The idea that Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy is as congenial to Italians as the idea that the hamburger came from Germany is to Americans. No one disputes that the Chinese have made pasta, from many more kinds of flour than Europeans have, since at least 1100 B.C. Italians insist as a point of national pride that they invented pasta in their part of the world, despite considerable evidence that they did not. They cite as proof a set of reliefs on an Etruscan tomb dating from the fourth century BC, which depict a knife, a board with a raised edge that resembles a modern pasta board, a flour sack, and a pin that they say was made of iron and used for shaping tubular pasta. The Museum of the History of Spaghetti, owned by Agnesi, a pasta manufacturer near Turin, makes much of these reliefs, as do most histories of pasta—including the standard one, Anna del Conte's Portrait of Pasta. The reliefs do not persuade the American historian Charles Perry, who has written several articles on the origins of pasta. "There are plenty of things to do with a pin besides shape pasta," he says. In fact, Perry says, no sure Roman reference to a noodle of any kind, tubular or flat, has turned up, and that makes the Etruscan theory even more unlikely, given that the Romans dominated Italy soon after the Etruscans did.
The first clear Western reference to boiled noodles, Perry says, is in the Jerusalem Talmud of the fifth century A.D., written in Aramaic. The authors debated whether or not noodles violated Jewish dietary laws. (Today only noodles made of matzoh meal are kosher for Passover.) They used the word itriyah, thought by some scholars to derive from the Greek itrion, which referred to a kind of flatbread used in religious ceremonies. By the tenth century, it appears, itriyah in many Arabic sources referred to dried noodles bought from a vendor, as opposed to fresh ones made at home. Other Arabic sources of the time refer to fresh noodles as lakhsha, a Persian word that was the basis for words in Russian, Hungarian, and Yiddish. (By comparison with these words, noodle, which dates from sixteenth-century German, originated yesterday.) In the twelfth century an Arab geographer, commissioned by the Norman king of Sicily to write a sort of travel book about the island, reported seeing pasta being made. The geographer called it itriyah, from which seems to have come trii, which is still the word for spaghetti in some parts of Sicily and is also current in the name for a dish made all over Italy—ciceri e trii, pasta and chick-pea soup. The soup reflects the original use for pasta, which was as an extender in soups and sometimes desserts. Serving pasta as a dish in itself with a bit of sauce does seem to be an Italian rather than a Greek, Persian, or Arab invention. (Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, a wonderful book by Edda Servi Machlin, has delicious pasta recipes that show some of the many influences that the Arab world had on Italian food.)
Even if pasta is not quite as old as the Italians would like, it has been securely documented in Italy before 1295, when Marco Polo returned from China. In 1279 a basket of dried pasta was recorded in the estate inventory of a Genoese soldier, indicating that it was considered valuable. The word used was macaronis, a word whose derivation historians fight over. The one usually given is makar, the Greek for "blessed," as in sacramental food. In Italy today maccheroni refers to tubular dried pasta; in America macaroni is synonymous with "elbows" to the public but not to many manufacturers, who use it to refer to any dried pasta made of just flour and water. Manufacturers use noodle to refer to a dough with egg, which can be sold fresh or dried. Spaghetti, which means "little strings," is often used generically, for dried pasta without egg. Marco Polo spoke of lasagne, which then meant "noodles," to describe what he saw, which indicates that he was already familiar with the food anyway.
The Marco Polo myth has refused to die. Italians accuse Americans of promulgating it, beginning with an influential article in a 1929 issue of Macaroni Journal (now Pasta Journal), an American trade magazine, which has inspired countless advertisements, restaurant placemats, cookbooks, and even movies. (From 1919 on, Macaroni Journal occasionally published articles purporting to give the history of pasta, usually—though not always—labeling the less plausible ones as lore. The 1929 story began, "Legend has it . . .") In the 1938 film The Adventures of Marco Polo, Gary Cooper points to a bowl of noodles and asks a Chinese man what he calls them. "In our language," the man replies, "we call them spa get."
In the centuries after Marco Polo's voyage pasta continued to be a luxury in Italy. By 1400 it was being produced commercially, in shops that retained night watchmen to protect the goods. The vermicelli, as dried pasta was known, was kneaded by foot: men trod on dough to make it malleable enough to roll out. The treading could last for a day. The dough then had to be extruded through pierced dies under great pressure, a task accomplished by a large screw press powered by two men or one horse.
