Indulging a taste for Italian pasta might soon become more expensive than it is, if American pasta makers have their way. The Italian manufacturers I visited assumed that I had come to discuss a nasty trade war taking place between the United States and the European Economic Community over Italian pasta. The controversy began in 1975, when the EEC started subsidizing exports of pasta, in order, it said, to make up for the higher price that manufacturers pay the EEC for European durum. The "restitution," as the EEC called it, allowed Italians to compete with American makers on inexpensive pasta, not just fancy brands.
This was too much for American pasta makers, who could tolerate high-priced imports but not cheap ones. In 1981 their trade group, the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association, protested to the U.S. trade representative in strong terms. It accused importers of undercutting American manufacturers by as much as 25 percent on wholesale prices and 15 percent on retail. The group, which was founded in 1904, was faced with the first hot political issue of its life. In 1983 it renamed itself the National Pasta Association, moved from Palatine, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., and continued the fight. It met with little success. In February of 1985 the NPA described itself in Pasta Journal as "gripped by a feeling of helplessness."
Just two months later the office of the U.S. Trade Representative began looking for a way to retaliate against a tariff that the EEC had imposed on American citrus products in order to promote the Mediterranean citrus industry. The White House announced that unless the United States could reach an agreement with the EEC on the citrus tariff, it would impose a 40 percent tariff on European pasta without egg and a 25 percent tariff on pasta with egg, to go into effect at the end of October. The EEC did not lift the citrus tariff; moreover, between July and October the EEC increased its pasta subsidy by 176 percent. The American tariff went into effect on schedule and has caused a furor in Italy, which sees itself as penalized for a problem (the citrus tariff) that it has nothing to do with. Manufacturers of expensive Italian pasta are especially upset that the tariff is calculated according to wholesale price rather than weight. This hurts their products more than it hurts the cheap imports that the American manufacturers set out to restrain.
Today there is a standoff: the EEC has slapped tariffs on American lemons and walnuts (which doesn't help Italy); it continues to subsidize pasta; and it is unlikely to remove the tariff on American citrus soon. The National Pasta Association plans to hang on to its rather skewed victory. As soon as the tariff went into effect, it mailed promotional literature (accompanied by packages of domestic pasta) to congressmen telling them to remember that American pasta must be protected. Before the tariff was imposed, the NPA predicted that, unchecked, Italian pasta could claim a 20 percent market share by 1988 or 1989—something extremely unlikely, given that it had only a 4.5 percent market share at the time. Prices of Italian pasta in stores have remained competitive, in part because of the EEC subsidy and in part because of discounting by importers. The volume of Italian pasta imported into the United States is as high as it was before the tariff, and American manufacturers are taking note. Prince, for example, is already making a line of "President's Silver Award" pasta, priced at roughly double the price of its other pasta and packaged in a black box—this year's sign of an upscale product.
Italian brands of pasta, whatever they cost, taste better, I think, than most American ones—they have a clean, slightly nutty flavor and above all a texture that stays firm until you finish eating. Taste and texture make all the difference in pasta, but judging by what most American restaurants and home cooks serve, they are unknown attributes of pasta in this country. Many people are surprised to learn that dried pasta can have any flavor at all, let alone stay firm and taste lighter than what they are used to. I recently advised a woman who regularly served truffled omelets and caviar and blinis to her children while they were growing up to buy an imported Italian pasta, something she had never done. The brand she found at her supermarket was Spigadoro, a commonly distributed import whose quality Italians rank solidly in the middle. "I was so knocked out by the difference that I kept cooking a little more until the box was gone in one night," she reported.
Italians criticize Americans for adding soft flour to pasta, and with reason. One American manufacturer boasts in block letters on its packages, "SEMOLINA plus FARINA" (farina is a blend of common wheat flours). This, as one importer of Italian pasta put it, is like boasting about mixing diamonds with rocks. Pasta made with common flour, which is less expensive than semolina, leaves the cooking water white with starch, and quickly turns soggy on the plate, even if it is drained when it seems to be what Italians call al dente—literally, "to the tooth." Italian manufacturers almost never add common flour to pasta: the practice is illegal and a company must go out of its way to cheat. American manufacturers can add flour or not as they please, because there are no laws restricting them to semolina. Even so, many American manufacturers, such as Prince, Ronzoni, and Hershey Foods, which markets six brands of pasta, use only semolina.
