I have probably had this conversation with more people than just about any other subject in Italian cooking. The usual comment is, “Isn’t all dried pasta basically the same”? “Are the imported pastas really worth the extra money”?
If the ingredients are basically the same, then what could contribute to a better tasting pasta? I believe there are a few fundamental differences. One, the wheat used should be 100% Durum wheat semolina, not durum flour. This is one the most basic differences. And, how does this effect the final result? If a pasta is made with durum flour, it will tend to be starchy and not really hold up to be al dente when cooked. This durum flour is commonly used in American pastas, and is cheaper. Remember, just because it says it’s the number one pasta in Italy, it doesn’t mean that the basic recipe is the same as in Italy.
The other major difference is the speed with which the pastas are dried. This appears to be a very fundamental difference and from my taste test really does effect the final result. Bottom line, the slower the pasta is dried, the better it will hold up to cooking and the better it tastes. The easiest way to describe it is, it has body and depth of flavor. Your artisan pasta brands from Italy will have been dried very slowly on racks.
Finally, the higher end Italian brands most often use bronze dies to extrude the pasta, and thus the surface texture is a little rougher, which means it holds the sauce better.
So, where does this leave us? I have rated a few of the pastas I have personally tried. Some are expensive, but others are more reasonable. I suggest you try a few and find one that you like. It really does make a difference.
Basic Can’t Go Wrong Pasta
De Cecco – This is probably the easiest to find of the premium pastas and it is good quality and reasonable. It’s the blue box. Available in most grocery stores.
One Step Up Pasta
Martelli – This is the one in the yellow bag and is normally available at Williams Sonoma and some other higher end retailers. A very good choice with wonderful flavor. Great when you just want a pasta with butter and cheese. Available online at www.gustiamo.com
Rustichella D’Abruzzo – This is one of my absolute favorites. Amazing taste and texture. This is the pasta that really changed my mind about how good a higher quality pasta could taste. Available at Amazon.
Faella – Not easy to find, but really top notch. This is pushing into the premium brand category. Available online at www.gustiamo.com
The Best Of The Best
Columbro – One of very best and not easy to find in stores, but easy to find online. It is expensive, but the flavor is like nothing you’ve every tried. This is a special occasion pasta. Available online at www.olioandolive.com
Preparing your pasta
Now that we have reviewed the pastas, let me share a few fundamentals to make sure your pasta turns out perfectly.
1) Use a lot of water. Do not skimp on the water. Pasta needs to be able to move around the pot. You do not need to add olive oil to the water.
2) Salt the water heavily. This will infuse the salt into the pasta and then most will be poured away, so no need to worry about it being too salty.
3) Choose the right pasta for the sauce. Use thin pastas, like spaghetti and linguine for oil based and cream sauces and larger shapes for more robust sauces like marinara.
4) Do not add too much sauce. The sauce is a complement to the pasta, not the other way around. If there is one thing that ruins good pasta, it\’s too much sauce, because it covers up the flavor of the beautiful pasta.
5) Finally, do not overcook. Follow the directions and check it at the lowest time and then check every minute from then on. Example, if it says to cook from 8-12 minutes, then check at 8, 9, 10, etc.
6) Scoop out a little of the pasta cooking water about 4 minutes before the pasta is done, and set it aside. I use a Pyrex measuring cup.
5) Finally, to finish your pasta, drain it and add it back to the cooking pan, add a bit of sauce, a bit of the reserved pasta water, then a bit of cheese and stir until it starts to glisten. Add a bit more cheese on top and serve immediately. Cold pasta is a travesty.