Feb 05 2015

The Taste of “Good” Pasta

Americans consistently elevate Italian food culture onto a mantle of gastronomic fulfillment. We assume that throughout Italy, along with the rolling hills of vineyards and fields of tomatoes and courgettes, there exists a collective of committed artisans dedicating their lives’ work to a specific style of cheese or salami. Renato Sardo, of Oakland’s Baia Pasta, did little to sway this romantic view of his country’s agricultural bucolity. “There’s a guy named Mancini who only makes pasta with his own grain,” Sardo told me one sunny Friday morning in Oakland’s Jack London Square. “He’s a grain farmer and grows his own durum wheat. They have a small mill nearby,” Sardo shared. He continued with a brief story about the pasta of Giovanni Fabbri, beginning with a description of a beautiful durum wheat field nestled amongst olive trees. After harvest, and in collaboration with a winery, Fabbri makes pasta from that field’s wheat. “If you dig, you find amazing stuff,” Sardo summarized, adding that this is true “in the U.S. too.”

While Sardo wasn’t talking about his own pasta company in that statement, in the several hours I spent with him and his business partner, fellow Italian Dario Barbone, it became imminently clear that similar stories of admiration and excitement should be told throughout Italy about these two Bay Area Italians and their American pasta company.

It wouldn’t take eloquent prose for a storyteller to deliver an equally enticing blurb about Baia Pasta, perfect for a quick anecdote about the focused artisanal movement in the Bay Area, one that might elicit head nods all around about how Northern Californians always need to know the source and ethics of everything they eat. After all, Barbone and Sardo are committed to sourcing sustainably grown wheat and whole grains for their small cut pasta shapes, transforming the milled grain into pasta that’s been mixed at low temperatures, brass extruded, and then dried for an extended period, all techniques designed to reflect the grain’s texture and nutritional qualities. But these Italians, each a decade deep into living in California, aren’t simply trying to sell pasta that appeases those of us who desire traceable ingredients. In their office and production space, literally surrounded by bags and boxes of pasta shapes and colors, they’re committed to headier, more long-lasting explorations into the broad concepts “good” and “nutritious”, and how both can overlap into a dietary staple like pasta.

When Sardo first arrived in the Bay Area in 2005, he said in an interview, “I’ve always regarded [the Bay Area] as the food center of the U.S.,” elaborating that “food lovers here know more facts, they read more books.” In Piedmont, the region of Italy from where both Sardo and Barbone hail, “it’s more natural. You have your mother who cooks for you. There’s a strong culture of food.”

Americans latch onto dietary words, fads, and recommendations – gluten free, trans-fat free, GMO-free – like drowning men clambering upon a life vessel: with desperation and hope. Without this naturally unified food culture that Sardo alludes to, we spend copious amounts of time and energy researching and reading about food, all in an attempt to create our own individual food cultures that connect to a larger movement. Barbone calls this the “American perspective of taking one thing, [and] dissecting it to make it better, more efficient and more delicious.”

America’s individualistic approach to food has helped to renew conversations while influencing flavorful products, from tomatoes to coffee and bread. Though in the case of coffee, Barbone and Sardo have a decidedly Italian view not shared by the line of office workers and tourists waiting at the nearby Blue Bottle. “For an Italian, creamy chocolatey delicious” flavors are the ideal, while third wave coffee roasters are typically “getting into the tea, green, acidic [flavors]. It’s like you get a car and then put a DVD player in it, then put this and that. I mean, the car still runs. But there’s an entire house in the car now," Barbone and Sardo chuckled together, as I reminisced about the single origin Kenyan I had literally just drunk before meeting them.

Yet it’s a similarly single-minded approach to grains and pasta that influenced the Italian friends to create Baia, with both Barbone and Sardo adamantly explaining to me that when you go to a food show in Italy, there are rows of cheesemakers, salami makers, bread bakers, and jars of mushrooms. “Here it’s kombucha,” Sardo remarked. “Chia seed crackers!” Barbone added. “Energy bars!” Sardo shot back. In America, “Who makes the pasta? Who makes the bread?” Barbone asked. “I love cupcakes and caramels and things like that, but 80% of the food business are nutrition accessories...not main staples.”

