Pasta: Everything you wanted to know and some things you didn't.

Few foods have worked their way into our everyday diet more quickly, or more effectively, than pasta. Twenty five years ago the only way the average American could enjoy a perfect plate of pasta was probably to take a trip to Italy. Otherwise most of us were limited to one or more items from a pasta menu of baked macaroni and cheese; heavily-sauced (and often overcooked) spaghetti with red sauce and/or meatballs; or some sort of soft (tuna?) noodle casserole. Maybe some macaroni salad on the Fourth of July.

All that has changed in a hurry. Here in Ann Arbor, I know that pasta makes regular appearances on the dinner tables of our core customers. And from talking to specialty food retailers around North America the trend seems to be the same elsewhere. Pasta is on its way to being an essential element of the modern American diet.

The demand for pasta is exploding, which means there's opporutunity for anyone interested in offering better quality products. The challenge is can we teach our customers to differentiate between the mass market products available on the shelves of every discount food store in America, and the truly terrific traditionally-made pastas on the market.

Can consumers tell the difference? And will they pay the price for better pasta?

Overall, I'd can say with confidence, the answer is yes. But I guess I'd also say that pasta's enormous popularity brings both good news and bad news for specialty retailers. Still, I supposed the majority of Americans has no idea how how much difference there can be between one pasta and another. Why? Because hardly anyone ever misses what they've never experienced; if I'd never eaten exceptional pasta I'd probably still be satisfied with Spaghettio-s. The good news is that once you get used to great pasta, it's hard to go back to subpar stuff.

Can there really be that much difference? Well, I've been asked similar questions about bread. "It's just flour and water, how much difference can there be?" A lot. As with every other form of traditional food, there are enormous variations in the quality of the many brands of pasta out there. And while there's plenty of room on store shelves to accommodate that wide range it's important for us to know what differentiates one pasta from the next. The more we understand, the better we'll be able to serve our customers, the better we'll be able to design and maintain an appropriate selection on our shelves.

A Tangled History

Not that it really matters all that much to today's consumer, but the origins of pasta eating remain the subject of some historical debate, often with nationalistic overtones. (Remember that hurling epicurean epithets beats the hell out of real life military battles.) Although its popularity is relatively recent in North America, noodles are hardly a new form of nutrition. They are mentioned in the Talmud (and in ancient Arabic writings from the same period), where they are known as itriyot, a word whose influence can still be heard in the dialects of places like Sicily or Puglia. The English word noodle, it is alternately argued, descends from the Latin nodellus, (little knot), or from the German. Macaroni is alternately credited either to the Greek ("blessed"), or the Italian ("maccare," meaning "to squash" or "to flatten"). Pasta means "paste" or "dough" in Italian.

Although nearly everyone has heard the legend of Marco Polo bringing pasta back to Italy from China, no one seems to believe it anymore. True, the Chinese are thought to have been serving noodles as early as the first century AD, and by the time of the tenth century, noodle shops were popular in much of the country. But in various forms noodles seem to have shown up in Italy long before Mr. Polo's trip. Roman cooks served something called laganum, perhaps an early form of lasagna (though it was likely cooked on hot stones or ovens not boiled as would be done with noodles). Arab geographer visiting the island of Sicily over a hundred years before Marco made his way back from Asia in 1295 reported seeing noodles being made on. It's likely that both India and parts of the Middle East were also eating noodles extensively by the 12th or 13th century. Most specifically the inventory of a Genoese merchant made in 1279 records macaroni. By the start of the 15th century dried pasta, usually referred to then as vermicelli, was being commercially produced in Italy. Back then the kneading of the dough was done by foot, not by machine; extrusion was driven by large screw press powered by couple of strong men or an equally powerful "equine" engine.

Origins aside, pasta's wide scale popularity in Italy dates to the early 18th century when new machines made it possible to produce it on a more commercial scale. Although Sicily had been the major source for pasta in medieval times, in the modern era it was supplanted by Naples. Hot winds from the mountains combined with much milder sea air were optimal climate for drying, and hard durum was well-suited to the soil of the area. By the end of the century the number of pasta-making-shops in the town had grown nearly fivefold. A Sunday afternoon stroll would have likely meant seeing notable quantities of noodles drying outdoors on rooftops or just about any other seemingly suitable spot. English tourists traveling extensively in the area took to pasta, and brought it back to Britain with them. Unfortunately what they brought back was somehow turned into overcooked macaroni, with melted cheese; the Italian artistry with pasta was left to the Italians.