You can't tell from looking through the cellophane much about how dried pasta will cook or taste. It should have an even buff color; gray could mean the presence of soft flour. Don't be alarmed if you see tiny black spots. Semolina is milled much more coarsely than ordinary flour, and flecks of bran usually show. A finely pitted, dull surface is far preferable to a glossy one. It suggests that the pasta was made with a bronze die and will hold sauce better.
The regions in Italy famous for the quality of their dried pasta are Campania and Abruzzo. Two of the best brands, Del Verde and De Cecco, are made in Abruzzo. Fortunately, these are also the two most widely distributed imports. Other good brands include La Molisana (from Molise), Braibanti, most of which is marketed as Sidari (from Emilia), and Colavita (from Mouse). Gerardo di Nola, made in Campania, is a cult brand that I've never been able to find. You should buy or order Martelli at least once, if only to have a standard against which to judge other dried pasta. If you can't find any of these brands locally, try any Italian brand available. Besides Spigadoro, made in Umbria, a widely distributed standard Italian brand is Barilla, made in Emilia; Barilla is the world's largest pasta manufacturer.
Gauging portion sizes trips up nearly everyone. The standard portion in Italy, and the size recommended on packages, is two ounces. This is fine for a first course to cut the appetite without killing it. I find three ounces an ideal portion for a main course, but hungry people might prefer four. I use a scale, because 1 cannot judge by eye, and the trick of putting my thumb to my index finger doesn't work when measuring short pasta. Neither does using liquid measures. A half-cup of farfalle, or bows (farfalle means "butterflies"), is not the same as a half cup of ziti, or ridged tubes (ziti means "bridegrooms" in southern Italy; the shape 'as traditionally served at weddings in Sicily). "Portion measurers" for long pasta, usually flat wooden oblongs with holes, are useless, because the size of the portion will vary with the thickness of the pasta.
To cook pasta you need a lot of water, so that it will come back to the boil soon after you add the pasta, so that there will be more than enough water for the pasta to absorb (pasta usually doubles in volume when cooked), and so that the pasta will keep moving as it cooks and not stick together. Start with a gallon for the first quarter pound and add one quart for each additional quarter pound. When the water reaches a rolling boil, add a tablespoon of salt for each gallon of water, which will season the pasta (you can add lemon juice if you prefer to avoid salt). Cooks differ on whether or not to add oil to the water to prevent sticking. Italians think that it makes pasta absorb water unevenly. Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, finds this unlikely, and also thinks that oil won't keep the pasta from sticking unless you add it to cooked pasta. But he does say that oil reduces the foam on the surface and helps prevent water from boiling over. Barbara Kafka suggests in her book Food for Friends that you put several tablespoons of oil into the pot just before you drain it; this will discourage sticking without making the pasta so oily that the sauce slides off.
Add the pasta all at once. Bend long pasta into the water with a two-pronged cooking fork or a wooden spoon. Separate any kind of pasta, so that it doesn't stick, before the water comes back to the boil, and keep it moving as it cooks. The water should be at an active, if not passionate, boil. Don't leave the room.
(Italians say never ever break long pasta as you add it—you should learn to eat it like a man. This means not twirling it against a spoon, a practice fit only for milquetoasts, but instead securing two or three strands with a fork and twirling them against the edge of a plate. This is accomplished more easily in the wide, shallow soup bowls in which Italians serve pasta, but it is quite possible to do on a flat plate. There will be dangling ends. Accept them.) Start timing when the water comes back to the boil. Test after three minutes for dried pasta with egg or five minutes for dried pasta without. The only sure way to test is by biting into a piece. If you wait until it sticks when thrown against a wall—a custom I had always assumed was Italian but can find no Italian to own up to—it will probably be overdone: Breaking a piece apart to examine the interior is also chancy. Pasta is done when the color is uniform, but since it continues to cook after you drain it, you need to know exactly how tiny a dot of uncooked dough should remain in the center before you drain. I have never seen an Italian cook hold a piece of broken pasta up to the light. Everyone tastes the pasta he is making until it is slightly firmer than he wants it to be, and then drains it.
