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You’re Avoiding Pasta. What Are You, an Idiot?

Or at least that’s what this renowned heart doctor says.

If there’s one thing that Giovanni Campanile, M.D., knows, it’s how to take care of your heart by putting the right stuff in your stomach. He’s a Harvard-trained cardiologist—he serves as director of the Dean Ornish Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation Program and the Integrative Nutrition and Integrative Cardiology at the Chambers Center for Well Being in Morristown, New Jersey—whose entire practice is built on a foundation of preventing and even reversing cardiac diseases through proper nutrition.

But in 2013, along with his wife, Sandra Cammarata, M.D.—a psychiatrist and talented chef who hails from a culinary family in eastern Sicily—he added a curious item to a résumé that includes groundbreaking heart research: restaurateur. Together they opened Pazzi Pasta, a down-home Italian restaurant in Brooklyn that dishes up hearty and steaming bowls of pasta, fresh sauces, and other Italian specialties.

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We know what you’re thinking: Pasta? At a time when Americans seem hell-bent on eradicating every scrap of carbs from their diets, Campanile believes old-school grains are actually the cure for what ails the modern diet. That’s because, he says, Pazzi Pasta doesn’t use the usual flour-based stuff. He only uses ancient grains, which he says you’ll digest slower and won’t obliterate your diet—and are even easy on gluten-intolerant stomachs.

We tracked down the heart specialist and pasta impresario to discuss why eating seasonal is healthier, the finer points of sourcing cuttlefish ink, and why your favorite cheat meal should become your new diet staple.

MF: Why make ancient grains a big focus of your pasta menu?

GC: The idea of adding nutrition-dense foods is at the cornerstone of our philosophy—and that goes into the restaurant, because the ancient grains are extremely healthy. Farro is an ancient grain from Italy with more nutrients than modern wheat. Einkorn, believed to be the oldest grain grown by humans, is very nutritious. Even our semolina is authentic Italian-style semolina, not the modern “common wheat.” These ancient grains are high in protein, high in fiber, and rich in minerals.

Some people have said that any carbohydrate is bad for you, but that’s simply not true, and it’s an unhealthy notion. Plants are in tune with our genetic makeup, and that’s why they’re so healthy for us.

Here in the United States, people tend to go through diet fads. Not too long ago, it was, “Oh, you can’t eat carbs.” Well, potato chips and whole grains are both carbs—but whole grains are essential for good health. 

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How has your medical experience informed Pazzi Pasta’s menu?

My philosophy is that taste is the most important rule for nutrition. I think the concept that we find useful with my patients is that diet is not about restriction, or about denying oneself a certain kind of food. The quality of the food you put in is probably more important than what you take out.

At the Dean Ornish Program, we work with people with heart disease to reverse their disease through lifestyle changes. I believe a plant-based diet is essential for health. There’s been a lot of focus recently on so-called “Blue Zones,” where people live extraordinarily long lives. Some of the longest-lived people in the world hail from the mountains of Sardinia, and 70 percent of their diet consists of whole grains.

We make everything from scratch, and we use a lot of ancient grains, because we feel that’s the best thing to do for the health benefits and the taste.

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You describe your restaurant as a “family-centric, fast-casual dining experience.” What do you mean by that?

We have the pasta on display alongside the sauces and toppings. It’s sort of like an ice cream shop—our customers come in and taste the pasta and the sauces, and they combine a type of pasta with a type of sauce and the toppings of their choice. At the same time, we take pride in making things from scratch, by hand, with family recipes—the old fashioned way.

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The black pasta made with nero de seppia is probably a little unfamiliar to some Americans. Where does that particular culinary tradition come from?

In Sicily, it’s a longstanding tradition to dissect the ink sac of squid or cuttlefish and make the pasta sauce with the black ink. We put the cuttlefish ink into fresh pasta, so it comes out black. It turns out to be extremely nutritious—it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, and one Japanese study showed that it could help prevent cancer. We source a cuttlefish ink concentrate through another high-quality restaurant. It’s actually very expensive.

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Why the focus on local and seasonal ingredients?

From a nutrition standpoint, there’s good evidence that eating seasonally is good for you, because your body is seasonal, and you can digest seasonal. That’s why we make chestnut ravioli in the fall, squash ravioli in the late fall, potato gnocchi in the winter, with the good potatoes available then.

My son Dan works to source a lot of the ingredients as locally as possible. Some foods, of course, come from far and wide. Our kamut comes from an organic food service in Montana. Our farro comes from Italy. We use San Marzano tomatoes from Italy—we’ve tested lots of different tomatoes, and we find that San Marzanos work the best for us.

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Do you branch out beyond pasta to meats or fish?

We sometimes have a fish topping, or shrimp. We do that more in the summer months, when fish is freshest. We do that occasionally, but we don’t have that all the time.

Where in Italy does your family trace your heritage?

My father is from Mondragone, a little town between Naples and Rome. He’s in the Italian buffalo mozzarella business. My wife Sandra is from Catania, in eastern Sicily. Her family has been making pasta for years. Sandra’s mother, a gourmet chef in Italy, first developed a lot of the recipes we use every day as we make the pasta and sauces from scratch.

Sicily has a fascinating culinary history. It’s been invaded by everybody—the Arabs, the Scandinavians—and so the food there is unique, because it’s been influenced by so many cultures.

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What’s surprised you about your restaurant so far?

One thing that has surprised me is that gluten-intolerant people can eat ancient grains. We do make gluten-free pasta that’s very good. But when they eat pasta made of farro or kamut, they really enjoy it without having to worry about their gluten intolerance.

The other thing that surprised us is the way children are attracted to our restaurant. Parents say, “Our kids force us to come here. They love this place.” That’s one of our missions. Our goal—especially for my son—is to create these restaurants around a farm where we can be serving high quality, locally grown food.

A lot of these kids growing up in the inner city—especially in these food deserts—don’t really grow up with any learned taste for high-quality food, or food made with natural ingredients. My son educates kids how to appreciate food, make food, and take it back to their homes and neighborhoods. They should understand the simplicity of good food.

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What’s your goal for the restaurant?

Our goal is for it to grow. We want to be known as the ancient grain pasta makers of New York. Our main thing is fresh pasta—we don’t pasteurize anything. We also sell pasta for people to take home and make at home. We tell them to refrigerate it for 3-5 days—but no longer than that, because it’s not pasteurized. Anything we have is freshly made and freshly consumed.

Most people have never tried called ancient grains like faro, kamut, or einkorn until they visit the restaurant. It’s interesting, because a lot of my patients feel they may have gluten intolerances, but they find they can enjoy pastas made with ancient grains like these.

Everything we make is homemade—including the bread and the desserts. People sometimes come just for the desserts!

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