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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009

Appreciating Pasta

Madison Company Keeps It Fresh

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Working as a stage carpenter with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Peter Robertson took an annual sojourn to Reggio Emilia, a picturesque city in northern Italy. He developed a deep appreciation for the region’s specialties, like pancetta, balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese and, most importantly, the fresh egg pasta.

When his desire for a different lifestyle inspired him to move from New York to Madison, Robertson got exactly what he hoped for. It happened in 1994, the year he gave fresh homemade pasta to his friends and family for Christmas. One of the recipients happened to be a hostess at one of Madison’s premier Italian restaurants. Before Robertson could say “al dente,” he had his first order for 80 pounds of fresh pasta.

Robertson traded his tiny Atlas tabletop pasta maker for its industrial counterpart and a business was born: RP’s Pasta Company. While Milwaukee had Bella Luna, Madison was without a local source for fresh pasta. RP’s found itself in a big market with virtually no competitors. “Since I was here in Madison, all the local restaurants took me on,” Robertson explains. “As a result, I grew very, very rapidly over the years.”

According to the National Pasta Association, most American pasta is made with semolina, a flour produced by grinding kernels of durum wheat. The semolina is mixed with water until it forms dough. At this point other ingredients are added, like eggs to make egg noodles, or spinach or tomato to make red or green colored pasta. The dough is kneaded until it reaches the correct consistency then pushed through a die, a metal disc with holes. The shape of the pasta is determined by the size and shape of the holes in the die. When the extruded pasta reaches the right length, it’s cut with a sharp blade. This is where fresh pasta and dry pasta go their separate ways. The pasta destined to be “dry” is sent through large dryers that circulate hot, moist air. Basically, this pasta is already cooked. When the consumer boils it in water, it simply cannot match the flavor or texture that fresh pasta offers.

If the pasta forgoes the drying process and is packaged without preservation methods like pasteurization, it can be labeled “fresh.” Be forewarned: Many pasta companies squeak by on a technicality. They will mass-produce pasta, pasteurize it, freeze it for shipping and display it in the refrigerator case. They can’t legally label it fresh, so instead, they tag it “freshness dated.”

In the 14 years RP’s Pasta Company has been in business, its process for making fresh pasta remains the same. RP’s uses 100% semolina flour, whole eggs and filtered water for the fresh pasta, which is available in a staggering selection of shapes and flavors. To accentuate the filling, the pasta company uses unbleached white flour for the filled pasta. Robertson believes only the hand can determine when pasta has been kneaded long enough, so RP’s uses a labor-intensive hand-rolled process to ensure a fine texture and delicate consistency for its pastas.

For do-it-yourselfers, RP’s Pasta Company offers a product line called Ecco La Pasta, a collection of gnocchi and pasta flour, as well as pizza crust mix, found at Williams Sonoma, Le Gourmet Chef and elsewhere. RP’s Pasta Company recently launched ready-to-heat gourmet meals made from locally grown and produced Wisconsin ingredients. The first three dishes in RP’s line include macaroni and cheese made with three-year cheddar from Hook’s Cheese Company in Mineral Point, four-cheese tortellini with basil and tomato sauce paired with local buttered carrots and four-cheese ravioli with roasted garlic alfredo paired with carrots. The gourmet dinners can be found in the frozen section and retail for less than $8. RP’s Pasta Company products are sold at Sendik’s, Pick-N-Save, Metro Market and select Piggly Wiggly locations.


For more information, check out www.rpspasta.com.