Americans eat pasta by the forkful, but not in the same way Italians do. Many of us integrate a pasta dish as one of a rotating repertoire of easy dinner options. Spaghetti is a frequent staple for fundraiser or pre-marathon dinners. And even those who can’t cook – or don’t want to – can boil water and dump some pasta into the swirling liquid, before tossing the noodles with a tomato sauce, or – if of an adventurous spirit – pesto. But as soon as pasta prices increase past a certain number (a box of Barilla costs about $2.50; a box of Baia costs $7 or $8), we take notice, with an underlying thought that pasta is supposed to be a cheap staple. This phenomenon happens outside of your home kitchen too: at restaurants like Ava Gene’s (pasta source: Masciarelli or Della Terra) or Oakland’s Oliveto (pasta source: Community Grains), it’s easy for diners to balk at ordering a plate of pasta that costs over $12.

Barbone and Sardo understand these cultural hurdles, aware that many Americans view pasta like Chinese food, commenting that both cuisines are saddled with the underlying assumption that they “have to be cheap”, Barbone explained. Sardo added, “Customers, they think that if they pay more for their pasta, it has to be an Italian brand.” Does an American pasta created and made by Italians count?

Barbone and Sardo moved to the Bay Area entirely unconnected to each other, Barbone for school at University of California San Francisco and Sardo with his then wife, Belcampo founder Anya Fernald. As each man created a life for himself in the Bay Area, both quickly noticed that most of the pasta available for sale was “bland and uninteresting”. These Italian expatriates cooked with various styles of pasta that bore only passing resemblance to the pasta they’d grown up with, and even when the pasta was good, it was Italian pasta made with “grains shipped from America”.

For Sardo, Baia serves as a natural, and logical, progression in his long and varied food career. Before moving to the Bay Area, Sardo was intimately involved in the Slow Food organization, an association he continued even after his migration to the United States. His father, Piero Sardo, is one of the founding members of the organization and movement, and still serves on the board, as president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity; Sardo himself used to be the head of Slow Food International. When he relocated to the Bay Area a decade ago, he played many roles in the region’s food culture, gaining connections with food activists and thinkers from Michael Pollan and Alice Waters to truffle hunter and general food connoisseur, Angelo Garro.

Baia, which means “bay” in Italian, is Sardo’s literal transition from “theory to practice”, a phrase that I immediately latched onto when I read a previous interview. Before the market crash of 2009, Sardo had led efforts to bring a Ferry Building type project – in effect, a stable market of food artisans – to Oakland’s Jack London Square. The plans evaporated, but the connection to the current iteration of Jack London Square remained: Baia Pasta currently operates out of a former Edible Arrangements on the pedestrianized waterfront.

After a chance meeting between Sardo and Barbone, Sardo recruited his fellow Italian expatriate to help with several Slow Food events in the Bay Area. Barbone has a PhD in molecular medicine, with a specific focus on cancer biology. When he’s not in Oakland at the Baia headquarters, he’s in San Francisco, working as a lab director in a UCSF lab. When Sardo and Barbone decided to start Baia, Sardo returned to Italy for three months to learn the art of pasta making, traveling all over his country, a trip that included two weeks in Gragnano, “sort of the center of pasta production in Italy”, before journeying to Tuscany to learn from Giovanni Fabbri, visiting Martelli and Rustichella, and learning with several pasta makers in Alba, including a personal friend of his.

Sardo and Barbone make an effective team, each the other’s analogue, meeting in the middle on most things, but with slightly different approaches. Sardo is a well-versed, vocal orator. He took each of my posed question and ran with them in directions I didn’t expect, usually gracing his responses with beautiful imagery that transported me away from Oakland to different Italian towns. Barbone also speaks in a detail oriented fashion, but in a way that showcases his scientific background: he’s well versed on the nutritional components of pasta, as well as the interactions necessary for the business’s success, both online and in person. I found their accents a delight to listen to, with each managing to make names like the town of Gragnano and the flour Mulino Marino sound more poetic than anything in the English language.

