This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
An untrained eye might mistake it for simple whole wheat pasta. But if you're from Calabria in southern Italy, you'll recognise it instantly. Stroncatura – the dark, sleek linguini with a telltale rough surface and a myth-shrouded history – has become the gastronomic symbol of the area and the hero ingredient at local Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Qafiz. Pretty impressive for a dish once banned for human consumption because of its less-than-hygienic origins.
Calabrians eat a lot of pasta. Another regional specialty, Fileja pasta, is hand-twisted using wire and can be found all over Calabria, but Stroncatura is only available in Reggio Calabria and its immediate surroundings. My sources told me the best place to eat the pasta was in Gioia Tauro, 30 kilometres outside of Reggio, towards the Mediterranean Sea. This fertile part of the country, dotted with century-old citrus and olive trees, is unfortunately better known for its historic connections to the 'Ndrangheta mafia than for its culinary magic.
Like the 'Ndrangheta, Stroncatura has an illicit history. The pasta dough was traditionally made using leftovers from grain milling, literally swept up from the factory floor at the end of the day and mixed together in an unhygienic hodge-podge intended as animal feed. The final product contained anything from whole wheat to rye to semolina, and had a sour taste.
But since it was so immensely cheap, poor Italians in the region didn't mind; they would mask the acidic taste with spicy sauces and the strong flavours of sardines and anchovies, and gobble it up. Banned for sale by the authorities for fairly obvious health and safety reasons, Stroncatura became a black market product sold under the table and without a label.
Of course, the pasta has now been regulated, and any unhygienic production techniques are a thing of the past. To try this modern version, I met Stefania and Giovanna Torre, the owners of a local pasta factory in Gioia Tauro.
"Stroncatura arrived in Gioia in 1919 – it was our grandfather Ferdinando who brought it from Atrani, a village on the Amalfi coast, after he moved here for work," they said. The reality is that Stroncatura's newfound cult status has spurred a paternity battle between small towns who fight over the claim to its fame, and its origins are hard to pin down concretely.
The Torre sisters are the third generation running the family business, and remember the time before Stroncatura went legit. "When we were little, you could only sell it under the counter to people you knew," they said.
The shop's shelves display a selection of local products – preserves, liqueurs, sweets and extracts. Their Stroncatura, however, is not actually produced in their Gioia factory, but in a village in the Campania region where they say it originated from. "It’s made by local pasta masters who work only for us, using the traditional method," the sisters said.
Not all aspects of the traditional method have survived – the ingredients are durum wheat, semolina and water, minus the dirt. "We use the parts of the wheat grain that have less sugar and more fibres," the Torre sisters explained. That's what gives the dough its signature dark colour. The pasta is shaped using a traditional bronze mould called a "die", giving the pasta a rugged surface that clings onto sauce better. It's then left to dry out for a long time.
Avoiding some of the fancier options, I joined the sisters at a nearby restaurant, Trattoria Donna Nela, famous for its classic rendition of the local masterpiece. The restaurant owner still makes it like his mamma: "the old fashioned way", he says. To make the sauce, anchovies are fried in olive oil with chilli and a touch of tomato puree until they melt, then olives and bread crumbs are added, with a handful of parmesan on top. There are other variations, using ‘nduja (spicy spreadable pork sausage), dried codfish or almonds and walnuts.
On my first bite I was hit with a symphony of flavour. Stroncatura holds its shape perfectly when cooked; its porous surface retains the savoury and delicate sauce beautifully . The anchovy comes through, and the chilli prickles the palate, leaving space for the olives to shine. Finally, the fried bread crumbs give the dish crunch and dimension. I had seconds. This pasta is a star, and I’m glad it's getting the attention it deserves.