Pasta

An inquiry into a few fundamental questions: How did spaghetti and meatballs, a dish no Italian recognizes, become so popular here? What makes some brands of pasta much better than others? What's so special about fresh pasta? What do Italians know about cooking pasta that Americans don't?
Is Fresh Pasta Better?

Most American books on pasta give plenty of good recipes for dried pasta but say outright that the really classy kind—the only kind fit for showing off the most luxurious and painstaking sauces—is fresh. Pasta shops and high-priced lines of fresh pasta have reinforced this idea. Fresh pasta, however, is another kind of dish altogether and one that many discerning people don't prefer. The legions of Americans making pasta by hand may be the same people who made French bread fifteen years ago. Both practices are anomalous to Europeans. French housewives never make bread; they buy it. And very few Italians make or even buy homemade pasta anymore.

I asked a fashionable Milanese woman, Lucia Mistretta, about fresh pasta; not only is she an excellent cook but her husband, Giorgio, writes restaurant reviews and guides. Without missing a beat she gave me the authentic recipe for egg pasta as prepared in the region of Emilia, which is famous for it (100 grams of flour to one egg), and cited regional variations and alterations for filled shapes. She then explained that she always serves dried pasta, even at dinner parties, because it's what she thinks of as true Italian pasta, and that nearly everyone she knows, even in Emilia, considers fresh pasta a rare exception to the rule of dried. "If it's a rainy Sunday and I can't think of anything better to do, I might make fresh pasta," she said. "And if I told my guests that I had made pasta by hand, we would all understand that I meant with the rolling machine."

Even after mastering fresh pasta, which takes patience, you might well decide that dried is more interesting to eat, besides being a great deal more varied and less time-consuming to prepare. Still, if you ever want a lasagna with the proper very long, thin, wide noodles, or a delicious filled pasta, or if you want to try sauces using wild mushrooms or game—examples of many that are traditional only with fresh pasta—you must learn to make your own.

Exotic fillings in bright-colored pastas are an area of fierce competition among chefs all over the country. For example, within a ten-minute walk of my house, in Boston, which is neither in nor near an Italian neighborhood (and is distant from any center of gastronomic innovation), there is a traditional Tuscan restaurant, the Ristorante Toscano, where Vinicio Paoli makes tortelli filled with wild boar; a fresh-pasta shop, Pasta Pronto, where Richard Bosch makes lobster ravioli (news a few years ago, now standard), and a nuova cucina restaurant, Michela's, where Todd English makes tomato agnolotti filled with goat cheese, wild leek, and porcini mushrooms. I have responded to the challenge of having so many talented cooks in such close proximity by putting filled pastas to one of their most important tasks—using up leftovers. Even subjected to such an indignity, ravioli, say, or tortellini are always impressive.

Once you have made pasta that is neither mushy nor rubbery and you have experimented with the ways different shapes and thicknesses combine with different sauces. . . the end of this sentence is not "you'll never accept substitutes." You'll accept substitutes gladly, if you can find good ones. But only after you have succeeded in making fresh pasta will you be able to judge what's available commercially.

I made pasta every night for a few weeks and became proficient. It was an uphill struggle. I got myself into trouble by insisting on learning how to perform each step without the aid of a machine. The hardest thing to learn to do by hand was rolling out the dough. Marcella and Victor Hazan, in More Classic Italian Cooking, are so persuasive about the superiority of hand-rolled pasta that I was determined to experience for myself the small but crucial variations in thickness, and the enhanced absorption of sauce they promise. Luckily, a master pasta maker agreed to let me watch him. At the end I came to a few conclusions about what should and should not be done by hand.

Sandro Fioriti, a chef from Umbria who has made Sandro's, his delightful restaurant in New York City, famous for its pasta, spent four hours with me one Saturday afternoon and taught me more about making pasta than I thought there was to learn. We mixed pasta by hand, in a processor, and in a mixer with a dough hook; kneaded pasta by hand, with dough hook, and in a rolling machine, the kind most people use at home; rolled pasta by hand and in a rolling machine; and cut pasta by hand and with a rolling machine. We also compared Italian with American flour. Fioriti was unfazed by so much work before a long night in his restaurant. He is a giant of a man with arms the size of a teenager's legs, and a dozen batches of pasta (big ones—most of them contained a dozen eggs) are nothing to him.

