"This is something you'd only have seen in Puglia," chef John Coletta of Quartino, the two-story Italian restaurant in River North, says. "Even in Lazio, you wouldn't see it."
The "it" here is dough for pasta or pizza made with grano arso, literally burnt or scorched grain. After the dried stalks in harvested wheat fields in Puglia were burned, people—very poor people, obviously—would go through them and glean any remaining burnt kernels. The ground ash could be used to stretch store-bought flour at no additional cost, though it also, unsurprisingly, added a bitter burnt flavor. The resulting pasta was called pasta nero, or black pasta.
"Typically they made orecchiette with broccoli rabe, and that was the dish," Coletta says. But with industrialization the practice died out and "the line of heritage was broken. No one wanted to do that kind of work any more."
Fast forward through most of the 20th century and up to the Slow Food movement. "Younger chefs want to cook with their grandmother. Everybody around the world's got the same idea, we all yearn for what we believe to be comforting, and that was a comforting dish," Coletta says. As chefs began to rediscover the idea of pasta nero, a company called Pivetti in Bologna started producing a modern version of scorched flour, roasting hard wheat the way coffee is roasted rather than picking it up from burnt fields. Now Pivetti has sent its ambassador, a celebrated pizza chef named Antonino Esposito, to Quartino to help introduce grano arso to American diners—and to teach Quartino's staff how to use it.
"In my opinion, its place is pasta. It started that way; why not keep it that way?" Coletta says. "People used to flavor pasta doughs, whether it was lemon or pepper or whatever the flavoring is. If you utilize this dough properly, using it for a pasta preparation, it's probably going to be a pretty incredible experience."
Coletta invites me into the kitchen where his staff is rolling out pasta made with the grano arso. It's slightly grayer than standard semolina, and you can just see little flecks of black that look like ground pepper. One of his cooks rolls out a long strip of pasta, and then Coletta cuts it into triangles by hand to form a pasta called stracci, which he says means rags.
He carries it into the kitchen and starts making a dish of broccoli rabe, tomatoes, and sauteed onion and garlic. He opens a drawer entirely filled with grated parmesan, and sprinkles a plate with it. Once the broccoli rabe is cooked, he tosses the pasta in with it, teasing a few of the stracci apart by hand with his spatula, and then lets it fall naturally on the plate—it's obvious that this is never going to be a fussy dish.
Burnt flour may have been a matter of life and death for Puglians living off it, but as is so often the case in Italian food, it has become a carefully considered aesthetic choice by the time you or I eat it. The slight bitterness in the pasta is hardly detectable in a dish filled with bitter and acidic elements, but it is perfectly balanced with them, and seems to be standing up to a dish in which ordinary pasta would be outmatched. Pasta with a little zing of its own seems exactly right for these ingredients now.
But Pivetti has sent a pizza chef here. I meet Antonino Esposito a few minutes later, and though his English is marginal, we communicate through a companion interpreting for him, or simply by pointing and nodding. (It's easier for him with Coletta's staff—he speaks Italian and they answer in Spanish.) He shows me the rounds on their way to becoming pizza crusts, which look grayer than Coletta's pasta dough, like they were made with buckwheat flour.
Esposito can start two crusts at once which is impressive, though he focuses on tossing and stretching one at a time. He explains that pizzas from Puglia are usually made with seafood, and the day before, he and Coletta had made a thick, briny tomato sauce with olives and anchovies. He makes a pizza, smears the sauce around it—and then I know it's the first one he's made because he picks up one of Quartino's pizza peels, sized to their standard pizzas, and it's too small for the pizza he's just made.
He folds up the crust and throws it away, then makes a smaller one. As it's about to go in the oven, the cook he's showing his technique to asks, "No mozzarella?"
"No mozzarella," Esposito says firmly. He slides it into the oven and watches it intently. After two minutes, he starts trying to ask the cook, in Italian and hand gestures, how to get the temperature up as high as it will go.
A couple of minutes later he poses for me with this first finished pizza, but I'd bet it joined the too-large dough in the trash can. Fifteen minutes later, when a pizza is delivered to where I'm sitting, it looks noticeably darker and crispier. And probably makes Esposito much happier.
Tasting it, I can see now why Coletta prefers grano arso in pasta—where it's a subtle accent in the pasta, here it's a front and center bitter taste. The entire pizza will be a challenge for people who think of pizza mainly as comfort food. The tart crust, the acidic blast of the tomato sauce, and the notes of briny anchovy funk are as in your face as they could be. (And of course there's the absence of cheese.) But it also tastes bracingly like authenticity, a glimpse directly into an obscure regional culture I had known next to nothing about when I walked in the door.
Stracci con cime de rape, stracci with broccoli rabe using the grano arso, will go on the menu on February 1; the pizzas will follow at some point, but no date has been set yet.