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"Nothing else, not opera or Renaissance art or Roman ruins or even pizza, so
exemplifies Italy as pasta."
Burton Anderson, Treasures of the Italian Table
Americans often approach pasta as little more than a convenient way to
convey large quantities of sauce from plate to palate. But for serious Italian
eaters, the point is the pasta as much as it is the sauce. Although few
Americans know it, good pasta actually tastes good.
Perhaps the reason most of us don't think much about its flavor is
that our culture has relatively little experience with this food. At the beginning
of the twentieth century, American pasta consumption was so small that, per
capita, it barely registered at all. By 1930 it was up to nearly four pounds per
person per year. In the early 1980s, the amount had risen to more than
eleven pounds a year. Today the average American consumes about twenty
pounds each year, but we still have a long way to go to keep up with our
Italian counterparts—we eat barely a third of what they do.
Italians divide pasta into two categories. One is pasta fresca,
or "fresh pasta." Usually made at home or in the kitchens of quality-oriented
restaurants, fresh pasta is made with flour and eggs. Many dishes rely on its
softer texture and richer flavor. My focus is on what Italians call pasta secca,
or "dried pasta": how to buy it, how to cook it, and best of all how to eat and
Back in the 1980s, when fresh pasta was all the rage in America,
most folks falsely assumed that fresh and dried pastas were simply two
different versions of thesame thing. They are not. They serve two different
purposes in Italian cooking, and you can rarely substitute one for the other.
Pastas Past: A Tangled but Tasty History
Though their prominence in North America is relatively recent, noodles are
hardly a new form of nutrition. The ancient Hebrews ate them. The Chinese
have been serving noodles since as early as the first century A.D.; by the
tenth century, noodle shops were popular in much of the country. Nearly
everyone knows the tale of Marco Polo, who supposedly brought pasta back
to Italy from China at the end of the thirteenth century. The story has been
largely discredited; in various forms, noodles seem to have shown up in Italy
long before Mr. Polo's trip. It's likely that both Indians and Middle Easterners
were also eating noodles extensively by the twelfth or thirteenth century. The
inventory of a Genoese merchant made in 1279 shows stocks of macaroni.
By the start of the fifteenth century, dried pasta, usually then referred to
as "vermicelli," was commercially produced in Italy.
Pasta's enormous popularity in Italy dates to the early eighteenth
century, when new machines made even wider commercial production
possible. Naples became the main source of pasta in the modern era. The all-
important hard durum wheat was well suited to the soil, and daily cycles of
hot mountain winds alternating with milder sea air created an ideal climate for
drying the pasta. By the end of the century, the number of pasta-making
shops in the town had grown nearly fivefold.
Dried pasta was at that time eaten primarily by the Italian upper
class. Much like coffee or chocolate, dried pasta was a manufactured item,
which meant that it had to be paid for in cash and was hence too costly for
everyday eating. For the most part, noodles were eaten for dessert.
British travelers brought pasta back home from Naples, and from
there it made its way to North America. Thomas Jefferson is said to have
shipped Neapolitan pasta back to Virginia in 1789. A year earlier a
Frenchman opened a pasta factory in Philadelphia. Although there were
hardly any Italians in the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth
century, by 1910 there were nearly 4 million. As their population grew, pasta
making in America boomed. Italian- Americans still generally opted for the
imported product because it was made from the harder, tastier durum wheat.
Much American-made pasta started with inferior softer wheat, often
deceptively colored yellow to give it the look of semolina.
Less Sauce, More Flavor
To grasp why Italians put so much emphasis on the flavor and texture of the
pasta they put on their plates, it's important to understand that in Italy the
serving ratio of sauce to pasta is far lower than in most of North America.
Italians generally offer smaller servings, lightly tossed with a sauce or simply
served with a dollop atop the noodles. By Italian standards, the sauce should
accent, never overwhelm; no upstanding Italian chef would ever drown a pasta
dish in sauce. With this guideline in mind, it only makes sense that the
pasta itself has to have a flavor and character of its own.
Choosing Great Dried Pasta
The basic process for producing dried pasta is fairly simple. Flour and water
are mixed into a dough, the dough is extruded through metal dies to create a
multitude of shapes and sizes, and the freshly pressed pasta is then dried to
preserve it. Finally the pasta is packed and shipped for sale. But while the
basic recipe is consistent, there are drastic differences in quality from one
noodle to the next. How can you tell which ones are at the top of the market
and which are only at entry level? There are three key indicators.
1. Better Pasta Tastes Better
I'm not talking about the finished dish, just the noodles, au naturel, in the
nude. A good pasta should be able to stand out with only a little olive oil or
butter, and maybe a light sprinkling of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
2. The Importance of Texture
Texture is another piece of the pasta puzzle; the integrity of the noodle after
it's been cooked is critical. Poor-quality pastas can literally fall apart in the
pot; turn your back and they turn soft and mushy in a matter of minutes. Well-
made macaroni, on the other hand, is supposed to have texture; when you
take a bite, you should know you're eating something significant.
The difference is evident as soon as you open the box or bag and
lay your hands on the raw pasta inside the package. Grab a fistful of
commercial spaghetti. It's shiny, slick, and as straight as a set of plastic
pick-up sticks. Or feel a bit of mass-produced elbow macaroni. It's
lightweight, brittle. The stuff seems ready to shatter at the touch.
