish it to be," said Marinetti. Welcome to the future of pasta.