Pasta master

Photographs by Bob Rozycki

In a career that has taken him from olive oil to rice to pasta and both sides of the Atlantic, Marco de Ceglie has sampled many different kinds of cuisine.

“My favorite foods are Italian and Japanese,” he says. “What they have in common is that they’re based on extremely simple recipes that require high quality ingredients. …You have to have the right ingredients and then you can have high quality food. That’s what De Cecco understands.”

And de Ceglie (de SELL yuh) understands De Cecco. Last November, the Italian-based company – the third largest pasta producer in the world – named him CEO of its crucial USA division in Manhattan. It’s easy to see why. Spending an hour or so with him at the company’s sleek American headquarters – situated appropriately enough next to Cipriani Le Specialità, the go-to restaurant for celebrity events – is like having a primer on pasta delivered with all the sunniness of his native land. That de Ceglie is passionate about De Cecco (de CHECK o) pasta there can be no doubt.

Full-proof process

“Pasta,” he says, “is the core of the company,” which also makes olive oil and some sauces. What separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, is the process that the multigenerational company – nestled in Abruzzo’s Fara San Martino near Maiella National Park – has been using since Filippo Giovanni De Cecco founded the business in 1886. The company has had a presence in America for a century, earning distinction at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

The process, de Ceglie says over espresso, begins with the highest-quality durum wheat – “we use only the core of the grain” – which is made into a coarse semolina in De Cecco’s own mill. The semolina is mixed at a constant temperature of 59 degrees Fahrenheit with water from the mountain spring that runs through the national park. The resulting dough is drawn through bronze (as opposed to plastic) dies to form the 180 different pasta shapes (with spaghetti, penne and rigatoni being the most popular).

The pasta is then dried slowly – anywhere from 18 to 40 hours – at a low temperature. This was Filippo Giovanni De Cecco’s great innovation.

“That was the breakthrough at the end of the 19th century,” de Ceglie says. “Before that they would sun-dry the pasta, but you can’t base your production on sun-drying. So Mr. De Cecco invented this drying process – slow-drying, low temperature….It makes a big difference in terms of quality and taste.”

Indeed, he adds, the result is a pasta that doesn’t get hard around the edges and mushy at the center when you cook it and whose slight coarseness allows the sauce to cling to it. Sauce should dress rather than overwhelm pasta, which in Italy is served as a small accent or appetizer, rather than as a big main meal as it is in the U.S.

The other result is a different kind of dough – about $500 million in annual sales. The food sellers and restaurants get De Cecco.

“The goal is to grow the business with the consumer.”

An unusual Italian

“I’m a typical Italian in certain areas and not so typical in others,” de Ceglie says. Not so typical: He doesn’t follow soccer. Typical: He loves sports cars and once owned a Bentley coupe, a Porsche and a limited edition Ford Mustang GT manufactured to mark the 40th anniversary of the movie “Bullitt” (1968), in which Steve McQueen drives said car, most memorably in the chase sequence.

Also typical: He grew up in Rome in a family that was “keen on good food and educated me to eat what was on my plate.”

After graduating from the University of Rome – “a very big public university” – de Ceglie went to work for Unilever in Milan for 29 years. Initially, he was in the home and personal care division of the business. But that all changed in 1994 when the company bought Bertoli olive oil.

De Ceglie figures he has bought a million tons of olive oil in his professional life. He can tell you which country produces the best (Spain, with Italy and Greece as co-number twos); which are the up-and-comers (Australia, Chile, Argentina and South Africa); where you should plant the somewhat flexible olive tree (near wherever the more finicky grape vine grows); and when to use pure and when to use extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin is rich in antioxidants and vitamins so save that for your dressings. Cooking burns off the antioxidants and vitamins so go with the pure olive oil for that. Clearly, de Ceglie is a man for De Cecco’s 100-percent Italian olive oil and its more delicate blend.

When Unilever sold Bertoli (and, in a manner of speaking, de Ceglie) to American Rice Inc. in Houston in 2009, he encountered his first sustained exposure to America. For de Ceglie, who describes himself as “extremely flexible,” it was no problem. But for his wife, son and daughter, American car culture and sprawl proved to be something of a shock.

“My wife kept saying, ‘But where is the city center where I can window-shop?’” he recalls.

Walkable New York is closer to their European experience. Today, de Ceglie lives with his wife and daughter in lower Manhattan. The couple’s son is an aspiring filmmaker in Los Angeles. There was a time, he says – before he got married but after he was out on his own – when he learned to cook for himself. Since he married, de Ceglie has fewer opportunities, though he and his staff of 22 will put together meals in the kitchen off the spacious conference room as a way of bonding and learning about De Cecco’s products.

Still there are nights when his daughter will ask if Dad can whip up his signature spaghetti carbonara.

And de Ceglie – who knows pasta, olive oil, sauces and more important, the best ingredients – happily obliges.

Spaghetti carbonara a la Marco de Ceglie

  • 1 whole egg
  • 3 yolks
  • ¼ pound pancetta
  • ¾ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1 cup Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1 package De Cecco spaghetti

1. Grate and mix the cheeses.

2. In a bowl, combine the three yolks, whole egg and cheeses until the mixture has a pasty consistency. Set aside.

3. Cube the pancetta and place it in a frying pan, allowing the pieces to cook in their own fat until they become crispy. Drain the pancetta and set aside.

4. Boil the spaghetti until it’s al dente, drain it and return it to the pot. Pour in the egg mixture and pancetta, tossing the pasta until the strands are coated and the pancetta distributed. Serve with grated cheese and pepper to taste.

 

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