Now heft a handful of top-grade pasta made by an artisan
producer. It's solid. Heavier. More substantial. Its surface is rough, like a set
of sun-washed and wind-worn seashells gathered on the beach.
3. Better Pasta Smells Better
Aroma is the third essential element in distinguishing excellent pasta from
run-of-the-mill. And when you drop a handful of top-notch noodles into boiling
water, they release an enticing whiff of wheat. No, it's not overpowering, but
it's definitely there. In fact, if you go into a small pasta plant, the first thing
you're likely to notice is the smell of the grain. It's a lot like the scent of a
good bakery. The air is warm and humid, perfumed with the aroma of milled
Grain, Not Flour
You may have noticed that in proper pasta parlance, Italians always refer
to "grain," never to "flour." Don't dismiss this distinction as merely semantic —
Italian pasta makers are adamant about it.
I once made the mistake of using the two terms interchangeably.
Speaking to a third-generation maker of traditional pasta, I inquired about the
source of the flour he was working with. He immediately gave me a look of
deep disgust, as if I'd suggested we sit down to a bowl of SpaghettiOs.
"It's not flour. It's grain!" he corrected me sternly. "Watch." He
grabbed the arm of his unsuspecting salesperson and pulled him closer.
Cutting open a paper sack of yellow semolina, the pasta maker pulled out a
fistful and then proceeded to smear it all over the sleeve of the guy's powder
blue suit. I stood there stunned, feeling guilty for ruining the poor fellow's
outfit. Flour—far more finely milled —would have quickly embedded itself in
the cloth. But the pasta maker smiled and, holding firm to the man's arm,
brushed it off easily. Since milled semolina is granular in structure, like
sugar, only minimal markings were left as the grain fell to the floor.
"See?" he said questioningly. "Sì," I replied with a smile. Lesson
Making a Better Pasta
So how does a producer go about making a better grade of pasta?
All the best Italian dried pastas start with semola di grano duro (durum
semolina), the coarsest grade of milled endosperm from hard wheat (Triticum
durum). In fact, since 1967 Italian law has actually required it. (Up until
recently, you couldn't sell soft wheat pasta in Italy, but European Union
codes have forced the Italians to open their market to imports from other EU
countries.) Unlike flour that is very finely milled to a powder, semolina is
granular, almost like sugar or finely ground cornmeal. Durum semolina
makes superior pasta primarily because of its high gluten content—when
properly developed in the dough by the maker, these glutens trap the starch
inside the pasta and keep it from flowing out into the cooking water.
Additionally, the glutens help to ensure the firmness that is such an essential
element in great pasta. Because of its harder nature, durum semolina
requires longer kneading, adding time and cost but contributing mightily to
the flavor and texture of the finished pasta. It also gives the glowing golden
appearance that is typical of Italian pasta, as opposed to the whiter look of a
Unfortunately, only Italy imposes such a requirement for the use
of semolina. In other countries it's perfectly permissible for a pasta maker to
start with soft wheat (Triticum vulgarum), which is far less costly but
produces an inferior product. You can usually spot soft wheat pastas as soon
as you drop them into boiling water; the pasta breaks down and clouds the
Buying the best pasta isn't just a function of finding a label that
lists "semolina" among its ingredients. Just as coffee roasters work with an
array of green beans, the best pasta makers are masters at buying and
blending durum semolina from various sources. Each producer has his own
suppliers, his own mix; long before the grain ever gets into the pasta
machines, the pasta maker adjusts his recipe annually to take into account
alterations in crop yields and flavor. The variety of the wheat is important; as
with other agricultural products, older varieties of wheat are often the most
flavorful, but they also have lower yields and higher risk of disease, which
keep more cost-conscious producers at arm's length. Some pasta makers
prefer wheat from the various regions of Italy; others won't buy anything but
The point is merely that the best dried pasta should taste of the
grain; if you already know a noodle with flavor and character, it's likely that
the maker has managed to buy grain from better sources.
Although few people think about it, the flavor of the water with which the grain
is mixed is a matter of great concern to quality-oriented pasta makers. Since
the water in any given area has its own chemical and mineral makeup, it will
alter the flavor of any item it's blended with, as it would in brewing coffee or
tea. The same grain mixed in California instead of Campania is likely to yield
a different flavor in the finished pasta.
As with bread dough, excessive heat during mixing is the enemy of the
quality-conscious producer. Slow, gentle, low-temperature mixing helps to
preserve the natural character and flavor of the wheat. Gentler kneading also
allows the pasta maker to mix for a longer period of time, enhancing the
glutens that are so essential to creating a vital, vibrant texture. Finally, the
traditional pasta maker must be ready and able to adjust his mixing to
changes in weather and humidity, just as the artisan baker would do with
Once the dough has been mixed, it's then extruded through variously shaped
dies. The early versions were developed at the end of the nineteenth century,
allowing pasta makers to expand their offerings significantly. (Before that,
noodles had to be hand-cut.) The dies are not unlike the cover plate on an old-
fashioned meat grinder, but with a differently shaped die for each of the
dozens of types of pasta being produced. Strands of spaghetti or other long
pastas are pushed through small holes, then cut at the appropriate length by
rotating blades. Short tubular pastas like penne start out by winding their way
around a rod suspended from the top of the die, then exit through a smaller
hole at the bottom. This narrowing forces the dough to come back to form the
hollow tubes and twists we're all accustomed to. Notches in the holes can
force the exiting dough to curve or curl, conjuring shapes like "elbow"
Most modern commercial operations now extrude pasta dough
through smooth Teflon-coated dies. The Teflon lasts a long time and allows
for more rapid (and hence cost-reducing) extrusion, but it yields a pasta so
slick that it seems to shine. When you dress it, your sauce is certain to run
right off, leaving a bunch of nearly naked noodles lying atop an unappealing
pool of liquid.