Early American appreciation for pastas came courtesy of English expatriates. More often than not, back then it was baked with cheese and cream. In 1788 a Frenchman opened pasta factory in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson is said to have shipped Neapolitan pasta back home to Virginia in 1789. By the Civil War era it was already readily available to everyday Americans, though for the most part it remained a dish of very soft, overcooked (for about 30 minutes) noodles, baked with cream and cheese. In the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two of the 20th, something like five million Italians emmigrated to America. Although American nutritionists were generally horrified by the Mediterranean diet, pasta remained popular.

Italians-Americans still preferred to buy imported pasta when they could get it (and afford it) because it was made from harder, tastier durum wheat (more on this in a minute). At the end of the 19th century the canned macaroni with tomato sauce hit the market. And when the First World War interrupted the flow of imports from Italy, more pasta factories opened on American shores. And in 1927 the cardboard containers of macaroni and cheese which I grew up half a century later were introduced.

"It will be maccheroni, I swear to you, that will unite Italy." Giuseppe Garibaldi

"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."
Corby Kummer, The Atlantic Monthly

"Nothing else, not opera or Renaissance art or Roman ruins or even pizza, so exemplifies Italy as pasta."
Burton Anderson, Treasure of the Italian Table 1994

Pasta in Italy is a topic so diverse, so detailed that you could easily spend decades studying it. Although I've been reading, learning, loving, talking, and tasting it regularly for years, as a North American of non-Italian origin I certainly didn't grow up with it. In truth, I feel like little more than a barely literate noodle novice compared to those who have been making and eating great pasta since they were little kids.

The subject is so big, it's impossible to deal with without first narrowing down the discussion. Even if I leave out the noodle traditions of Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, Italy alone has too much macaroni material to fit into a single educational article. In Italy there are two broad categories of pasta. One is pasta fresca, or fresh pasta. Usually made at home or in the kitchens of quality-oriented restaurants fresh pasta is usually made from soft flour, combined with eggs. It is an entity unto itself. I will leave it-in fact, all egg pastas-for a future piece.

Where I will focus my attention today is on what Italians call pasta secca, or dried pasta. Back in the 80's, when "fresh pasta" was all the rage in America, most folks falsely assumed that "fresh" and "dried" pastas were simply two different versions of the same thing. This is a complete misnomer. Instead, in Italy they are two entirely different entities. Many dishes rely on the softer texture and richer flavor of fresh pasta. Certain regions-Emilia-Romagna, for example-specialize in it. But there are even more dishes which count on the flavor and texture that is typical of dried pasta.

Dried Pasta Preface

The basic process for preparing dried pasta is fairly simple, and likely familiar. Flour and water are mixed into a dough; the dough is extruded through dies to create a multitude of shapes and sizes; this freshly pressed pasta is then dried to preserve it; finally it's packed and shipped to market. Of course, while the basic process is consistent from one pasta to the next, there are enormous differences from one to the next. How can you tell which ones are at the top of the market, and which are only at entry level?

From an end user's perspective, there are two major characteristics of dried pasta quality:

1) Better Pasta Tastes Better

Americans often approach pasta as little more than a convenient, politically correct, way to convey large quantities of sauce from plate to palate. But for serious Italian eaters the point is the pasta as much as it is the sauce. The pasta itself is actually supposed to have a flavor and integrity of its own to offer. Good pasta should taste good. In the same way that a great loaf of bread is good enough to eat on its own, so too should a good pasta be able to stand out with only a little olive oil or butter, and maybe a light sprinkling of well-aged Parmesan cheese.

2) Texture, Too

The other key to the pasta puzzle is texture; the integrity of the noodle after it's been cooked is essential element of the product. Poor quality pastas literally almost fall apart in the pot. But well-made noodles stay firm when properly cooked can be cooked al dente-tender, but still slightly firm in the center-without too much trouble. They absorb the sauce well. When you bite into them you know you're eating something significant, not gumming your way through some overcooked tuna casserole.

How do you know if a pasta meets the above qualifications? Cook up some pasta and eat it on its own. At most, add a drop or two of extra virgin olive oil or a tad bit of butter. Though nearly naked, good pasta should taste good. The flavor of the wheat should come through. It ought to make you want to dig your fork in for another bite, and then another. Sound strange? It may be, but it works. I tried this technique again on my own the other night when I was writing this piec-I cooked up spaghetti from seven different sources just to make sure I hadn't completely lost touch with reality. Sure enough: a) there were very significant differences from one brand to the next; and b) the best tasting pastas of the seven were the ones that kept me going back to the bowl for. If you doubt me still, try it for yourself and see what you think.