This somewhat gamy procedure was not used for other kinds of dough, but commercial pasta dough has never been normal dough. The flour used to make it—semolina—is granular, like sugar, and has a warm golden color. Semolina makes a straw-colored dough that must be kneaded for a long time, which is why it has always been far more common in commercial than in homemade pasta. Semolina is milled from durum wheat (Triticum durum; durum means "hard"), a much harder grain than common wheat (Triticum vulgarum), which is used to make ordinary flour. (The harder the grain, the more energy required to mill it.) All durum makes firmer cooked pasta than common flour does, but not all durum is alike in hardness or quality. The kind of durum milled into semolina and how a manufacturer makes and dries the dough determine the firmness of the pasta when it is cooked.
Durum wheat was suited to the soil and weather of Sicily and Campania, the region around Naples, and so the pasta industry developed there, in the eighteenth century, and led Italian production into this century. Naples had a perfect climate for drying pasta. The alternation of mild sea breezes and hot winds from Mount Vesuvius ensured that the pasta would not dry too slowly, and thus become moldy, or too fast, and thus crack or break. The number of pasta shops in Naples went from sixty to 280 between the years 1700 and 1785. Young English aristocrats making the grand tour in the eighteenth century were shown the city where pasta hung everywhere to dry—in the streets, on balconies, on roofs. Neapolitan street vendors sold cooked spaghetti from stalls with charcoal-fired stoves, working with bowls of grated Romano cheese beside them. Customers would follow the example of the barkers, who lifted the long strands high and dropped them into their mouths. The grand tourists assumed that the fork hadn't yet caught on in Italy, whereas it was the Venetians who in the sixteenth century had introduced the fork to Europe.
Englishmen went home full of Italy, and became known as macaronis for their foreign affectations. In the mid-eighteenth century macaroni referred to an overblown hairstyle as well as to the dandy wearing it, which may be why Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called the effect macaroni. (A species of penguin with an orange-colored crest is called the macaroni penguin.) Doodle comes from a German word meaning "simpleton"—the same definition that noodle had at the time (honest, starchy foods like dumplings have long had bad reputations). The song "Yankee Doodle" was used by the British to ridicule the American colonists, who adopted it in self-defense.
Macaroni came to America with the English, who served it baked with cheese and cream, as was also popular in the north of Italy, and in rich sweet baked custards. Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing dried pasta without egg to America, but, like the Marco Polo legend, this is a romantic fiction. He did take notes on the manufacturing process during a trip to Naples and even commissioned a friend in Italy to buy him a "maccarony machine." He shipped himself two cases of pasta in 1789. By 1798 a Frenchman had opened what may have been the first American pasta factory, in Philadelphia, and it was a success. Upper-class Americans also bought pasta imported from Sicily, which had snob appeal.
Other factories opened, the price went down, and by the Civil War macaroni was available to the working classes. Books of the period indicate that the common way to serve it was cooked until soft—usually at least half an hour—and baked with cheese and cream. Macaroni and cheese, then, like many other dishes that the English brought to the Colonies, can be considered an old American dish. In the mid-1880s, according to Karen Hess, the food historian, cookbooks published as far from the East as Kansas included recipes for macaroni, some involving a tomato and meat sauce. One writer in Philadelphia advocated macaroni as a food item "more valuable" than bread. Americans did not take it up in large numbers, however. It lost its cachet once the masses could afford it, and the fashionable restaurants of New York did not serve it—or any other Italian dish—even though many of them were run by Italians.
The huge wave of Italian immigration that began toward the end of the century was ultimately responsible for pasta's becoming a staple of the American middle class, but at first the immigrants put the rest of America off the very idea of pasta. From 1880 to 1921 more than five million Italian's came to America, three quarters of them from the regions south of Rome, and both their numbers and their strange ways seemed threatening. Harvey Levenstein, a professor of history at McMaster University, in Ontario, and Joseph Conlin, a professor of history at Chico State University, in California, are writing a book about the food that Italian immigrants ate in America. They say that social workers and nutritionists were horrified by the immigrants' pasta, hard cheese, vegetables, fruit, and—worst of all—garlic. Food science, a new discipline in the 1890s (entertainingly described in Laura Shapiro's recently published book Perfection Salad), declared that most fruits and vegetables, particularly green vegetables, were of little nutritional value and cost too much.