The results of the many comparisons we made pointed to the absolute necessity of doing one thing by hand—and to my joy, it wasn't rolling. It was cutting. Fioriti put two dishes of tagliatelle in front of me, one cut by machine and one cut by hand. They had both been rolled by machine. He ladled a bit of tomato sauce over each. The sauce stayed where it was over the hand-cut noodles, which slowly but surely absorbed it when I mixed them. The sauce on the machine-cut noodles immediately slid to the bottom and wanted to stay there even as I tossed the noodles. I felt like I was watching Brand X in a paper-towel commercial.

Fioriti explained. The rolling machine works like a wringer. Pasta dough is rolled between two steel cylinders that can be adjusted so that the sheet becomes progressively thinner. The rollers have some play, in order to accept a thick ball at the beginning (at the machine's widest setting it completes the job of kneading). The rollers do not compress the dough and make its surface slick, as many purists argue. What does do this, Fioriti explained, is using the machine's cutting attachment, because its serrated rollers have no play at all. All of the pasta at Sandro's is rolled by machine and cut by hand, and purists say they like it.

You can buy a rolling machine, then, with a clear conscience, if you promise never to use the cutting attachment. The brand with the best reputation is Imperia; Atlas is another good one. Buy the machine that makes the widest sheet, even if it is a bit more expensive (rolling machines cost from $20 to $40), because it is much more convenient. Machines come with a removable crank and a C-clamp to anchor them to a counter. Electric extruding machines don't work the dough long enough, and the pasta they make is often gummy and unpleasant.

At home I was able to reproduce the results that Fioriti had achieved. The pasta cut by hand, whether it was rolled by hand or by machine, absorbed sauce, and the pasta cut by machine repelled it. I couldn't see much difference between the pasta stretched by hand and the pasta stretched by machine. Yes, there were variations in the thickness of the hand-rolled pasta and yes, they were noticeable. But I don't think they were worth the effort of stretching and swearing at the dough. The uneven edges and different widths that result from hand-cutting are artistry enough.

I pass on two pieces of advice for making homemade pasta: the first few times you try, have something else ready for dinner, and don't work in front of strangers. For good recipes turn to More Classic Italian Cooking, by the Hazans, The Fine Art of Italian Cooking, by Giuliano Bugialli, and The Authentic Pasta Book, by Fred Plotkin—my favorite book on pasta. Plotkin offers very good (and largely authentic) recipes, written for one or two portions, which I find a great convenience, and a running travelogue that could make anyone long for Italy.

There are many variations, of course, to the basic pasta dough. Of the colored pastas, which are beginning to look like paint samples, I condone green, because you can taste the spinach in it. Red is suspect, on the grounds of being trendy, but Plotkin does have an appealing recipe for tomato-and-carrot dough in his book. Anything else is out of the question. Don't be misled when you see beet pasta or squid-ink pasta on a menu. There will be beets or squid ink in the dough, all right, but only for the color. You won't be able to taste them at all, unless they also appear in the sauce (yet both have flavors worth tasting, especially the briny, musky, rich flavor of squid ink).

Handmade noodles come in three basic widths. The widest measures about a quarter of an inch and is called tagliatelle (tagliare means "to cut") in the north and fettucine (from the word for "ribbon" or "band," the kind used for tying cartons) in the south. The next widest measures at most an eighth of an inch and is called tagliarini, tagliolini, or, incorrectly, linguine—the name properly refers only to dried pasta. Narrower cuts are rare because they're not easy to do by hand. The finest of all is called capelli d'angeli or angel's hair. For whatever noodle you choose, allow five or six ounces a portion; fresh pasta contains much more liquid than dried and portions weigh more before cooking. The classic sauces for fresh pasta are cream and butter and cheese, or a simple tomato sauce, or any ragu. The idea is to display the noodles, and the usual way is with a rich sauce without sharp flavors or hard textures.

Fresh pasta cooks in anywhere from a few seconds after the water returns to a boil for thin noodles to ninety seconds for very wide ones. Several minutes more will be necessary for fresh pasta that you have allowed to dry by storing it, covered, out of the refrigerator. The noodles should not taste like raw dough and should have only a hint of a bite. Don't expect them to be al dente. The danger is letting them become soggy or having them outright fall apart.

