By Maria Zizka
Almost a year ago this week, Renato Sardo and Dario Barbone, compatriots from northwestern Italy, set up shop in Oakland’s burgeoning Jack London Square to make pasta. Not just any old pasta. Each of the twelve shapes produced by Baia Pasta — from the charming conchiglioni (“spinners”) to the traditional maccheroni — are made from organic American flours.
“The idea for the business started when I learned that many high quality dried pastas in Italy are made from American wheat,”said Renato Sardo as he stood in the Baia Pasta retail space that doubles as the production facility.
Hard durum wheat (as opposed to soft wheat, which has a lower protein content and is used for pie crusts and cakes) contributes that desirable toothiness in dried pasta cooked to al dente. Ground hard durum, also called semolina, remains their best seller. But Sardo and Barbone also experiment with other flours, such as spelt and kamut, grown organically in the areas surrounding the Rocky Mountain Range. They even make a rice-based noodle that appeals to the gluten-free crowd.
“We started as pirates in the garage,” Sardo said with a smile in reference to Baia Pasta’s humble beginnings. (“Baia“ is Italian for bay and the company specializes in short to medium length noodles.) Today, he and Barbone use a stove-sized extrusion machine to force kneaded dough through a brass die, which scratches the noodle’s surface and creates crevices for attracting sauce. Sardo learned pretty quickly that “EBMUD water is pretty great for making pasta.”
Next, noodles dry slowly in wide wooden racks. “Some days we need extra fans.” Sardo motioned towards a grouping of tabletop disk fans and added, “but it all depends on the Oakland weather.”
By respecting an unrushed, low-temperature drying process, Sardo and Barbone preserve the grain’s flavors and proteins. The result is an intensely aromatic and chewy noodle rich in nutrients and minerals. While industrially produced pastas can be flavorless, Baia noodles always remind the eater of their main ingredient, whether it is semolina, spelt, or kamut.
The steam rising from cooked semolina paccheri (“pac-macs”) — tubular noodles shaped like squid ringlets — carries a pronounced wheaty scent, like the gush of warm air that hits you when you open the door to a bakery.
The duo chose to be innovative with the pasta packaging, too. “We wanted something other than Italian maidens clutching bunches of wheat,” Sardo quipped. Berkeley-based design studio ZipFly rose to the challenge and created recycled material cartons stamped with colored geometric patterns. Each color indicates a different grain: yellow for durum wheat, blue for gluten-free, red for whole spelt, etc.
Baia Pasta sells directly to restaurants, retailers, and consumers. The monthly CSA, a trailblazing pasta club, offers a steady supply for dedicated carbivores. Members receive five pounds of pasta (three pounds durum wheat plus two pounds specialty grains) per month at discounted prices with pick-ups available in San Francisco and Oakland. Sardo likes to try out new shapes and flavors on CSA members before selling to the general public because he receives immediate feedback. On a recent week, for instance, he packed garlic-habanero noodles into CSA portions. At $6 to $8 per pound, Baia Pasta is priced on par with Italian imports.
Requests are coming in from South Korea, Japan, and Whole Foods, so Baia Pasta plans to expand into the space next door to increase production. With the extra room, they will add a bulk pasta section. The best day to visit the store is Sunday, when Sardo sells his popular maccheroni and cheese (made with Baia Pasta, of course).
For now, he and Barbone extrude all the noodles on their own with big plans to hire one extra set of hands. “Each batch is a little different and we’re okay with inconsistencies in color as long as the quality is excellent,” said Sardo.
Baia Pasta is available for purchase from vendors across the Bay Area, including The Pasta Shop, Summer Kitchen Bakeshop, and The Local Butcher Shop. To see a complete list of retailers or to sign up for the pasta CSA, visit Baia Pasta online, or stop by the shop located at 431 Water Street, Oakland, CA 94607; Wed & Fri 11:00am – 6:00pm, Sun 9:30am – 4:00pm; 510.336.6044.
Maria Zizka is a Berkeley-born food writer and cook. She writes recipes and stories from a cottage near Santa Monica beach. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @MariaZizka
Kaia Diringer is currently Berkeleyside’s photo intern. See more of her work on Flickr.