The Italians ignored the advice to eat right. They cultivated any land they could and grew vegetables and herbs that they could not find in America; they canned vegetables; they spent what the home economists thought were appalling sums on small pieces of imported hard cheese. When reformers tried to set up cooking classes in Italian neighborhoods, they found few pupils. Doctors complained that Italians would not enter hospitals because they considered the food inedible.
The Italians did change their eating habits, although they did so of necessity, not because nutritionists told them to. They ate fewer varieties of fruit, vegetables, and cheese than they had been used to, because of the trouble and expense involved in obtaining what they liked. They ate much more meat, because it was extremely cheap and plentiful by their standards. They acquired a taste for cakes and rich desserts. They also ate more pasta, which, because of its cost, had been a holiday dish for many southern Italians. The seasonings they used were primarily the classic ones of Campania, even though beginning in 1910 Sicilian immigrants outnumbered Campanian ones. Levenstein and Conlin explain that the Campanians were already established as grocers, and that tomato paste, oregano, and garlic were easier to come by than seasonings typical of other regions—such as pine nuts, wild fennel, and saffron for Sicilians, or ginger for immigrants from Basilicata, the region to the east of Campania.
For whatever reasons, what became Italian-American cuisine started with a base of Campanian food, minus many kinds of vegetables and cheeses and plus a lot of meat. Thus the rise of spaghetti and meatballs, a dish unknown in Italy. It probably had its origin in several baked Neapolitan pasta dishes, served at religious festivals such as Carnival and Christmas, that used meatballs no bigger than walnuts and also called for such ingredients as ham and boiled eggs. Thus, too, the rise of the lavish portions and the reliance on garlic, hot pepper flakes, and oregano, seasonings that seemed to become more and more prominent as the immigrants were assimilated into American culture. Levenstein and Conlin point out that Italian-Americans embraced enthusiastically the Americanized version of their food, and went on thinking of it as just like the food in the old country.
Although hundreds of small pasta factories opened in urban Little Italys, Italians preferred to buy imported pasta, however expensive, because it was made from durum wheat. (American farmers did not grow durum until this century.) The First World War brought imports to a halt, and between 1914 and 1919 the number of American pasta makers rose from 373 to 557. Sales were helped by a new generation of food scientists, whose discovery of vitamins prompted them to recommend eating pasta. Pasta was also cheap at a time when food prices were rising. Recipes for spaghetti and tomato sauce started turning up in women's magazines. American millers found a new use for flour, the consumption of which had decreased as the population moved to cities and began eating "better" diets, which were not based on bread. The millers sponsored "eat more wheat" campaigns in the early 1920s and promoted macaroni as "the divine food" (referring to the word's supposed derivation from the Greek word for "blessed"). Pasta makers began using durum wheat, which they advertised as being higher in protein than soft wheat (it is, but not by much). Campbell's, Heinz, and other manufacturers brought out canned macaroni with tomato sauce, joining Franco-American, which in the 1890s had begun to sell canned spaghetti, stressing that it used a French recipe. Cooking pasta long enough to can it safely institutionalized what was already a long-established practice, one for which Italians still deride Americans—overcooking pasta and thus robbing it of its savor and interest.
Now it was acceptable to promote Italian food, even if the pasta was mush and the tomato sauce was full of sugar and salt. One typical recipe for tomato sauce omitted garlic and consisted of canned tomato soup with. Worcestershire sauce added. In 1927 Kraft began marketing grated "Parmesan" cheese in a cardboard container with a perforated top and suggested that the cheese be served as a topping for spaghetti with tomato sauce. Spaghetti sales outnumbered those of egg noodles and ran a strong second in popularity to elbow macaroni, called simply macaroni, which was already conventional in salads.
The efforts at promotion worked. Annual per capita consumption went from near zero in 1920 to 3.75 pounds by the end of the decade (as compared with fifty pounds in Italy). Restaurants accounted for much of this rise. Cafeterias, which became tremendously popular in the twenties, served a great deal of spaghetti and tomato sauce. Italians all over the country opened "spaghetti houses" that served spaghetti and meatballs to blue-collar workers. By the end of the twenties Italian restaurants had become the most popular ethnic restaurants in American cities, a lead they now hold nationwide. The Depression made spaghetti less an option than a necessity, and spaghetti and meatballs began appearing regularly on millions of American tables.
