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.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Visit to Morelli Pasta

I took a trip to San Romano last week to visit the small pasta facory of Morelli. It’s about an hour due west of Florence in western Tuscany. They’ve been making pasta there for about a hundred years — and that’s their second location! They moved here after a fifty year run in a small village nearby. Now if a hundred year old factory has you thinking cobwebs and cobble stones, you can scratch that image from your mind. While not exactly high tech — they still bag everything by hand, as you can see in the picture — it’s bright and shockingly clean, with a glossy green floor.

Even though the Morellis have been making pasta for almost 150 years we just started carrying them this summer, in the current catalog. I was especially excited about their pasta with wheat germ. It’s the only one of its kind that I’m aware of. Most pastas are made from fully refined flour where the germ is removed. In other words, most pasta is kind of like white bread. For a few of their pastas the Morellis add germ back in. The quantities of germ are relatively small — 3.2% for the tacconi and over double that for the ricciolina, which also has bran — so it is not overwhelmingly wheaty. You can catch wafts of wheat aroma when you boil it. The flavor is what I might call “gently rustic,” something you don’t want to cover up with too many other flavors .

Morelli is collectively run by siblings Antonio, Marco and Lucia, the fifth generation to have the honors. They are in their 40’s and 50’s, slim and trim (take that, Atkins diet). They split up roles. Marco handles the wheat buying side of the business. Antonio, the pasta making and sales. Antonio’s wife, Giovanna, manages all the export. Their father is still involved — he popped his head in and said hello — and there was even a teenage regazzo (boy) hanging around. Pretty solidly a family business.

I take it as a good sign that the family totally loves their pasta and eats it, as Giovanna told me, “every single day, often twice.” How do they like to serve it? I wasn’t surprised that the recipes were very simple, usually the case with folks who make foods with a lot of flavor on their own.

Antonio likes the ricciolina best, tossed with a bit of grated pecorino, olive oil and black pepper. Kind of like the Roman dish, cacio e pepe (sheep cheese and pepper), which is something I make a lot. Giovanna likes the paccheri (available at deli) with cherry tomatoes, basil and olive oil. She tosses the pasta in the olive oil that’s been cooked with a clove of garlic that then gets tossed out. She also really likes the tacconi simply with olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Tomorrow I’ll take you inside the factory for a quick tour.