Baia Pasta Gives Italian Craft a Bay Area Spin
Kate Malin, CUESA Volunteer
May 15, 2015
“Our goal is to make the best-tasting pasta in the U.S.,” says Renato Sardo, co-founder of Oakland-based Baia Pasta, the latest addition to the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market lineup.
“As an Italian, it all comes down to taste,” adds his business partner, Dario Barbone. That’s why, upon finding most dry pasta in the United States to be a poor imitation of the delicious pasta they remember from their childhood, Dario and Renato (pictured above, respectively) founded Baia and set about bringing the spirit of Italian pasta to Americans’ palates.
Italian Roots, American Pasta
Both Renato and Dario hail from the northern Italian region of Piemonte, where eating quality, seasonal food is a way of life. As Dario puts it, “We never had a tomato in winter.” This shared background guides their small but highly productive pasta-making operation.
A lab director in molecular medicine at UCSF with a focus on cancer research, Dario brings a scientific mindset to pasta making, while Renato’s longtime involvement in the sustainable food movement as director of Slow Food International helps inform their farm-to-fork approach.
Dario and Renato named the company Baia, which means “bay” in Italian, as a nod to their business’s home on Oakland’s waterfront in Jack London Square. In a combined retail and production space that they are quickly outgrowing, they make around 300 pounds of pasta per day, using traditional Italian techniques to transform high-quality American grains into a variety of short cuts of pasta.
Much of the cheap pasta found on American grocery store shelves is made from refined wheat flours that have been stripped of much of their flavor and nutrients, while most quality pasta is imported from Italy. Baia is taking pasta back to its roots, with U.S. ingredients and production. All of their grain is certified organic, with most of it sourced from Central Milling in Utah and Montana Flour & Grains, areas that Renato affectionately refers to as “wheat paradise.” The team is looking for ways to source more grains from California and possibly even mill their own flour in the future.
Perfecting the Art of Pasta
According to Dario, each of Baia’s pasta shapes is crafted “with art and very simple techniques,” from one of five different flours, each with its own distinct flavor and personality: durum wheat (“smooth and buttery”), whole durum wheat (“bitter and sweet”), spelt (“nutty and earthy”), whole spelt (“wholesome and grassy”), and Kamut brand Khorasan wheat (an ancient grain that is “toasty with hints of honey”).
Dario and Renato are intimately involved in every step of the pasta-making process, from the creation of each batch of dough to the maintenance of the temperamental Italian machine that extrudes each pasta shape. The dough is kept cool when mixed then passed through brass dies, which help create a rough surface that is perfect for holding sauce, and it is dried slowly at low temperatures to preserve protein and gluten content and flavor. Maintaining control at each stage is the key to a consistent, delicious product.
“Like Tartine chose bread, we chose pasta,” says Dario of the duo’s total immersion in their craft. A pursuit of quality and attention to detail permeates every aspect of the business, from the pasta itself to the sleek packaging, which was designed and printed locally.
So when their customers started asking for gluten-free options, Renato and Dario jumped at the opportunity to apply the same exacting standards that they use in traditional production to the creation of a new gluten-free pasta. For Baia, gluten-free is “not a compromise. It’s actually perfectly in line with our values,” says Dario.
Renato and Dario set about finding an alternative flour that not only tastes good but is also nutritious. Eventually, they landed on California-grown white lupin bean flour from sustainable heirloom bean farmer Kenneth Morris. Next, with the help of a Los Angeles-based certified gluten-free pasta maker who uses techniques similar to their own, they perfected a pasta with an al dente texture and delicious flavor that they are proud to add to the existing product line.
Baia’s gluten-free pasta is currently in development and, with the help of their successful crowdfunding campaign, it should be on shelves and at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market soon.
In Pasta We Trust
Renato and Dario’s goals extend beyond simply developing the finest pasta: “We have a mission to make pasta, but our vision is wider,” Dario explains. They seek to educate consumers about the origins of their food and to remind them that, “Behind pasta, there is a farmer.”
The two see the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market as the perfect venue to connect directly with both locals and tourists and raise awareness about the extensive food chain that brings pasta from grain to table. They see education as key to changing current American perceptions of pasta as a cheap and not particularly nutritious food. In this context, a conversation about pasta can be the start of a discussion about health, culture, and the food system at large.
Through lovingly crafted cuts of fusilloni, maccheroni, and orecchiette, Baia wants to show Americans that pasta that can be flavorful, full of nutrients, and connected to a greater food system that we are all a part of. Dario fervently explains that they wish to “restore trust in pasta again” and reconnect people with the simple arts of preparing and enjoying pasta once more. It is no small task, but Baia is up for the challenge.
Find Baia Pasta at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays. If you are interested in specific cuts, you can also order online and pick up at the farmers market.
Photo of Dario Barbone and Renato Sardo by Kate Malin.