The best dried pastas are those that are extruded through old-
style dies made of bronze, what Italians refer to as trafile di bronze. An
essential component of artisan pasta making, the bronze dies are
themselves an artisan product. Although the first phases of their production
are now done by machine, the dies must be checked, adjusted, and finished
by hand in order to produce near-perfect pasta. Bronze is a soft metal,
meaning the life of the dies is shorter, the extrusion is slower, and
replacement costs are higher compared with commercial equipment. But the
beauty of these old-fashioned forms is that they produce pasta with a
coarser, more porous surface —the seemingly sea-washed roughness you
feel when you hold it in your hand. Yet aesthetics is not the only issue. The
little pits in the pasta embrace the sauce with open arms.
Take note, too, that the speed of extrusion can also affect quality.
In pasta making, as on the highway, speed kills; in this case, it can cause
unwanted heat, and hence damage to both texture and flavor. Those who
take the extrusion process at a more leisurely pace protect the natural
glutens in the dough, which in turn ensures that the pasta's all-important
texture is preserved during cooking.
The drying takes the moisture content of the fresh dough down to less than
half of its original 25 percent, giving packaged pasta its long shelf life and
arguably making it one of mankind's ultimate convenience foods. Up until the
beginning of the twentieth century, all Italian pasta was dried in the sun, often
for up to a week, to reach the desired level of desiccation. Pasta makers, it
was said, had to be as good at reading the weather as are fishermen or
farmers. Sadly, in these days of air pollution and depleted ozone layers, sun-
drying noodles is no longer an option, but fortunately for food lovers, pasta-
drying machines were invented around 1900.
Faster-moving, more cost-conscious factories use high heat to dry
the pasta in a mere matter of hours. The problem with this speed-dried stuff
is that the excessive heat essentially bakes the pasta; the finished noodles
are often brittle and easily broken, and many of the subtleties of the grain
may be lost.
Smaller, artisan pastaii work at much lower temperatures than
their industrial counterparts, taking as long as twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-
eight, even fifty-plus hours to dry their pasta. This type of drying takes place
in very warm (but never hot), humid environments in which moisture can be
reduced slowly, without damaging the texture of the finished product. This
slow, gentle drying preserves the noodle's natural moisture, wrapping it inside
its rough exterior surface.
While the production of artisan dried pasta may seem
straightforward in theory, it is difficult to do well. Machines may do the actual
extrusion, but the human element remains essential. Each pasta maker has
a "recipe" for drying, and each seems certain that his technique is the best.
Watching the pasta production at Martelli, an artisan pasta producer in
Tuscany, I noticed that every so often Dino Martelli would grab a piece and
pop it—raw—into his mouth.
"Are you checking the pasta?" I inquired uncertainly.
"Absolutely!" he answered adamantly, as if I should have known
that. "We check the pasta by taste and by feel all the time." Like cheese-
making or bread baking, traditional pasta production remains a craft, not a
A Visit to the Mecca of Maccheroni, Martelli Pasta
While I have enormous respect and appreciation for all of the traditional pasta
makers I list in this guide, the truth is that if I had only one pasta to put in my
pot for life, I'd unhesitatingly opt for Martelli.
To find the Martellis and see their pasta making in person, you
have to travel to the classic hill town of Lari in eastern Tuscany, about fifteen
miles inland from the city of Pisa. The Martellis live and make their marvelous
maccheroni at 3 Via San Martino, which has been a pasta factory since the
1870s. The Martellis took over in 1926, when the father and uncle of Dino and
Mario Martelli bought the place, after working there for years as hourly
The Martellis long ago outgrew the space, but, driven by their
commitment to the town and to tradition, they figured out a way to make it
function effectively. The actual pasta making and initial drying take place on
the main floor. The mixing of the dough begins on a small landing, halfway up
a narrow stairway, in a steel hopper into which golden semolina is fed. Head
the rest of the way up the stairs, turn left, pass through a glass doorway, and
you run into a wall of seemingly solid humidity. If you're wearing glasses,
they'll fog up immediately. You're now in a cramped hallway, lined on either
side with ancient-looking, wood-framed, glass doors. Behind each door are
tin-lined drying rooms, each filled with racks of moist pieces of still fresh
pasta. Go back down the stairs, then head outside and straight across the
street into the Martelli annex, where the pasta is hand-packed into its bright,
sunny yellow bags with the original hand-lettered spaghetti loops spelling out
the family moniker.