The central question of fresh pasta is, Is it worth it? I ask myself that every time I sit down to another bowl of it, and the answer is that I don't like homemade noodles that much. There is a certain purity to eating fresh pasta, in biting into something uncoated and uncrusted yet distinct. I don't long for this sensation, but you can certainly feel proud of yourself for having achieved it.

For perfectly acceptable dried egg noodles that you can lie about having made fresh, look for the Italian brands Fini or Dallari, or Al Dente, made in Michigan. Avoid egg noodles from large American producers, who are required to put only 5.5 percent egg solids in the dough and who rarely use fresh eggs; Italian producers are required to put in 20 percent egg solids and may not use powdered eggs. On the basis of most of the fresh pasta I have bought from pasta shops, I recommend going to them for cheese, anchovies, tomato paste, canned tomatoes, and dried pasta.

The best reason to make pasta at home is that doing so lets you choose your own fillings for ravioli, tortellini, and many other shapes. I'm always proud of myself when I bite into a filled pasta I have made. The tenderness of the pasta against the savory, sometimes chewy filling seems suave and satisfying. Most filled pastas require no sauce at all, just a bit of melted butter and herbs. Plotkin gives helpful instructions on cutting and filling different shapes, an elementary procedure; so do Bugialli and Hazan. They also give recipes for fillings, though these are easily improvised.

Unfortunately, there are few commercial filled pastas to brag about. Most of the boxed ones rely on cheddar cheese for their fillings, which is cheaper and easier to use than ricotta or Parmesan. Two Italian companies have been experimenting with more elaborate filled pastas, using cheese and vegetables, because the United States forbids imports of domestic Italian pork. This law has been in effect for nineteen years. The result has been a boon to vegetarians. Fini now exports more spinach-and-ricotta tortelli than any meat-filled pasta, and Bertagni, a firm in Bologna, has (at the instigation of Louis Todaro, one of its American distributors) begun making porcini mushroom, pesto, pumpkin, fish, and gorgonzola fillings in addition to its usual spinach and cheese ones. The Bertagni specialty filled pastas, which are shipped frozen and marketed either frozen or defrosted, are excellent, and are the closest thing to having pastsificio down the street. (The Bertagni dried filled pastas are only so-so.) Fini's filled pastas, which, like Bertagni's, were created in collaboration with the company's American distributor (in Fini's case Giorgio De Luca), are also quite good.

Sauces With and Without Tomato

Italians have codified which sauce goes with which pasta, and the code allows for a good deal of exchange. Luigi Veronelli gives a short outline in The Pasta Book, which was recently published here. In the broadest terms, long shapes go with tomato sauce and short shapes go with meat and vegetable sauces. Here are some more-specific and breakable rules for sauces that go with dried pasta without egg. For long thin pastas, such as spaghettini and vermicelli (which are nearly identical) and linguine and trenette (also nearly identical): fish and seafood sauces. For these pastas plus thicker long pasta, such as spaghetti, perciatelli (from the word for "pierced," because it is hollow), and bucatini (thicker than perciatelli, also hollow): cream, butter, and cheese sauces; tomato sauces; sauces with strong flavors such as hot pepper, garlic, anchovies, or olive paste. For short pastas, such as rotini (spirals), ziti, penne, and rigatoni (big ridged tubes), and hollowed-out pastas, such as lumache (snails), conchiglie (shells), and elbows: meat sauces and vegetable sauces, because the shapes catch meat sauce and enable yo to pick up chunks of vegetable and pasta at the same time. For very short pastas: sauces with dried peas, lentils, chick-peas, or fava or other beans (the combination of pasta and beans is usually found in soup). For flat pastas, such as farfalle and rotelle (wheels): sauces with cream or cheese or delicate vegetable sauces—such as ricotta and spinach, asparagus, and puree of winter squash with nutmeg.

Many of these and similar guidelines make sense. But it appears that the real reason there are so many shapes of dried pasta without egg, especially the hundreds of fanciful ones, is less to enable pasta to go with specific sauces than to provide variety in something that Italians eat once or twice a day. "It's like shoes," Eugenio Medagliani, a manufacturer and retailer, of cookware, explained to me at his store in Milan. Medagliani is an amateur scholar and has assembled a luxurious dictionary of pasta shapes. "There are hundreds of different types, even though you just want to walk comfortably." Despite all the variations, commercial pastas fall into easily identified groups: long and short, flat and round, with and without holes.