Baia’s mission is three-fold. In the creation of a product that is, firstly, delicious, they want to connect to a bigger picture of grain infrastructure, while providing a nutritionally beneficial staple to any meal.

Because of his scientific background, Barbone approaches each pasta creation and potential grain relationship with a deep understanding of nutritional composition, which is vital because nutrition is a sphere that Baia has found itself thrust into, as the company fields questions about gluten, carbohydrates, and fiber. Though Barbone wants customers to ask questions about nutrition, he doesn’t want them to get bogged down by labels. Instead, he aims to use the pasta’s delicious flavors as a bridge for conversations about health and the environment, much in the same way that eating other foods can easily segue into topics of growing practices and nutritional density.

“I would really love people to know more about the nutritional aspects of grains,” Barbone commented. Yet he’s found that many customers only want to know specific nutrition numbers, a decidedly black-and-white American approach that Barbone shies away from. “The reality is, I don’t want you to see [the numbers]. Because if you just see these numbers, you’re going to make decisions that are wrong. ‘Oh it’s less protein, I shouldn’t get it.’ You should get it! There are fibers. [But] fibers are sugars and so [the customers] see, ‘oh there’s more sugar’”, Barbone said, neatly summarizing how easily pasta can morph in our minds from a delicious, nutritious option into yet another food that’s stressful, not pleasurable.

In the consumers’ defense, most of the pasta on the market is not nutritionally dense (or, as Barbone and Sardo quickly learned, delicious). “Before industrialization, farmers selected their wheat for hardiness and flavor. Crop yield and durability in milling and storage ranked low among priorities because, at that time, all quality wheat milling and flour distribution was local,” writes Anson Mills, a company founded on the idea that grains and rice and legumes can be nutritious, delicious, and tied to a specific region or environment. Pre-industrialization, grains were stone milled, resulting in flour that included all parts of the berry (the bran, germ, and endosperm).

The roller mill, which became the industrial norm, rolls the bran off the kernel, eliminates the germ, and mills the endosperm (the component full of carbohydrates designed to feed the germ) in quick, efficient succession. As stone milling became rarer, wheat growers who grew the thin-branned, more nutritious varieties of wheat found that they’d have no mill to which to bring their harvest. Today, the roller milled flour, the ultimate processed food, only becomes “nutritious” when it‘s fortified with vitamins; it only becomes “whole grain” when the bran and germ are added back in, a process that doesn’t replicate the grains’ original nutrition or flavor.

Traditional pasta is made from semolina flour, which is milled from durum wheat. When grown and milled in the industry-standard fashion, this one-note wheat is kneaded into pasta that lacks any flavor notes besides “bland” and, especially concerning to potential Baia customers, acts as a vehicle for a quick carbohydrate hit or sugar high. As Anson Mills aptly writes, the norm today is “subsidized chemical farming in an irrigated environment to grow short, thick-branned wheat for industrial roller mills that must fortify their products with synthetic vitamins to make them nutritious.”

Baia optimistically faces an uphill journey to educate customers that, just as coffee doesn’t have to taste like Folger’s or like a loaf of bread doesn’t automatically need to result in uncomfortable GI bloat, pasta can truly be a complete meal chock full of nutrition and unique flavors. Baia makes pasta out of spelt, kamut, and durum wheat, creating shapes like sardinians and accordions that taste uniquely different from each other, depending on the shape and the growing location of the grain variety. Have you ever thought about what a pasta tastes like when you separate it from whatever sauce or accompaniment you’ve added? Some Baia pasta tastes nutty, others might have notes of black pepper, and most are very earthy, even mineral-ly – descriptions that are commonly used to describe the Bay Area’s most famous culinary export, wine.