Every bag of pasta reads: prodotti dalla famiglia Martelli—
"products of the Martelli family." And that's exactly what they are. All the
employees are Martellis: the two brothers, their respective wives, and their
six collective children.
The selection of Martelli pasta shapes and sizes is small. The
family makes only the same four simple pasta shapes that their father and
uncle started out with seventy-five years ago: thick spaghetti, thinner
spaghettini, ridged maccheroni, and penne.
The Martellis' story is a textbook case illustrating commitment to
pasta quality. They use the hardest durum wheat flour; they call all the way
to Canada to find the firmness they're looking for. The grain is brought intact
to a local spot for milling in order to protect its fragile flavor. Mixing and
extrusion are executed slowly and at low temperatures. Drying is slow, also
at low temperatures —the process takes place over fifty hours, at about 65
degrees Fahrenheit. In deference to the tricky nature of the drying, someone
from the family goes upstairs to the drying rooms every five or six hours. "We
have to check it even on Sundays and holidays. We really have to be
weathermen," said Dino Martelli. "We have to watch the weather and adjust
the drying according to its changes."
Although machines are part of the process, Martelli remains
essentially a hand-crafted pasta. While the modern world pushes toward
increased efficiency, the Martellis steadfastly maintain their ties to tradition.
Quality—of pasta and of life— definitely takes precedence over expansion or
growth. "What we make in one year, Barilla [Italy's biggest and best-known
pasta producer] makes in one hour," the Martellis told me more than once,
always with a smile. "With industrial machinery," Chiara Martelli, a member
of the up-and-coming third generation, said, "one person alone can make ten
thousand pounds of pasta in an hour. Here, with the whole family working
together, we make two thousand pounds in a day."
Instead of worrying about competitors, the Martellis focus on
maintaining the integrity of their own product. On my most recent visit, we
were watching the extrusion of quill-shaped penne, talking about how the
machines cut it. When one "tube" became dislodged, the pasta started
running too long. Valentina, another of the Martelli daughters, pointed out that
they looked like . . . well, actually, she couldn't recall the name. "Dino," she
yelled over to her father, her voice rising, "what's the name of those long
tubes of pasta?" "Ziti?" he answered. "Sì, ziti," she said. Small town, small
pastificio, small world. Only a Martelli family member—one who's eaten the
same four Martelli shapes for most of her life—would have a hard time
remembering ziti, one of the most common pasta cuts in Italy. There are no
ziti in Lari.
The whole Martelli enterprise could easily be written off by skeptics as an
overly romantic relic of days gone by. Perhaps the best endorsement for
Martelli came from its competitors. Granted, there are only a handful of
small, artisan pasta makers still around. But when I asked those I've
met, "Which pasta would you serve your family if you couldn't serve your
own?" they all gave the same answer: "Martelli."
To me—I'm both a traditionalist and an optimist —Martelli is a big
part of the future of food, at least the one I'm working toward. A future that's
respectful of tradition, but also open to new ideas and innovations. One in
which people are committed both to hard work and to enjoying the little
things in life, where serious attention is paid to the details that contribute to
better quality and more flavor in our food. A bowlful of Martelli spaghetti on
the table is my idea of value, a small price to pay for such enjoyable eating.
You can keep the Rolls-Royce and the million-dollar condo. For me, eating
Martelli is the good life.
Other Good Brands of Dried Pasta
CAVALIERI Down in the town of Lecce, in the region of Puglia, the heel of the
Italian boot, Benedetto Cavalieri continues to craft exceptional pasta as his
family has done since early in the twentieth century. The Cavalieris use
primarily old varieties of low-yielding, full-flavored hard durum wheat grown in
the surrounding hills. On the package, Cavalieri appropriately shares credit
for the quality of his pasta with "the farmer and the miller." Without great
wheat, the pasta maker is helpless, and Cavalieri uses a different blend of
grains and a different dough for each cut of pasta that he makes.
The mixing is done in a six-foot square hopper mounted on a
metal platform. A boundlessly energetic man whose enthusiasm remains
undimmed even after thirty years of pasta making, Cavalieri insists on using
room-temperature water, to protect the character of the wheat.
As at the Martelli pasta factory, the mixing proceeds at a fairly
leisurely pace, and the extrusion is done through old-fashioned bronze dies.
The short shapes of newly made pasta are placed into eight-foot-
high wooden drying cabinets built in the 1930s. The family has a different
dryer for each shape and size. The antique equipment lends a cultured, well-
crafted air to the operation. But the effect is practical as well as pretty: good
ventilation and very slow drying are essential, and the wood allows that.
Cavalieri takes his time with the drying: thirty-six hours for the
short cuts, and just under two very deliberate days for the longer shapes. The
drying is done at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly half the temperature
employed by speed-oriented industrial pasta makers. The key, Cavalieri
explains, gesturing with his hands, is "not to shock the pasta," to protect the
integrity of its nutrition, texture, and flavor.
I love the label as much as I do the product. A bold blue
background with white lettering, it's the same one that was first designed for
the family in 1918. As with Martelli, when you drop this pasta into boiling
water, you'll be struck by the wheaty aroma that rises from the pot.
