Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What's a Pasta Factory Like? Inside Morelli.

Nested racks of pasta in the drying room.

Morelli’s factory is a connected series of five rooms. The pasta comes in as raw grain in the first and leaves as case packs of pasta in the fifth.

The durum grain, primarily from Italy with supplemental grain from Canada when necessary, is held in three silos in the warehouse. Vacuum hoses pull it to room two.

Room two. Here the durum semolina is mixed with water and, for the pasta we buy, wheat germ. The germ is perishable and held in their coffin freezer, which looks just like the one we have on the pick and pack line. When I visited there was one man mixing chiles for a spicy pasta. He’s one of only two men I see in the factory, both doing heavy jobs. The rest, about twenty more, are women.

Room three is very hot. It feels like the Bakehouse bread side. The pasta is coming through the machine in cut pieces of penne, red from the chiles that were mixed in. I can see the big bronze die that forms them. It looks about ten inches across, a couple inches thick. The bronze die is traditional and key to the pasta’s exterior texture. Feel a piece of Morelli pasta and its surface is rough, not slick like the pasta you get from newer Teflon dies that are widely used. Its more pleasant in the mouth and holds sauce better. My understanding is bronze dies cost more, need to be replaced more often, and produce pasta more slowly, hence their demise.

The penne falls already cut out of the machine onto drying screens. They’re about the size of half a screen door, wood-rimmed, with a nylon screen. They stack on top of each other like bread racks. Two people do the stacking and one — the other man in the building — wheels them away. It takes more people when they’re making a long shape, like linguine, because they have to cut that kind of pasta by hand.

I quickly learned the heat comes from the drying chambers which line one side of the room. They look like walk-ins, silver with big doors, colorful buttons, blinking lights, inscrutable numbers. There are about six of them, each eight feet square.

The dryers are the other key to the pasta’s interior texture. They are set at 44 Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) and the pasta spends 24-36 hours there. It can be dried faster if the temperatures were higher. The slow drying enhances the texture and flavor, though, to be honest, I’m not quite sure how yet. Our Italian and English translation wasn’t doing the job there. More to come.

The fourth room is full of people, twelve women, all packing pasta. No big machines or anything. Just trays, scoops and bags. Each bag is filled, weighed, and riveted shut. This was pretty remarkable to me. I mean, this business has been around 150 years. These guys are obviously smart business folks to stay around for that long. Giovanna told me the great grandfather moved the factory to this location in 1907 in part to be close to the rail line — it’s across the street — to save on costs. Pretty savvy move. All that time and smarts, though, and they still haven’t found a better way to package pasta than a person working by hand. It reminds me of what lean guru Eduardo told me early on when we were working together. “Mo, the most flexible machine in the world is a human being.”

The last room is, you guessed it, inventory. Cases of pasta stacked everywhere, though in reality it was probably only a few hundred cases and they looked to be leaving soon. From here it’s out the door to the loading zone, which is so tiny it makes the back dock of the deli look luxurious. The door opens on an alley about a dozen feet wide with tiny Fiats parked on one side against a wall. It’s Italy, though. That's a huge amount of space, so of course a giant eighteen wheeler delivering grain has found a way to wedge itself between the door and the cars.

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