Rather than drain pasta in a colander, Italian cooks usually lift it out of the pot with tongs or a strainer. In this way the pasta stays wet, so that as it finishes cooking out of the pot, it has water to absorb; otherwise it would stick to itself immediately. If you intend to make pasta with any frequency, look for a pot with a colander insert, which will enable you to lift all the pasta out at once. Ignore instructions to add cold water to the pot to stop cooking, because the water left on the drained pasta won't be hot enough to evaporate and will make the pasta slimy. For the same reason it is a bad idea to rinse the pasta after it is cooked—a cardinal sin in Italy. If you use a colander, be sure that it is solidly placed in the sink, that there is nothing in the sink that you don't want bobbing near your pasta, and that you take your glasses off first.
After cooking, good pasta should look moist rather than gummy. All the pieces should be separate and have a uniform texture, but they won't if you undercook the pasta. The water should be clear. If it is floury, there was ordinary flour in the pasta. Save some of the water the pasta was cooked in. Even if it looks clear it will have some starch, which can be useful for thinning a sauce and binding it at the same time. The cooking water can also be useful for adding to the pasta as it finishes cooking, in case you drained it too much.
However you drain cooked pasta, transfer it right away to a warm bowl. The plates should be hot too. Now is the time to add some oil or butter if you are afraid that the pasta will be sticky. This is also the time to add hard grated cheese if you are using it, because it will melt evenly. Don't use too much—a teaspoon or two per portion should suffice—and think twice before using any. Cheese is contraindicated for many sauces. When it is used, it is as a seasoning. The best is Parmesan, and the best Parmesan is Parmigiano-Reggiano. Some cheese stores try to pass off Argentine cheese as the real thing, but it is salty and flat by comparison with the nutty, dry, mellow original. (American Parmesan does not bear even a passing resemblance to Italian.) Look for "Parmigiano-Reggiano" on the rind: it is stamped on every square centimeter. Buy small pieces with rind on—they will keep better—and grate only as much as you need. It is difficult to find a good version of the other common grating cheese—pecorino Romano, which is made of sheep's milk.
Add about two thirds of the sauce you intend to use and gently stir it in. Don't lift the pasta two feet over the bowl as you stir, or it will cool off. And don't add too much sauce. It should just coat the pasta, with no excess at all. Pasta doused in sauce revolts Italians, who when they see it suddenly understand why Americans say that pasta is fattening. (A recipe for baked ziti in Pastahhh, an NPA newsletter, calls for one and a half pounds of meat, one pound of ricotta, a half pound of mozzarella, and two cups of white sauce for one pound of pasta—American abundance carried to a perilous extreme.) Two tablespoons of a thick sauce or a quarter to a third of a cup of a liquid one should suffice per portion. Put the last spoonful on top of each serving, so that the diner can see what the sauce looks like and have something to do.
Another way to mix sauce and pasta is to drain the pasta when it is harder than al dente and heat it for no more than a minute with the sauce. This is helpful for fish-and-wine or stock-based sauces, which do not coat pasta readily: the pasta will absorb sauce as it finishes cooking.
Don't waste a second trying to make the plate look any better. Pasta dishes should be served immediately and thus do not lend themselves to presentation, which may be one reason why the French came only recently to pasta. For example, when you see a photograph like one that appears in The Joy of Pasta, showing spaghetti surrounded by a neat circle of carrot batons and slices of artichoke sprinkled with red pepper flakes, you can be sure that the dish tasted terrible. It took too long to arrange. Gourmet, which recently ran a picture of a plate of homemade pasta on its cover for a story called "Pasta à la Francaise," resorted to pretty china and carefully strewn sprigs of dill to make it look nice. You need never worry about serving a beautifully composed plate of pasta—only about being served one.