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Pasta Perfect

There's nothing dry about this art

Sam Gugino
Posted: October 25, 2000

Pasta Perfect

There's nothing dry about this art

By Sam Gugino

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The Italian food craze has duped many Americans into thinking that freshly made pasta is the height of cuisine from the Boot. But day in and day out, Italians enjoy excellent dried pasta.

"Fresh pasta is not better, it's different. Italians typically make fresh pasta only for special occasions," says Fred Plotkin, author of the forthcoming La Terra Fortunata: The Splendid Food and Wine of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. And besides, says Plotkin, good fresh pasta is highly perishable and is almost impossible to buy commercially. Refrigeration ruins it, even if it's vacuum-packed.

Artisanal pasta is made more carefully and at a much more leisurely pace than is mass-produced pasta. Dough is slowly extruded through bronze dies, creating a rough surface on the pasta that makes it look like it's been sanded. This helps it to absorb sauce better. Industrially made pasta passes through Teflon-coated dies that can work at higher heat and speed, creating smoother, less-porous pasta that absorbs less sauce and lacks the chewiness and grainy character attributed to the artisanal kind. "Artisanal pasta feels better in the mouth," Ferrari says. "It's like unfiltered olive oil. There's more complexity."

I tasted a number of artisanal and a few industrially made pastas, all dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper. My favorite of the artisanal pastas was Benedetto Cavalieri for its excellent grain flavor and delightful chewiness. Not far behind were Latini and Pasta di Gragnano, from Campania. Both were firm, with a nutty taste. Ditto for Rustichella d'Abruzzo, Senatore Cappelli and Castellana from Apulia, all of which deserved to be in the elite group (though I didn't find the Senatore Cappelli "varietal" to be distinctive in any way). Antichi Sapori (also from Apulia), which rated just below this group, had a decent wheaty flavor and good bite.

Cook pasta in plenty of water, a minimum of 4 quarts per pound (Plotkin recommends six). You don't need any oil -- periodic, gentle stirring with a claw-shaped pasta fork will prevent sticking. Although Plotkin puts just a pinch of salt in the cooking water (he says there's plenty in the sauce), most chefs like the water much saltier. I'm with them -- I think a pound requires at least a tablespoon of salt.

Start tasting two minutes before the package directions say the pasta will be done, and take it out sooner if you want it firmer. Drain the pasta a minute before it is completely cooked -- no rinsing! -- and add it to a sauté pan with the sauce. Cook the pasta in the sauce no more than a minute, and serve it immediately in bowls heated with some of the cooking water. Hot pasta waits for no one.

Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock, to be published in December.

For the complete article, please see the Oct. 31, 2000, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 25.
Where to Get It

Artisanal pasta costs about $5 for 500 grams (the standard packaging, about 17.5 ounces) -- roughly two to three times the price of the mass-produced kind. However, "it's not like paying $60 for a bottle of wine instead of $20," reasons Paul Ferrari, owner of A.G. Ferrari in San Leandro, Calif. "You're talking only a few bucks more for four people."

All good pasta begins with durum semolina, the milled endosperm from hard or winter wheat. Italy is the only country that won't allow dried pasta to be made with any other form of wheat. This coarsely ground yellow flour makes the best pasta because it has the highest amount of gluten, the elastic protein that keeps pasta (and bread) firm. Although excellent wheat grows in regions including Le Marche, Apulia, Abruzzo and Campania, Italy can't grow enough to meet its pasta needs. Many pasta makers augment their supply with wheat from the United States or Canada.

Business City/State Contact
A. G. Ferrari San Leandro, Calif. (800) 335-5090; www.agferrari.com
Chefshop.com, Inc. Seattle (877) 337-2491
Corti Brothers Sacramento, Calif. (800) 509-3663
DeMedici Florida, N.Y. (845) 651-4400 (for Benedetto Cavalieri)
DiBruno Bros. Philadelphia (888) 322-4337; www.dibruno.com
Pasta Shop Oakland, Calif. (510) 547-4005; www.rockridgemarkethall.com
Tavolo Novato, Calif. (800) 700-7336; www.tavolo.com

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