LATINI Latini is a very good brand of artisan pasta from the Marche region
along Italy's east coast. It's not my top choice, but it's the favorite of many in
the food world, including the Italian cooking expert Faith Willinger. Carlo and
Carla Latini grow much of their own wheat and stick to slow, gentle kneading,
extruding through bronze dies, and slow drying. The Latini farm has been in
Carlo's family for four generations (since 1888), and he's passionate about
growing the best possible durum wheat for pasta. Last I knew, Latini was
growing nearly a hundred different types of wheat.
Of particular note is the Latini Senatore Cappelli spaghetti, made
from an antique variety of wheat that Carlo has helped to revive. It's a low-
yielding, high-flavor varietal that has a fine fragrance when it hits the pot. The
Latinis' long-term goal is to match each pasta shape to a variety of wheat.
I'm also particularly fond of the Latini fusilli.
RUSTICHELLA Rustichella, from Abruzzo, uses only bronze dies and allows
nearly two days for drying. The essence of the craft comes through in the
pasta—the flavor and texture are superb. Of the dozens of unusual shapes
and sizes, I've come to love the fettuccine, which is by far the best I've ever
had. Rustichella linguine is a close second, but you won't go wrong with any
of its pastas. Its egg pasta is especially good.
Different Cuts for Different Cooks: A Guide to Pasta Shapes
I once asked a pasta maker which cuts he would recommend for soup. His
immediate answer: "Which kind of soup?" A recent survey of Italian pastas
counted something like five hundred cuts. Italians take their shape selection
pretty seriously. Here's a quick guide to matching cuts with appropriate
• Generally, long, thick styles like spaghetti are associated with strong-
flavored sauces: olive oil and garlic, tomato, cheese. Long, hollow noodles
like bucatini or pici might be paired with spicy sauces. Long, thin pastas like
linguine or even angel hair would marry well with more delicate sauces, often
those made with seafood.
• Short, hollow shapes like penne or macaroni are meant for meat or
vegetable sauces; solid bits and pieces of the sauce will collect inside the
tubes, integrating pasta and sauce. Very short pastas are a good match for
sauces with dried peas, lentils, or beans. Flat pastas like farfalle (bow ties)
are a good match for cream or cheese-based sauces.
• Tiny, short shapes are ideal for soup. The general guideline: the lighter the
soup, the smaller the pasta. For broth, go with shapes like anellini, stellini,
acini, or orzo. Chunkier thick soups need bigger shapes, such as tubetti,
ditalini, or maybe even macaroni. For all soups, add the pasta at the end so
it won't overcook.
ACINI DI PEPE "Peppercorn" pasta, well suited for broth.
ANELLINI Tiny pasta rings for soup. Cannelloni Rectangles of pasta wrapped
around assorted fillings and then baked.
CAPELLINI Very thin angel hair. Lidia Bastianich, the superb chef-owner of
Felidia in New York, gave me this tip: "Take them out when they're still
almost stiff, drain them, add a bit of oil, toss, and then finish them for a
minute in the sauce. Otherwise they turn into mush."
CASARECCI A typical pasta of Puglia. The name, meaning "home style,"
refers to two-inch-long thin twists.
CONCHIGLIE Pasta shells, well suited to sauces made with meat and/or cut
CORZETTI A specialty of Liguria, these pasta shapes look like stamped
coins from ancient times.
DITALINI Little thimbles, good for vegetable soups.
FARFALLE Butterflies, or bow ties, very nice with cream sauces.
FEDELINI Another long, thin shape. The name is from fedele,
meaning "faithful," or filo, meaning "thread" or "wire."
FETTUCCINE A fettuccia is a tape or a ribbon. Narrower than the northern
FREGOLA A unique Sardinian pasta made from a dough of coarsely ground
semolina that is rubbed into small round balls (about the size of Israeli
couscous). It's lightly toasted, so it has an interesting nutty flavor. In
Sardinia, it's used in soups and stews (often with clams), as well as baked
with tomato sauce.
FUSILLI Although the name is common, the cut seems to be different in
every area of Italy. Some are long, curly corkscrews; others are half-inch-long
pig-tail twists. Good for cream sauces.
LASAGNE Broad, flat rectangles.
LASAGNOTTE Wide ribbons that are typical of Puglia. The Pugliese break
them into two- to three-inch pieces for cooking, then serve them with a strong
sauce, like rabbit sauce, or a vegetable sauce of onions, carrots, tomatoes,
and fresh ricotta.
LINGUINE Flat spaghetti. The name means "little tongues." A classic with
LUMACHE "Snails," good for sauces with moderately sized pieces of meat or
vegetables. The snail shape collects the sauce.
MACCHERONI About two-inch-long hollow pastas. In the United States the
name "macaroni" has come to mean all pasta. In seventeenth-century
London, the term "macaroni" was used to refer to the avant garde, who
regularly indulged in pasta as well as other imported luxury foods. Over time,
the term came into use as slang for anything of exaggerated elegance, like
the feather in Yankee Doodle's cap.
MALLOREDDUS Half-inch-long ridged Sardinian pastas that look a bit like
small worms. Also known on the island as "gnocchi," though they are nothing
like actual gnocchi.
ORECCHIETTE "Little ears," the most typical of all Pugliese pastas.
ORECCHIETTE MARITATE "Married" orecchiette. A Pugliese blend of
casarecci (long and thin) and orecchiette (round), which consummate
their "marriage" in the pot when you cook them together.
ORZO "Barley seeds," used for soups or pasta salads.
PAGLIA E FIENO "Straw and hay," used to denote green (spinach) and
yellow (egg) noodles mixed together. Good with cream or tomato sauces.
PAPPARDELLE Broad egg noodles that are big with game meats, like hare
or wild boar.
PENNE Macaroni cut like quills, or pens. Good with meat, cream, and
PEZZOCCHERI Buckwheat pasta from the Valtellina in the north of
Lombardy. Traditionally a winter dish, served with cabbage, potatoes, and
garlic, all mixed together and baked with cheese.
QUADRUCCI Tiny pasta squares, used primarily for soups.
SAGNE Long Pugliese pasta, shaped like ribbons wrapped around a rod or
SPAGHETTI The most famous pasta. The name comes from spago,
meaning "string" or "cord"; spaghetti means "little strings." Good with tomato
and olive oil–based sauces.
SPAGHETTINI Thin spaghetti.
SPAGHETTONI Very thick spaghetti that is made into two-foot-long strands
that are usually broken up before cooking. Typically served in Puglia with
olive oil and fresh garlic.
STELLINI "Little stars," used in broth.
TAGLIATELLE The name is from tagliare, meaning "to cut." The Bolognese
serve it with prosciutto and other meat sauces.
TROFIE Small twists of pasta, a bit like two-inch pieces of twine folded in
half, then gently (never tightly) twisted. The preferred Ligurian pasta for pesto.
VERMICELLI Literally "little worms," they are essentially like spaghetti or
ZITI Neapolitan macaroni. Ziti means "groom," and this pasta is typically
served in Naples as a first course at weddings.
For delicate dishes, dried pastas made with egg, not water, are generally
used. And as with all pasta, making a good one is a craft, not a science, and
relies on the skill of the pasta maker, the selection of flours, and the care
exercised in the drying.
I like egg pastas with simple sauces. Butter and cheese sauce is
my favorite. Or butter and cheese with toasted nuts (see page 250). Browned
butter and fried sage leaves with some freshly grated Parmigiano- Reggiano
make a great sauce, as do fresh ricotta and a good dose of a delicate olive
oil. So too does a simple sauce of saffron, sautéed onion, a small amount of
chicken broth, and maybe some little bits of leftover lamb or chicken.
America's leading artisan egg pasta, Al Dente, has been made in the Ann
Arbor area by Monique and Dennis Deschaine for over twenty years. Monique
learned her technique from none other than Marcella Hazan, as good a
teacher as one could ask for. Following Hazan's recommendations, Monique
swears by a blend of semolina and extra-fancy durum flour that she mixes
with fresh eggs. She prefers that her pasta not be exceptionally eggy, so it's
less intense than comparable Italian offerings. She insists on "sheeting," or
rolling out the pasta (the alternative is extrusion, or pressing out the dough,
which works well for dried pasta but toughens the texture of tender egg
noodles). Sheeting the dough makes the finished fettuccine as close to
homemade as possible. As a result, Al Dente noodles are very light and
delicate and cook up in a mere two to three minutes. Al Dente makes many
fine flavored noodles —wild mushroom and spicy sesame are my favorites—
but I'm still partial to the original recipe for the egg fettuccine. The spinach
noodles are also noteworthy, made exclusively with fresh spinach.
Maccheroncini di Campofilone
If you like a lot of egg in your egg pasta, this is the way to go. A third-
generation, family-owned producer of pasta since the 1930s, Maccheroncini
di Campofilone is probably Italy's premier packaged egg pasta. The women of
the town of Campofilone in the Marche region have long been known for their
pasta-making skills. They too use only fresh eggs, but they're at the other
end of the egg spectrum from Al Dente—the Campofilone pasta is very rich in
eggs, very golden, almost orange in color.
Simple Steps to Proper Pasta Cooking
Proper cooking technique is as imperative as proper purchasing of the raw
materials. To cook the best dried pastas:
1. Bring lots of cold water to a boil. The emphasis is on lots. You want to
have plenty of room for the pasta to move around in the pot, reducing the risk
of sticking, and plenty of water for the dried noodles to absorb. Using enough
water also ensures that the pasta won't cool off your cooking liquid. Start
with at least a gallon, even for only a small portion of pasta. For a pound of
dried pasta, give yourself a good 6 to 7 quarts of water.
2. When the water has come to a rapid boil, add a tablespoon or two of sea
salt, which unlocks the flavor of the grain.
3. Add the pasta to the rapidly boiling salted water. When I was a kid, we
always broke up long cuts of pasta into more manageable lengths, but
Italians almost never do (though there are regional exceptions to this rule).
Simply add the pasta as is, then stir well to make sure the strands don't
stick to one another or to the bottom of the pot.
4. If you've got a good amount of water and a high source of heat, your
cooking water should come back to the boil quickly. Remember, the water
should be actively boiling, not just simmering. To avoid sticking and to ensure
even cooking, keep stirring every now and again.
5. Test the pasta. The better the quality of the pasta, the more reason not to
overcook it. Properly cooked pasta is done when it is al dente, tender on the
outside, slightly firm on the inside. Generally, better-quality pastas are a bit
more forgiving to the careless cook. Inferior products can go from raw to
ridiculously overcooked in just a couple of minutes. My experience is that the
top pastas are best when they're nicely firm (not raw, mind you) in the
middle. Take note that in general, Italians prefer their pasta far firmer than we
do in the United States.
Pastas made from harder wheat will take longer to cook than soft-
wheat pastas. Similarly, those that were dried slowly will usually require
more cooking time than those dried quickly and at higher heat. Don't adhere
blindly to cooking times on packages. Depending on the quantity of water,
the particular batch of pasta, and the strength of the heat source, actual
cooking times will vary. So keep taking out a piece or two of pasta and
tasting to check for doneness.
6. As soon as the pasta is done, get it out of the cooking water as quickly as
possible. Don't dally. Most American cooks drain through a colander. Make
sure your sink and drain are free of unwanted debris, and if your drain is slow,
be ready to lift the colander out of the sink quickly. Alternatively, Italians use
pasta tongs, which help keep long pastas from tangling. Pasta pots that
come with colander inserts offer the best of both worlds, allowing you to
remove the pasta all at once while avoiding tangling.
If you're serving the pasta hot, never, never rinse it with water.
Instead, moving as quickly as possible, transfer the pasta to pre-warmed
plates or bowls, and dress with sauce. Serve ASAP—the sooner you get the
plates to the table, the better.
Note: Remember that portions in Italy—where pasta is often followed by a
main course of meat or fish—are smaller than those we've become
accustomed to in the States. An Italian serving starts with about two ounces
of dried pasta; an American main course would call for three to four ounces.
Two Bonus Tips on Cooking Pasta, From a Pro
Faith Willinger, a woman who's done as much as anyone to advance the
cause of great Italian food, shared these tips with me.
1. Add a touch of the pasta cooking water to your sauce. The pasta water is
filled with the natural starch from the pasta and will help to bind and thicken
the sauce naturally.
2. Finish your pasta in the sauce. Instead of waiting until the pasta is al
dente, remove it from the cooking liquid a minute or two early. Toss the
slightly underdone pasta with the simmering sauce, then cook for another
minute or two, stirring regularly to avoid sticking. Since the pasta is still
absorbing moisture, it will pull in the sauce (and hence its flavors). The result
is a much better integration of pasta and sauce.
Pugliese Orecchiette and Broccoli Rabe
Orecchiette is the prestigious pasta of Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot. The
name means "little ears," and the indentations in the pasta catch the sauce.
The rim of the orecchiette, a bit thicker than the depressed center, stays firm
when you cook it, creating an interesting textural contrast as you eat.
The traditional Pugliese way to eat orecchiette is with broccoli
rabe, also known as rapini, in a simple sauce seasoned with hot peppers and
anchovies. It has become one of my favorite meals.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 serrano chile pepper, chopped, or hot red pepper flakes, preferably Marash
(see page 58), to taste, plus more for serving
3 anchovy fillets
Coarse sea salt to taste
1 pound orecchiette
1 small bunch broccoli rabe or dandelion greens (4 ounces without tough
stems), coarsely chopped
Freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Fresh ricotta cheese, for serving
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, in another large skillet, heat
the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until
soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the serrano pepper or pepper flakes and sauté,
stirring for 2 to 3 minutes.
Add 1/4 cup of hot water from the other pot and the anchovy fillets
to the onion mixture. (They'll melt into the sauce, so there's no need to chop
When the water in the first pot boils, add 1 to 2 tablespoons salt
and the orecchiette, stir well, and cook until the pasta is almost al dente.
Meanwhile, add the broccoli rabe or dandelion greens to the onion
mixture. Stir, add a pinch of salt and another 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking
water, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer until the pasta is done. Add more
of the pasta cooking water, if necessary, to keep the greens "saucy."
Drain the pasta and add it to the greens. Stir and simmer for 2
minutes, or until well combined. Add a little more olive oil, some grated
Pecorino Romano cheese, and black pepper. Serve in warm bowls with a
dollop of ricotta cheese and additional hot pepper flakes on the side.
Pasta with Anchovies and Capers
This dish makes a great dinner if you like anchovies. The addition of dried
currants adds a subtle sweetness. Because good spaghetti takes about 13
minutes to cook, you can probably finish the sauce while the pasta is
cooking. Italians generally don't use cheese on pasta dishes that include
fish, but if you're not holding an Italian passport, you can toss a little grated
Parmigiano on top. Either way, it's excellent.
1 tablespoon capers, preferably packed in salt
1–2 tablespoons coarse sea salt to taste
1/2 pound spaghetti
1 tablespoon full-flavored extra virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
1 small onion, coarsely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
10 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoon dried currants
1 cup coarsely chopped dandelion greens, arugula, or Swiss chard
1 2-inch square of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind (optional)
1 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted (see page 31)
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, preferably Marash (see page 58)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
If you're using salted capers, soak them in a bit of warm water for 20 to 30
minutes, changing the water halfway through. Drain the water, rinse the
capers, and dry them on a paper towel.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the salt and the pasta; stir
well. Cook until almost al dente.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add 2 of
the anchovy fillets and stir well. Add the currants and stir again. Add 3
tablespoons of the pasta cooking water, the greens, capers, and Parmigiano-
Reggiano rind (if using) and stir well. Cook until the greens are slightly wilted.
Add more pasta water if needed to keep the sauce properly soused.
Drain the pasta, add it to the pot with the sauce, and stir well.
Add the remaining 8 anchovies, the pine nuts, red pepper flakes,
and a little more olive oil. Stir until the anchovies are heated through, being
careful not to overcook and melt them.
Fish out the rind and serve in warm bowls with a generous
grinding of black pepper on top and a little grated Parmigiano, if you like.
serves 2 as a main course or 4 as a side dish
Linguine with Arugula, Olive Oil, and Hot Peppers
This is the kind of fast food I like to eat. You can make the entire recipe, start
to finish, in 15 minutes and have time to make a salad while it's cooking. Use
more or less olive oil, as you wish. The more— and better—the oil, the better
the pasta will taste.
Coarse sea salt to taste
1 pound top-quality linguine
1/4 cup full-flavored extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
1 small onion, coarsely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
Hot red pepper flakes, preferably Marash (see page 58), to taste, plus more
1 pound fresh young arugula leaves, any large stems removed (if the leaves
are large, tear them in half)
1 tablespoon pine nuts, lightly toasted (see page 31)
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons salt and the
pasta, stir well, and cook until the pasta is almost al dente.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. In another large pot, heat the oil over
medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes, until softened. Add
the onion and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, or until soft. Add the pepper flakes
and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes more. Discard the garlic.
Drain the pasta when it is almost al dente. Add the arugula leaves
and pine nuts to the onion mixture and toss quickly so that the arugula wilts
slightly. Add the drained pasta to the arugula mixture, add the grated
cheese, and toss well.
Serve in warm bowls, finished with an additional ribbon of olive oil
on top. Pass extra pepper flakes, grated Pecorino Romano, and salt and
pepper at the table.
Fettuccine with Fresh Tuna, Lemon, Capers, and Olives
Rolando Beramendi of Manicaretti Imports inspired this recipe. It's as
comforting as tuna-noodle casserole and incredibly delicious. Sautéing the
lemon slices with the skin on contributes to both the flavor and the texture of
the dish. If you like, add an extra blessing of olive oil or limonato (lemon olive
oil—see page 24) at the table.
2 tablespoons capers, preferably packed in salt
Coarse sea salt
1 pound top-quality fettuccine, preferably Rustichella brand, or other pasta
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
24 black olives (not canned), pitted and coarsely chopped
1 lemon, quartered and thinly sliced (if you can find a Meyer lemon, use it)
2 anchovy fillets (optional)
1 pound fresh tuna, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped Italian parsley, rinsed and squeezed dry
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
If you're using salted capers, soak them in a bit of warm water for 20 to 30
minutes, changing the water halfway through. Drain the water, rinse the
capers, and dry them on a paper towel.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt and the pasta, stir
well, and cook until the pasta is al dente.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil
over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, or until
softened. Add the olives, lemon, capers, and anchovy fillets (if using), and
sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tuna and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes more,
until the fish is rare to medium-rare in the center; do not overcook.
When the pasta is al dente, drain and add it to the sauce. Add the
parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Serve in warm bowls.
Homemade Tomato Sauce
Although bottled tomato sauces abound on store shelves, it's pretty easy to
make one from scratch. The key is the quality of the tomatoes and the olive
oil. If tomatoes are in season, fresh is the way to go. During the off-season, I
use canned, preferably the San Marzano variety.
(This sauce is versatile. You can use it on pasta or to cook
Minchilli Meatballs on page 43.)
For times when you're in a hurry or don't feel like cooking, there
are some good bottled tomato sauces on the market. My favorites among the
Italian imports include Il Mongetto, Rustichella, and Torre Saracena. Rao's
and Dave's Gourmet are two American brands that I've found to be
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 large carrot or 2 small carrots, coarsely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
5 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped (about 4 cups), or two 28-ounce cans
whole tomatoes, drained, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Coarse sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a large heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sauté the
onion and carrot for 2 to 3 minutes, reduce the heat to medium, cover and
sweat the vegetables over medium heat for about 25 minutes, or until soft and
golden. Add the garlic, stir well, cover, and sweat for 5 minutes more, until
softened. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste. Bring to a boil, reduce the
heat to medium-low, and simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes to blend the
Push the cooked sauce through a food mill or blend in a food
processor and push through a sturdy small-holed strainer into a large bowl.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
The sauce can be cooled and stored in the refrigerator for up to 1
week, or frozen for up to 3 months.
makes 3 to 4 cups, enough to serve 6 to 8
• Add 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil at the very end of cooking.
• Fry 6 to 8 fresh sage leaves in olive oil until golden brown. Gently crumble
the sage over the pasta just before serving.
• Add 6 ounces fresh goat cheese to the sauce.
• Add additional olive oil at will—the more, the better, to my taste.
• Add 2 ounces of good-quality balsamic vinegar.
Copyright © 2003 by Ari Weinzweig. Reprinted by permission of Houghton