It is less easy to codify the hundreds of Italian pasta sauces. Most books on pasta are arranged by type of sauce—for example, the scholar and food-magazine editor Vincenzo Buonassisi's Nuovo Codice della Pasta, which contains more than 1,300 recipes, and Veronelli's book. These books also have chapters on filled pastas and pastas baked with sauce. I was taken with an explanation of the families of pasta sauces which appeared in CIAO, a bimonthly newsletter on Italian food written by Nancy Radke (a year's subscription costs $14; write to 136 Sky-Hi Drive, West Seneca, New York 14224), and I have used it as well as the books as a basis for the list that follows.

Most Italian pasta sauces call for olive oil rather than butter or cream, which is good news for anyone concerned about cholesterol. Recent studies claim that olive oil is more healthful than any other fat. Use a light, medium-priced olive oil for cooking and add a dash of expensive imported olive oil just before serving (two excellent brands are Ardoino and Mancianti).

Ragu is the most famous sauce and the one we think of as spaghetti sauce. A good ragu takes a long time, as readers of Marcella and Victor Hazan's Classic Italian Cooking know—the ragu it offers takes at least three and a half hours to cook, and the Hazans recommend five. Many ragu sauces were once made with large pieces of meat braised until they fell apart, but now almost every ragu sauce uses either meat in small cubes or ground meat. Like stews, ragu calls for cheap cuts, which benefit from long cooking. All kinds of meat and poultry are used, and also unsmoked bacon (pancetta) and sausage. A ragu starts with a sautéed mixture, called a battuto, of onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and sometimes garlic and herbs such as sage and rosemary. The meat is then added and browned very lightly. Wine and sometimes milk are added and slowly evaporated. In most ragu sauces the next ingredient is tomatoes, which are cooked down slowly, but sometimes wine and broth are the only liquids. The sauce can be thickened with tomato paste or grated cheese or both. Sometimes it is enriched with cream. It is served either with fresh pasta, which absorbs it well and thus shows it off, or with short tubes of dried pasta, which trap the sauce in their ridges and holes.

Fish sauces also start with a battuto, sometimes just with garlic and often with hot red pepper flakes. Seafood is then added and heated until it is barely cooked. If the sauce is to be white, white wine is added and evaporated, and after the addition of an appropriate herb, such as basil, oregano, or mint, the sauce is ready. If the sauce is to be red, the seafood is reserved on a covered plate while the tomato is added and cooked down; then it is heated briefly with the sauce before being mixed with pasta. Many new recipes start with butter and call for cream at the end, a French influence of which most Italians disapprove, on the grounds that it masks the flavor of the fish. Cheese does not go with fish sauce.

Vegetable sauces are among the richest in variety. The battuto often includes hot red pepper and a large dose of olive oil and, if the recipe is from the south, anchovies. Although tomatoes are often used as the base of the sauce, they are not essential. Often the liquid is broth. For example, try a sauce with a sliced and sautéed onion with hot pepper flakes, and blanched broccoli florets, or blanched slices of zucchini and carrot, or cubes of grilled eggplant and olives (I'm getting into the territory of the Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza, and Calzone Book, which seems to start every recipe with something grilled). This is another group that has had to withstand the butter-and-cream brigades, whose decisive victory was pasta primavera, a dish of disputed paternity popularized by the New York restaurant Le Cirque. Italians make many dishes with pasta and vegetables but almost never use so many vegetables in one sauce, and they rarely bind the sauces with cream, as the French chef at Le Cirque does. Last year The New York Times published the "definitive" recipe for pasta primavera as it had evolved during ten years of popularity at Le Cirque. Many people spent hours preparing the seven vegetables it called for, and seemed pleased—for weeks I heard reports from people who asked if I had made it yet. I never intend to make it, although I would love to order it in situ. At home I'll stick to one or two vegetables at a time.