Just when pasta was becoming almost as ordinary a meal in America as it had long been in Italy, one Italian was telling his countrymen to stop eating it. In the early thirties Italy was appalled when F T. Marinetti, the founder of Futurist poetry and painting, published his Manifesto of Futurist Cuisine, which called for a ban on all pasta on the grounds that pasta was responsible for "the weakness, pessimism, inactivity, nostalgia, and neutralism" he saw all around him. Italians, who should be thin, the better to ride in "ultralight aluminum trains," should eat only rice as a starch. Macaroni was a "symbol of oppressive dullness, plodding deliberation, and fat-bellied conceit." Knives and forks would go too. Dishes combining strange ingredients chosen for their color as well as their taste would sometimes be eaten and sometimes merely passed under the nose of the diner to excite his curiosity. A cookbook put together by Marinetti and Luigi Fillia, an artist, and published in 1932 included dishes that today sound almost familiar: winter-cherry risotto; a spread of tuna fish, apples, olives, and Japanese peanuts, to be served on a cold egg-and-jam omelet; and an under-ripe date filled with cream cheese and liqueur, wrapped in raw ham and a lettuce leaf, and served with pickled chili pepper and small pieces of Parmesan cheese. The Futurists presaged nouvelle cuisine. The Italians were not interested in the bizarre suggestions and were outraged at the idea of giving up pasta. Even Americans were alarmed. The American National Macaroni Manufacturers Association sent Mussolini a telegram of protest.
Mussolini did not ban pasta. Rather, he initiated the growing of durum wheat in central and northern Italy in an effort to make the country self-sufficient. Factories in the north began making pasta in the 1930s, and electric drying tunnels replaced sea and volcanic breezes. Naples became steadily less important in the manufacture of pasta, and today the province of Campania is only the sixth-largest producer of pasta in the country.
I recently visited a number of pasta factories in Italy to learn how pasta is made and which brands are the best. Disappointingly, none of the factories I saw resembled the smokestack-crammed temples of the Industrial Revolution depicted on boxes. Pasta factories today are anonymous and modern, and their proprietors generally do not welcome tours. The young man guiding me through Braibanti, a factory near Parma, stopped in his tracks when I asked to climb the stairs to one machine to look at the addition of water and eggs to dough for dried egg noodles—one of the few parts of the manufacturing process that makes a difference in quality from brand to brand. "Why exactly do you want to see that?" he asked icily.
Luckily, I was able to see the manufacturing process on a scale that made sense to me—at the small and delightful factory of Martelli, which many cognoscenti consider thebest exporter of pasta in Italy. (The company's only peer's are tiny factories near Naples, whose products are hard to find even in Italy and are almost unknown here.) The factory is in four or five rooms of two medieval buildings in Lari, a Tuscan hill town twenty miles from Pisa. The buildings are in the shadow of a twelfth-century castle at the top of the hill. The castle appears on the cheerful, bright-yellow packages, whose text is written in what looks like a very neat child's hand.
I arrived on a Saturday afternoon to find Dino and Mario Martelli and their wives, Lucia and Valeria, packing maccheroni. The women wore yellow aprons that matched the packages. These four are the only employees. Dino and Mario's father and uncle started the business in 1926 by buying out a local pasta maker. Today the brothers use the same equipment the company had in the 1940s, before high-temperature drying tunnels became popular. The Martellis make only four shapes—spaghetti; spaghettini, or thin spaghetti; maccheroni; and penne, diagonally cut ridged tubes named for quill pens. The Martelli factory has only one "pasta line," as the machine that mixes, kneads, extrudes, and dries dough is called. The one at Martelli is small—about eight feet high, seven feet wide, and eighteen feet long.
The brothers mixed a batch of dough for spaghetti to show me the process. They buy durum from Canada, the United States, and elsewhere and have it ground at a mill nearby, so that it will be fresh. Italian manufacturers are known for their skill at blending many durums to achieve the color and texture they seek. Americans are rarely as discriminating. This disparity, more than anything else, accounts for the superiority of Italian over American pasta.
