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 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.
In 2013, Pastificio Felicetti began using only Italian wheat for all of its pastas, although Riccardo Felicetti emphasized that the decision had more to do with streamlining production than it did with concerns about the quality of his ingredients.
“We don’t necessarily consider Italian durum wheat to be the best,” he said, “but for us, getting wheat from Italy simplifies control of the supply chain.”
Rustichella d’Abruzzo, a small producer in central Italy, has also started an all-Italian-wheat pasta line, called PrimoGrano, or “first grain.” The pastas are made from three varieties of durum wheat — San Carlo, Varano and Mongibello — grown by farmers in Abruzzo.
The company’s owner, Gianluigi Peduzzi, planned to make PrimoGrano only once, to celebrate the company’s 80th anniversary in 2004, but the response was so enthusiastic, he said, he made it a regular offering.
Rustichella d’Abruzzo makes about 100 tons of PrimoGrano each year, a figure Peduzzi said was growing 10-15 percent annually. Part of the appeal is the local wheat’s texture and flavor.
“PrimoGrano is softer, and tasty, like bread,” he said.
Pasta Mancini in the Marche region has taken the idea further, not only using Italian wheat exclusively, but growing it. Its small factory, built in 2007, sits in the middle of one of its fields. “In a world where, on average, a grain of wheat travels for about 6,000 kilometers before it becomes pasta, we are proud to say that in our case, and I repeat that this is an exception, there is not any separation between the fields and the factory,” Lorenzo Settimi, a Pasta Mancini spokesman, wrote in an email.
Even one of Italy’s largest pasta producers, Barilla, is embracing the trend, albeit in a small way. In 2014, the company began using only durum wheat grown in southern Italy for its premium brand, Voiello.
The rationale was simple. “It’s for sustainability reasons, energy use,” said Luca Di Leo, a Barilla spokesman. “You avoid using energy to transport the wheat all over the world, which adds both to the cost of the product and to the environment.”
Di Leo said the use of all-Italian wheat had more benefits. “I think that it does give an edge to say, in Italy especially, that it’s something that is made in Italy,” he said. “It is partly for patriotic reasons, and especially at a time in which the economy is facing hardships, and people are losing their jobs, to be able to say we make pasta that only uses Italian durum wheat, and that we are helping our farmers.”
These efforts seem to be benefiting from Italy’s vibrant local-food movement, which in recent years has been using the catchphrase “km 0,” short for zero kilometers.
Forthcoming legislation could give these pastas another edge in the marketplace. In the first half of this year, the European Commission expects to start requiring food packaging to state the country of origin of the primary ingredient, if it is different from the country where the product is made.
Pastas made entirely of Italian wheat can be found at some specialty stores. Felicetti Monograno pasta is available from eataly.com, and at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. In New York, Rustichella d’Abruzzo PrimoGrano is sold at some Dean & DeLuca shops, and Mancini pasta at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria.