This column has two sources of inspiration: From Italy, the Truth about Pasta, an article Nancy Harmon Jenkins wrote for The New York Times a while back, and a newsgroup thread in which people said that they preferred their pasta be served with a spoonful of sauce on the top and more on the side so they could add it if they wanted to. They might be surprised to learn that that is not how pasta is served in Italy.
The major difference between pasta as it is served in Italy and pasta as it is served elsewhere is that for an Italian, pasta is generally a first course, to be followed by a second course of some kind, be it meat, fish, vegetable, cheese, or even pizza (many elegant Italian pizzerie offer huge selections of pasta dishes for their guests to start off with). In other words, it is a part of a meal -- important, yes, but certainly not dominant.
Portion size reflects this: One generally figures a bit less than 1/4 pound of uncooked dry pasta per person (i.e., 70-80 grams), which translates into a deep-dish (or shallow bowl) plateful. A mound is too much, because it will leave no space for the rest of the meal.
Saucing is also quite important: Moderation is again the key. The amount used is 1-2 tablespoons of a liquid sauce such as aglio e olio, and at the most 1/4 cup of a thicker sauce such as sugo alla bolognese per person, stirred into the pasta before serving so as to thoroughly coat the pasta.
The pasta should not be swimming in the sauce, or sitting naked under spoonfuls of it, nor should it be bone dry. Grated cheese? Depends upon the sauce; tomato sauce and meat-based sauces generally call for it and cream sauces sometimes profit from it, whereas it can be distracting in vegetable or fish-based sauces.
In any case, it is served at the table, and most people opt for 1-2 teaspoons, not a heavy dusting that overwhelms everything else.
We now come to a thorny issue: What kind of pasta? Though Italian cookbooks, like their English-language counterparts, give detailed instructions for home-made pasta, few Italians have the time to make it at home except on special occasions. On an average day, it's commercially prepared dry pasta out of a box. Nor is this a fallback; properly cooked, good-quality commercially prepared dry pasta is just as good as -- if not better than -- what most people can make at home.
The difference lies in the flour: Commercial producers use semolina, which produces a pasta that will bear up well to cooking, maintaining its pleasant al dente texture on the way to the table. Unfortunately, as a friend of mine who owned a pasta factory observes, preparing dough from semolina requires industrial mixers or several hours of kneading -- more than enough to burn out the motor of a home pasta machine. Because of this, home cooks resort to soft wheat flour (grade 00, which has slightly less gluten than American cake flour). The results can be superb but require extreme care in the cooking because the pasta is delicate and overcooks easily.
[Edited by Danette St. Onge on June 30, 2016.]
There are two basic kinds of dried commercial pasta:
- Pasta all'uovo, egg pasta, such as tagliatelle, fettuccine, and whatnot (these are the same tagliatelle one makes at home, but made with semolina flour), and:
- Pasta di semola di grano duro, made with just semolina, water and a touch of salt.
The former are flat and of varying width, while the latter comes in all sorts of shapes, from spaghetti to penne to spirals and shells.
Which kind should you use?
Egg pasta goes well with hearty fare, for example, meat-based sauces or rich pomarola tomato sauce. Tagliatelle are also commonly flavored with other ingredients; for example, spinach, which turns them green; tomato, which turns them red; or squid ink, which turns them black. Lasagne made with egg pasta are also superb.
Because of the variety of shapes it comes in, pasta di semola di grano duro is more versatile; which shape to use depends upon the sauce and personal taste. Spaghetti, spaghettini, bucatini and other strands go well with fairly liquid sauces. Shorter, hollow pastas, for example, penne or tortiglioni, go well with thick sauces, in part because they trap the sauce. They also work well in baked dishes, because they have considerable body and can withstand being heated through a second time. Other shorter flat pastas, for example, farfalle (bow-tie pasta), work nicely with cream sauces because the sauce tends to stick to their surfaces.
In terms of purchasing commercial pasta, there are many brands to choose from; in Italy, the most popular are Buitoni, De Cecco, Barilla, Agnesi, and Voiello (not necessarily in this order).
There is also pasta artigianale, pasta made in smaller factories by artisans whose chief concern is quality. Though the basic ingredients are the same, that's where the resemblance ends: The artisans extrude their pasta through bronze dies which give the pasta a rough surface that captures and holds sauce, and they dry it at lower temperatures, thus preserving the flavors of the wheat.
According to Nancy Harmon Jenkins, four of these producers export to the United States: Rustichella D'Abruzzo, Latini, Benedetto Cavalieri and Martelli.
Should you not find Italian pasta in your market: Read the labels of what's available, and pick pasta made with durum wheat flour or semolina. Avoid dried pasta made with simple soft wheat flour (much of the Northern European pasta, for example) instead of durum wheat flour (semolina) because it won't hold up well during boiling and turns soggy quickly.
Cooking pasta is as easy as boiling water, but does require some care.
- You should use 1 quart (4 cups) of water per 1/4 pound of pasta (1 liter of water per 100 grams of pasta), and expand this to 6 quarts for 1 pound. If you don't use enough water, the pasta will be gummy and stick together.
- Bring the water to a rolling boil and salt it with 2-3 teaspoons of kosher salt per quart of water. Don't skimp on the salt, or the pasta will be bland -- it helps to keep in mind that Neapolitans, who are masters at cooking pasta, used to use sea water back when it was safe to do so. Yes, that is how salty the water should be.
- Add the pasta, stirring gently once or twice to separate the pieces and keep them from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
The pasta package will probably say how long the pasta should cook for, but don't trust it. A couple of minutes before it is supposed to be done, fish out a piece and break it open; in the center you will see a whitish area of uncooked pasta that is poetically known as the anima, or soul of the pasta. Continue cooking the pasta until the anima just fades. At this point drain the pasta, giving it one or two good shakes to remove most of the water (it will continue to absorb water for a minute or two), transfer it to the bowl, stir the sauce into it and serve. It's always a good idea to reserve some of the pasta cooking water when draining -- place a bowl in the sink under your colander in order to catch some of the drained water. You can use a ladleful of the pasta cooking water to warm the serving bowls (spoon a ladleful of the host pasta water into each serving bowl, swirl it about to warm the bowl, then discard the water) and/or to thin your sauce and help it adhere to the past, if necessary.
As a variation, if the sauce is fairly liquid, say for penne rosé, warm it in a skillet as the pasta cooks, and when the pasta is just shy of being done, drain it and transfer while it's still dripping it to the sauce. Turn the heat to high and toss the pasta in the sauce; as it finishes cooking, it will absorb the sauce and taste much better.
On restaurant menus, pasta cooked this way is called strascicata or saltata in padella. There are hundreds of pasta recipes on this site; click on the pasta sauces and recipes link on the navigation bar to the left to reach them.