Much as I disapprove of adding tomato by rote to every sauce, tomato certainly is useful for filling out sauces and for dressing pasta on its own. It is, after all, the basis of most Italian sauces, even if Italians claim that Americans rely too heavily on it. The standard tomato sauce (pummarola) typically begins with onion and perhaps a bit of garlic softened in olive oil. Carrot added to this mixture will counter the acidity of canned tomatoes; celery adds body. If you like, you can add a bit of white wine after the vegetables have softened, and cook until it is evaporated, but this detracts from the fresh flavor of the sauce. Then add tomatoes—with their liquid if you're using canned—and fresh basil if you can find it. Oregano is an herb used only in the south. It is by no means automatically paired with tomatoes, the way parsley or basil is. If you are intent on adding it, add only a pinch. Simmer the sauce for no more than twenty minutes. Puree in a food mill. Many famous sauces start with this sauce and add just a few strong ingredients: puttanesca uses anchovies, olives, and capers; Amatriciana uses pancetta and hot pepper.

Italians do put cream in sauces, although many of their white sauces are based on balsamella, or béchamel—the sauce of milk, flour, and butter—and many others use butter and cheese. Some common white sauces are simply melted butter and herbs, and melted butter and cheese, and combinations of soft and hard cheeses. Cream sauces frequently include ham, peas, mushrooms, or sausage.

Aglio-olio, or garlic-oil, sauces usually involve hot pepper and garlic sautéed in oil until it colors lightly but not until it browns (browned garlic would make the sauce bitter). These are not served with cheese if cooked, though they are if uncooked, as in pesto (made with basil and pine nuts and Parmesan cheese) and tocco de noxe, a walnut-and-Parmesan sauce that has lately become fashionable. Aglio-olio sauces are usually served with long strands of pasta that allow excess oil to drip off. Radke counsels against bows and corkscrews and other shapes that can spew oil unexpectedly onto your shirt.

Perhaps the most welcome group is uncooked sauces, which can recall summer at any time of year. The best-known is probably fresh tomatoes and basil and olive oil, perhaps with cubed mozzarella. A good and little-known one is olive oil, lemon juice, parsley or basil, and, if you like, hot red pepper or garlic; this sauce is usually served with spaghetti. Olives, anchovies, and capers are the usual condiments for uncooked sauces. A source for elegant and easy sauces that require little or no cooking is Cucina Fresca, by Evan Kleiman and Viana La Place. These two Los Angeles chefs (both women) offer many pasta salads, which are virtually unknown in Italy. (Macaroni salad of the kind that starts with mayonnaise and pimento—"The Middle West is paved with it," reports one man who grew up there—deserves to be unknown everywhere.)

I nominate for consideration in future books an invaluable group—larder sauces that can be assembled with no notice. Aglio-olio belongs at the top of this list, and olive and anchovy sauces next. Many food shops now stock olive paste—finely chopped olives steeped in olive oil. A bit of this makes an excellent pasta sauce. I find that almost any kind of leftovers, with a little doctoring that might involve a sautéed onion or a few herbs or some tomato paste or stock or cheese, can be turned into a pasta sauce—not an authentic one, perhaps, but one I would serve with a trumped-up Italian name and no apologies.

That so many cooks are putting things in and over pasta which no Italian would recognize or go near with a fork should not be cause for scorn or even raised eyebrows. Many Italian chefs, too, are experimenting with pasta, and causing controversy. The difference, of course, is that they have been eating pasta all their lives and that they have long experience with appropriate ways to treat it.

Americans have taken some wrong turns on the road to making pasta the national dish. The most conspicuous error is overcooking, which began so early and has become so customary that it will probably be the last to go. One sign of hope is the decline of canned pasta, which made the softest possible version seem normal. Dried pasta becomes more and more popular every year—sales have risen by an average of four percent during each of the past ten years. Importers such as Todaro and De Luca report increasing sophistication among their customers, who want more and more variety in the shapes and colors of pasta. Perhaps most important, pasta has become popular all over America, not just on the coasts and in cities.

Given enough time, Americans might be responsible for the next classical era of pasta. They have already established serving pasta as a one-dish meal all over the world—even among middle-class Italians, who speak of it no longer as a sign of bad breeding or poverty but as an American-inspired convenience. Per capita consumption of pasta is still only 11.2 pounds a year in the United States, as opposed to sixty in Italy. But the gap could close. Maybe someday the argument over the origin of pasta will turn on the insistence of Americans that pasta as the world knows it was introduced in the United States.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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