When it comes to the grain economy or the nutritional composition of grains and pasta, Baia knows that it’s not up to their customers to do all of the heavy lifting. Baia wants the flavor and versatility of each pasta to guide that conversation, recognizing that education comes from taste and enjoyment. Beyond ensuring that Baia customers know how to properly boil their pasta and are equipped with ideas for appropriate pairings (and of course, know to not eat their pasta raw, as Sardo amusingly demonstrated with a “crunch”), Baia is focused on connecting with farmers who can grow specific grains with specific characteristics.

Baia currently purchases the majority of their grain from Central Milling, a company out of Utah. Central Milling sources their organic grain from farmers scattered throughout the Western United States: Utah, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Sardo and Barbone trust Central Milling; in fact, everyone in the Bay Area seems to – I saw Central Milling flour bags at basically every bakery I visited. But though they implicitly trust Central Milling’s sourcing and growers’ practices, Baia harbors future plans to bring even more control of grain flavor and nutrition into their pasta creations. Because of Central Milling’s scale, if Sardo and Barbone desire a specific nutritional or flavor component in the grain, they’re unable to communicate that wish with an individual farmer before he or she plants the grain.

But on a more local scale, Baia can have a much more active role in the sourcing of their flour. Small scale grain farmers like the Mendocino Grain Project and others individual farmers are beginning to grow older varieties of wheat, specifically for flavor, a development in direct response to the work of a fellow Bay Area company, Community Grains. Oliveto chef Bob Klein created Community Grains as an answer to the dearth of traceability and standards in the flours that chefs and bakers (professional and home) were using. Klein’s company makes a variety of products, including pasta, that are designed to have total traceability, from specific variety to field location. While the Baia men speak highly of Klein (“he created a movement”), Barbone differentiated the goals of the two companies: “his focus is on grains; ours is on pasta.” Baia’s main goal is to “make sure that what we craft is delicious”.

Four years into business, the company remains small and focused, employing just two other people, Annie Otsuka and Gerardo Navidad. If you walk into the Baia pasta storefront, you will probably interact with either of the founders, perhaps taking a break from spreadsheets or pasta-making. The path from sifted flour to dried pasta takes three days for the Baia men, unlike the nine hours it takes at a company like Garofalo. Baia just purchased a larger pasta machine and another dryer, which will effectively double their potential capacity from 1500 pounds to 3000 pounds of pasta a week.

As their production expands, so does their overall mission and motivations. Barbone and Sardo recently attended the Good Food Awards (Sardo served as a judge), and one particular comment by speaker Mark Bittman has remained with Barbone weeks later. Bittman remarked that “every key word in the food business has been co-opted,” Barbone recalled. “Artisanal, fresh. Small batch. Every time you think of those words – empty.” But, “there’s one word you think about it, that may be empty [too], but the reality is that you [still] think about it: it’s ‘good’. Good is good. You can’t argue with that. Good is good for me, it’s good for the environment, it’s good for everyone,” Barbone shared. So, now “we are focusing on the message of good grains.”

Tonight for dinner, a large percentage of Italians and Americans alike will sit down for a dinner including pasta. Pasta has never been viewed as a frivolity in the way that certain vegetables or drinks sometimes are, but until recently, it has been a food easy to dismiss or ignore, with consumers and chefs using the noodles much as one would incorporate tofu into a dish: as a flavor receptacle, a caloric device, a texture additive.

When you taste Baia pasta, you’re forced to put your fork down and consider the varied flavor notes and mouthfeel. This isn’t pasta to shovel in, but pasta to savor. This need to “notice” is the best way for Sardo and Barbone to continue to inch the sustainable, local, ethical food movement along from “theory to practice”. Pasta should neither be a luxury nor a commodity but instead, a staple that actually tastes good and, to use Barbone’s message, is good for you. The friends, whose Italian heritage and individual backgrounds of Slow Food and science can’t help but steer their interactions and product, have created a pasta company that feels decidedly American, yet wouldn’t be out of place in Italy – transporting the wistful images of Italian food culture into our modern American reality.