Mixing and kneading take from thirty to forty minutes at Martelli, as opposed to the twenty usual in other factories; the Martellis say that long kneading improves flavor. The dough is forced at great pressure through holes in one of four dies, each of which is shaped like a big hockey puck; the choice of die determines the shape of the pasta as it is extruded. If pins are suspended from wires in each hole the pasta will be hollow after it is forced through the die; the hole is bigger where the dough enters than where it leaves, so the two sides of the tube are joined as the dough streams out. If the holes are notched where the dough enters them, the pasta will be curved. The Martellis use only bronze dies, because the rough, porous surface these create makes for better sauce absorption. Teflon-lined dies, which most manufacturers use today, produce pretty, polished surfaces that don't hold sauce well. The Martellis are careful not to apply too much pressure or to allow the temperature of the dough to rise too high during extrusion, lest the proteins in the semolina be denatured, making the cooked product soft.
How long and at what temperature pasta is dried are also important to the quality of cooked pasta. The Martellis use an automatic dryer only for the first stage of drying, which lasts about an hour. The pasta stays in the tunnel for several more hours to enable the humidity in the center and on the surface to equalize. The brothers then carry it on poles or screens to one of several drying closets, which have appealing doors of wood and glass. Other manufacturers send the pasta through another and much longer tunnel for between six and twenty-eight hours, often at temperatures so high that they risk denaturing the protein. At Martelli the pasta stays in the closets, which have curved, tin-lined walls to distribute air from small fans at the top, for two days or more (the pasta left to Naples winds could take as long as a week to dry). The comparatively low temperatures greatly improve flavor, according to the Martellis, who claim to be the only manufacturers left who use drying closets. They doubtless are the only manufacturers to dry pasta in closets that have a view of miles of Tuscan hills and valleys interrupted only by grapevines and castles.
When the pasta is dry, it travels through what looks like a laundry chute to the adjacent building, where it is packed and crated. The Martellis don't cut the spaghetti and spaghettini; as a sign of their craftsmanship they leave it rounded where the strands have hung on the poles. The shop's production is small, but the family claims to like it that way. Martelli pasta is a luxury item in Italy, where it is sold in a few gourmet shops, and in America, where it is available from the Williams-Sonoma chain of kitchen shops and from Dean & DeLuca (the telephone number for mail-order service is 800-221-7714).
My visits to other factories in Italy and the United States confirmed the differences that the Martellis had pointed out. The kneading was faster, the dies were Teflon, the drying tunnels were so long that the rooms holding them looked like sound stages. One factory I visited—the most determinedly high-tech—was Fini, which consists of a long, low white structure adjoining a sixteenth-century building that until 1974 housed the factory. Originally a monastery, it is now the office building, and at the main entrance big sliding glass doors lead to a chapel, which has a carved Madonna in a niche, topped by a blue neon halo. The new factory building is almost overwhelmingly luxurious. The floors are terra-cotta tile, the walls white stucco, and there are stainless-steel doors and counters everywhere. One storage room has wooden floor-to-ceiling shelves finished as carefully as library shelves and filled with wheels of Parmesan cheese. Modena, a city midway between Bologna and Milan, where Fini is situated, has the highest per capita income of any city in Italy, so perhaps the luxury isn't surprising. In the center of the city Fini maintains two excellent food shops and a restaurant that is considered one of the best in the country for traditional Italian food.
Fini makes only egg pasta. The dough is extruded in long sheets that are then either cut into long ribbons, which are sold dried, or punched into shapes that are filled and shipped frozen, to be sold either frozen or thawed. The fillings are made with the same quality of Parmesan cheese and meats that Fini sells separately (the company opened at the turn of the century as a purveyor of cured meats and sausages).
The differences between Fini and Prince, one of the largest manufacturers in the United States, were instructive. The eggs, for example, are fresh at Fini and at every Italian factory I visited: my Italian guides made much of how frequently their eggs are delivered and how difficult it is to keep the storage tanks immaculate and at the right temperature. The guide at Prince showed me blocks of frozen eggs and said that powdered eggs are frequently used; a woman in Prince's test laboratories told me that frozen and powdered eggs are the standard in America. The guide boasted about the speed of the Italian high-temperature drying tunnels that Prince had installed. The American factory seemed far more concerned with volume than with quality.
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.
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.
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.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.