The next time you’re cooking up a plate of spaghetti al pomodoro, we’d encourage you to reach for a bag of authentic pasta di Gragnano IGP, dry pasta made exclusively in Gragnano, Campania near Napoli. So what makes this Italian dry pasta stand out, you ask? We sat down with the experts at Afeltra, a prize-winning historic pasta factory, to go behind the scenes and find out.
THE WORLD CAPITAL OF PASTA
Located in the province of Napoli at the foot of the Lattari mountains, the town of Gragnano is perfectly suited for pasta production. Although there is evidence of pasta in this area of Campania dating back centuries, it wasn’t until the 18th century that Gragnano became a renowned hub for pasta production (until then, pasta was mostly a homemade affair).
Afeltra was founded in 1848, and still occupies a prized location in the Via Roma in the heart of Gragnano – the historic “strada dei pastai,” or pasta makers street. And behind the doors of its 43,000-square foot factory, Afeltra turns out 5,000 kilos of pasta every single day.
THE INGREDIENTS FOR PERFECT PASTA
The best pasta in the world starts with the best raw ingredients, and in the case of dry pasta, there are just two: flour and water. Pasta from Gragnano is made with semola di grano duro, or durum wheat semolina, a hard wheat variety native to Italy that is milled into coarse flour to retain the nutrients and flavor of the grain.
The water is sourced from the nearby Monti Lattari (Lattari mountains), the same water that has been used for 400 years to produce pasta di Gragnano. This natural spring water boasts particular characteristics like low calcium content and a balanced pH that make it perfectly suited for making a flavorful dough.
HOW PASTA IS MADE AT AFELTRA
Don’t be fooled – dry pasta requires the same artisan touch as the freshly made variety, and Afeltra has ensured that their process is as slow and thoughtful as the historic handmade method. Each shape requires three key steps.
Mixing the dough. From the simple raw ingredients, Afeltra begins by making an elastic dough. Innovations in pasta production have allowed Afeltra to maintain a handmade touch on a larger scale. In fact, the machines that Afeltra uses to mix the pasta dough simulate kneading by hand so as not to damage the starches and proteins in the semolina.
Extrusion. Once prepared, the dough is passed through a variety of brass dies, each one cut to a specific pasta shape. Why bronze? This material imparts a rough, porous texture to the pasta, making the final product more resistant to cooking, and more absorbent – that is, easier for sauce to cling to!
Slow Drying. Next, the pasta is dried, and this is where artisanal pasta stands out against its industrial counterpart. Historically, pasta was dried outdoors along the Via Roma in the cool coastal breezes (just imagine: pasta covering over every surface of Gragnano, from terraces to rooftops). Today, Afeltra uses highly innovative ovens that mimic these exact conditions, drying the pasta slowly for 24-72 hours at temperatures that never exceed 118.4°F. These low temperatures preserve the nutritional properties of the wheat, resulting in a more complex flavor and a healthier pasta.
HOW TO SERVE PASTA DI GRAGNANO IGP
The final step? According to Afeltra, that last one is all your own, and each unique shape has a time range for cooking up a perfectly al dente plate.
Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and salt well with coarse sea salt, then drain when the pasta is still quite al dente. Transfer it directly to a sauté pan with your sauce – remember, never rinse it – and toss over a medium flame for about two minutes to "marry" the sauce to the shape. (You’ll be delighted to find that the sauce clings perfectly to the pasta, thanks to its carefully calibrated texture!)
Bring home your favorite pasta shapes from Afeltra to taste the difference – find them at your local Eataly or shop online to stock your pantry!