Does there exist for you a single food that can reliably improve your mental state? That wholly encompasses the textural, sensual, soothing joy of eating? That gives you a shred more faith in human whimsy and capability?
For me, this food is bucatini pasta. You know, the long, thick spaghetti with a hole down the middle. So named from the Italian word "bucato," meaning pierced, bucatini were literally engineered to cook evenly (inside and out simultaneously) and capture sauce — a thought I find endlessly comforting.
Indeed, no shape more elegantly envelops eggy carbonara, amatriciana with tomatoes and rich guanciale or anchovies melted in olive oil with garlic and cheese. Yet this glistening, twirled heap is no art exhibit; bucatini all but come alive from your first bite. They bounce, they squeak, they whistle, they fling sauce in unpredictable directions.
In the centuries Italian dried pasta artisans have been making bucatini (reports indicate since roughly 16th-century Sicily, National Pasta Association chef and spokesperson Rosario DeNero tells me), they've taken great pains to ensure we eaters have such a whimsical, sensual experience.
This glistening, twirled heap is no art exhibit; bucatini all but come alive from your first bite. They bounce, they squeak, they whistle, they fling sauce in unpredictable directions.
Like all dry pasta, bucatini only requires two ingredients: water and coarse durum wheat semolina. After the dough is kneaded to the correct consistency, it is pushed, or extruded, through a die, or metal disk with holes in it, to cut the desired shape. In this case, each hole contains a small metal piece in the center to create the pasta's tubular shape. Traditional dies were entirely made of bronze, which create a rough surface ideal for capturing sauce. Nowadays, many industrial dies are made out of Teflon, giving the pasta a smoother, more even texture.
Of course, electric (or, hell, even donkey- or people-pulled) extruders weren't around in the 1500s when bucatini originated, as DeNero points out.
"Back then, Sicilians were said to use a wooden or iron rod, very thin like you find on umbrellas," DeNero says. "They'd take a little ball of pasta the size of a chestnut, roll it on the iron to create a tube, then remove the pasta from the iron and you get this handmade bucatino. Sicilians still call them pasta e ferretti (meaning pasta with iron)."
As the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples often united politically, the shape eventually found its way to central and southern Italy, becoming popular in the Lazio region, particularly Rome, where it remains a favorite today. This explains why we so often see bucatini paired with Roman sauces like cacio e pepe, the aforementioned amatriciana and gricia (amatriciana without the tomatoes).
To ensure even cooking, bucatini requires long — often more than a day — drying at moderate temperatures. "Originally, people used to hang them to dry in the sun with the breezes of the sea, so it wouldn't be too fast," DeNero says.
If you happened to be wandering around Gragnano, a small hill town southeast of Naples, a century ago, you indeed would have seen sheets of pasta hanging to dry above the streets like clothes on a line.
"They had built the whole village so that the main road, called Via Roma, would catch this particular breeze from the mountains to the sea," says Beatrice Ughi, founder and president of specialty Italian food importer Gustiamo, in the Bronx. "Every family took advantage of this breeze and would hang their pastas to dry for days at a time."
Gragnano, also known as the Città della Pasta (City of Pasta), has purportedly been making seccata (dried pasta) since the 1200s, owing to its proximity to wheat-growing fields and clear spring water running down from mountains that encase it on three sides — not to mention those favorable maritime breezes.
It's in this village, at a small 115-year-old, family-run factory called Faella, where the bucatini is still extruded through bronze dies and slow-dried for almost two days to produce rough-edged, toothsome bucatini that smell of toasted grain and fresh baked bread when they cook. Faella's painstaking, expensive process (the bronze dies have to be replaced every two to three years) yields considerably small supplies.
It's in this village, at a small 115-year-old, family-run factory called Faella, where the bucatini is still extruded through bronze dies and slow-dried for almost two days to produce rough-edged, toothsome bucatini that smell of toasted grain and fresh baked bread when they cook.
"What is small?" Ughi asks, before answering herself: "It's like one shift of pasta production at (industrial pasta giant) Barilla is equivalent to what Faella produces in a year; it's remarkable."
I later confess to Ughi that at least an hour before our phone call, I'd begun talking myself into Faella's $38 "big bag" of bucatini in Gustiamo's online shop. "Five and a half pounds should last me six weeks!" I reason.
This hoarding mentality of mine dates back two years, to a certain temporary bucatini shortage that occurred early in the pandemic — when consumers were cleaning stores out of pasta almost as fast as toilet paper.
DeNero attributes the bucatini shortage a "perfect storm" of factors, including demand far outstripping already limited supply of this speciality pasta (harder to make because of its signature hole) and Italian manufacturer De Cecco's strange, untimely barring from the U.S. border, which writer Rachel Handler covered in spectacular detail for New York Magazine's Grub Street. The latter resulted from an U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigation concerning a slight deficiency in the iron content of De Cecco's bucatini — which has to meet a certain minimum to be sold in the U.S. In a follow-up piece published in February, Handler reported that De Cecco had solved the issue internally and was waiting on the FDA to remove its automatic hold.
Naturally, I expanded my pasta library in those longs months without bucatini, via long fusilli bucati resembling impeccably permed ringlets, fat ribbons of pappardelle, ruffled campanelle bells and coarse-edged, slow-cooking pici.
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It had been months when I finally got my hands on a box of Rustichella d'Abruzzo bucatini. I methodically worked through the carbonara recipe I'd taken a decade to perfect, feeling an almost giddy joy as I captured a ladleful of starchy pasta-cooking liquid, which jumpstarts the frenzied process of turning egg and cheese and pork fat into a sauce. Indeed, part of the reason bucatini holds sauce so well relates to how it's cooked, which is the final piece of this perfect pasta puzzle.
"To get what we call 'mantecatura,' when you actually make pasta creamy with starches by finishing the cooking in the sauce, the long cuts react better to this phenomenon," DeNero says. "That's what makes pasta so great — this whole sensual experience of eating something that is not just one just texture, but multi-textured."
I can't help but marvel at this delicate mingling of art and precision engineering, perfected by thousands of epiphanies achieved across hundreds of years — in fields, towns and factories, in home and professional kitchens alike. All in the name of one pasta shape. It's enough to give me pause over this glossy, creamy work of art before I dutifully attack it with lively, joyful abandon.
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