Maine Artisan Pastas
And the sauces that love them
Italian food historian Oretta Zanini de Vita is a pasta detective, wrote American food writer Carol Field in the foreword to the 2009 English translation of de Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta.
De Vita spent 10 years tracking down 1,300 variations on Italy’s greatest gift to global gastronomy—rolled dough made from flour, water, salt, and sometimes eggs. She tapped Italy’s oldest citizens to capture memories of pasta before prosperity. “She listened for local nuances … and probed for recollections of earlier times when people were poorer, ingredients were fewer, and sauces and stuffings often relied on the imaginative use of whatever grew wild in the fields or was left in the larder,” wrote Field.
De Vita wrote about how non-Italians are surprised to learn that pairings of pasta shapes and sauces are traditional, but not canonical. There are general rules of thumb, of course; for example, chunky sauces are better suited to short tubes than long strings. But the pairings are more guided by the ingredients (primarily local ones) available to Italian cooks than by master recipes.
Here in Maine, a growing number of small-batch pasta makers are offering many interesting shapes as partners to any comforting sauce you have in your weeknight repertoire.
“I am drawn to interesting shapes with great traditional names that have [a] firm bite,” says Andrew Steinberg, owner of Portland-based Amolitta Pasta, whose products can be found in over 80 specialty stores across Maine and its surrounding states. His Gnocchetti Sardi resembles potato-based gnocchi dumplings, but since it’s made with semolina and then dried, it holds a toothsome texture when cooked in well-salted water. And it pairs well with many sauces, including pancetta, broccolini, and Parmigiano-Reggiano broth.
Giampy and Monica Bonacini moved from Modena, Italy, to Maine in 2017. In the kitchen of Casa Alchimia, the historic bed and breakfast they own in Freeport, they use a wooden rolling pin to make pasta—mainly fettucine and ravioli. They make sauces and cookies according to traditional family recipes.
At Belfast-based Nomad Pasta, as is the case at Amolitta Pasta and Ada’s Pasta in Portland and Rockland, pasta dough is shaped through an extruder fitted with bronze dies (molds, of sorts) rather than Teflon-coated ones used by industrialized pasta makers. This traditional approach to pasta making—the proper gear for which can cost tens of thousands of dollars—renders a rougher texture that helps any sauce stick to cooked pasta better.
The value proposition of a pound of local pasta, which might cost $5–7 compared to 99-cent supermarket pasta, extends to how slowly the local pastas are dried. Drying pasta at lower temperatures, Steinberg says, helps to preserve the gluten structure and the flavor of the durum wheat.
Also valuable are local pasta producers’ contributions to the Maine food economy. Susan Flynn, who owns Four Star Fresh in Biddeford with partner Eric Houts, says the list of raw ingredients in their fresh and dried pastas include Maine Grains polenta and wheat and rye flours, King Arthur Sir Galahad all-purpose flour, and eggs sourced from neighbors and friends who raise chickens.
But local artisan pasta is also more comforting, says Flynn. “[It’s] something about the color and taste of a small-production pasta, even, that makes you stop and enjoy it. You are satisfied with less,” she says.
Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: https://www.amazon.com/Green-Plate-Special-Sustainable-Delicious/dp/1944762140) was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.