Dies Live On

A tarnished plaque at 557 Third Avenue announces an American landmark: D. Maldari & Sons, Inc., Extrusion Dies. But few casual observers are familiar enough with the nuts and bolts of the pasta industry to know what an extrusion die is, and fewer still are aware of the role this 105-year-old family business plays in literally shaping the American diet.

You may have never heard of Maldari, the country’s first—and now only—maker of pasta dies, but chances are you know their work.

Campbell’s Alphabet Soup. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Chef Boyardee. SpaghettiOs. Honeycomb cereal. Apple Jacks. Froot loops. Fritos. For better or worse, these iconic foods are the stuff of the juvenile American diet, and their dies are cast here. Upon brief reflection, Chris Maldari, the almost-7-foot-tall vice president and grandson of the company’s patriarch, Donato, agrees the location is all but incognito. “The sign says nothing about what we really do.”

What they do is make extrusion dies to form pastas, snacks, cereals and even pet food. Here’s how it works: they painstakingly craft a hole in a metal column through which dough will one day be pushed (“extruded”), and, depending on the shape of the die’s tiny opening, the dough will emerge in the shape of a tube, a strand, a wagon wheel or just about any form you can dream up.

Chris Maldari has stopped counting the number of shapes they’ve manufactured dies for: “There are just so many,” he sighs. In a wood-paneled display room above the production plant sit hundreds of small glass jars, each containing a different example of their handiwork—radiatore, gemelli, bunny rabbits, garlic bulbs, chickens, baseball bats and mitts and, hidden out of sight, a bag of pasta phalluses.

Others, still in their original cans and boxes, read like a pop cultural history of the last few decades: there’s Garfield SpaghettiOs, Ninja Turtle macaroni, Smurf Beef Ravioli, Lipton Batman-versus-the-Penguin Chicken Noodle Soup. Still, their most popular shape is penne.

The shapes seem whimsical, but they’re feats of engineering, carefully conceived to consider dough’s moisture content, stretching during extrusion, shrinkage during the drying process, and more. The ground floor of the 15,000-square-foot factory is occupied by what looks like a high school metal shop, but with way cooler equipment, all in the service of making your ziti, fusili or farfalle. Upon completion, the cylindrical dies are shipped, each embedded in a wheel-shaped support, to pasta factories—Maldari provides them to 85 percent of New World pasta makers, including Ronzoni, Prince, San Giorgio and Barilla. There, they may process 3,000 or 4,000 pounds of pasta dough an hour. (No pasta is made at Maldari, apart from the test run they do with a tiny hand crank to assess the efficacy of each die.)

Originally located in Little Italy (they relocated to Brooklyn in 1957 to get more space for less money), the company spent 1903 to 1905 as a man-powered operation, making dies using hand tools. But the demands of the industrial age soon brought about changes, including new metals (they upgraded from malleable copper to a sturdier Teflon-brass blend) and modern commerce solutions (the operation gave up hand-forged for computer numerically controlled), and a die that took several days to drill is now done in six hours.

But the pasta climate has changed in other ways, too. In the ’70s and ’80s, the factory had as many as 48 employees; today, there is a staff of 12. Although it’s tempting to blame technology, Chris Maldari deems big business the culprit.

“Family-owned companies have been bought up by a few players who have super factories and use tremendous equipment,” says Maldari, who laments that he has far fewer personal relationships with the businesses he services.

In more rarified circles, the controversy is not over trade, but die materials. The majority of Maldari’s dies are a combination of brass and Teflon, which put out a smoother, lighter-colored pasta. They also fashion a die made from brass alone, which makes for a darker pasta with a rougher surface. Anthony Ajello runs Bensonhurst’s Pastosa, which makes fresh pasta using Maldari’s brass dies; he chooses brass because it “makes a rougher pasta, and holds the sauce a hell of a lot better. When you boil it, it holds al dente for a long time.” His cousin Lou DiPaolo, who owns the eponymous specialty shop on Manhattan’s Grand Street and imports dried pastas from Italy, is also partial to “dies that have rough edges, so the pasta grabs onto the sauce a little more. For me, bronze is the best. It gives better texture, tastes better and breaks less.”

D. Maldari & Sons, however, are focused on other challenges, like the dramatically rising cost of metal, currently Chris’s biggest obstacle. But he still loves the job, mostly for this reason: “Being in a business that is tied to my heritage.” And it’s tied to all of ours, too.

The shape of things to come: Over 85 percent of New World pasta makers use dies made in Gowanus.

Bits and pieces: Each plate can process up to 4,000 pounds an hour.