Less Sauce, More Flavor

To fully grasp why Italians put so much more emphasis on the flavor and texture of the pasta they put on their plates, it's important to understand that in Italy the serving ratio of sauce to pasta is far lower than is considered "standard" in Sioux City or San Antonio. Italians generally offer smaller servings of pasta, lightly tossed with a sauce, or simply served with a dollop of sauce sitting atop the noodles. The sauce should accent, never overwhelm. An upstanding Italian chef would never drown their pasta in sauce. With this in mind, it only makes sense that the pasta itself has to have flavor and character of its own. In the same way that flavored coffees rarely start with the best beans, similarly over sauced plates of pasta make it easy to get away with offering inferior noodles.

Certainly there's a whole range of pastas out there, each with its own merits, each worthy of consideration as you plan your store's selection. As a buyer-whether at retail or wholesale- here's some of the key contributors to pasta quality:

1. Start with the Grain

Just as a cheese can never be better than the milk from which it is made, the flavor of a pasta will never rise above that of the grain it starts with. Hence it's the first major contributor to the quality of any dried pasta. If you go into a small pasta plant, the first thing you're likely to notice is the smell of the grain. It's much like the scent of a good bakery-warm humid air, perfumed with the aroma of milled wheat.

If you're serious about pasta, don't ever take the role of the grain lightly. In his classic The Unprejudiced Palate, written in 1948, Angelo Pellegrini puts it pretty bluntly: "Pasta made with ordinary wheat flour is a phony, and no Italian will use it."What's the alternative to "ordinary wheat flour?"

All the best Italian dried pastas start with semola di grano duro, (durum semolina), the coarsest grade of milled endosperm from hard wheat (triticum durum). In fact, Italian law actually requires it. (Up until recently, you couldn't even sell soft wheat pasta in Italy, but European Union codes have forced the Italians to open their market to imports from other EU countries.) Because of its harder nature, durum semolina requires longer kneading, adding time and cost, but contributing mightily to the flavor and texture of the finished pasta. It gives the glowing golden appearance that is typical of Italian pastas.

Unfortunately, only Italy imposes such a requirement for semolina. In other countries it's perfectly permissible for a pasta maker to start with soft wheat (triticum vulgarum), which is far less costly, but produces inferior pasta. To turn again to Angelo Pellegrini, soft wheat pasta "'mushes' up, falls apart and sticks to the teeth." You can usually spot soft wheat pastas as soon as you drop them into boiling water; the pasta breaks down in the boiling water and leaves the liquid looking cloudy. This is the "pasta" I-and most other Americans-grew up on. Consequently, although it sounds terrible in Signor Pellegrini's devilish description, the truth is that most folks we're selling to aren't even aware there was anything amiss in the plates of pasta their mothers and grandmothers were putting on the table.

So, we know that the best dried pastas start out with semolina. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as just finding a package that lists semolina in the ingredients. In his excellent essay in The Atlantic Monthly in 1986, Corby Kummer reported that, "Italian manufacturers are known for their skill at blending many durums to achieve the color and texture they seek." Just as coffee roasters work with an array of green beans, the best pasta makers are masters at buying and blending durum semolina from various sources. Long before the grain ever gets into the pasta machines, the pasta maker seeks adjusts his or her sources annually to take into account alterations in weather patterns and crop yields and flavor. Each has his own recipe, his own sources, his own mix. The variety of the wheat (as with other agricultural products, older varieties of wheat often yield the most flavorful grain, but also have lower yields and higher risk of disease which keep more cost conscious producers at arms length) and the soil in which the grain is grown (some prefer wheat from the various regions of Italy, others won't buy anything but Canadian durum) are both big contributors to quality.

Notice that the term here is "grain," not "flour." Don't dismiss this as a minor linguistic difference Italian pasta makers are adamant about the fact that they work with "grain," not flour. I once made the mistake of mixing the two terms; speaking to a third generation maker of traditional pasta, I stupidly inquired about his flour. He immediately gave me this look of deep disgust. (A look I know well because, unfortunately, I've given it a thousand times myself. Eyebrows arch, lips purse, teeth grit, like you were just forced to listen to chalk squeak on the blackboard after warning the kid in question a hundred times not to do it.) Fortunately, he took pity on me, and made time to set me straight with the help of a little visual aid.

"It's not flour. It's grain!" he corrected me sternly. "Watch." He grabbed the unsuspecting salesperson standing to his left. Then he reached into the sack of yellow semolina, lifted out a fistful and poured it all over the sleeve of the guy's powder blue suit. I was sort of stunned, feeling responsible for ruining this poor guy's suit. Flour, far more finely milled, would have been quickly embedded into the cloth. But then the pasta maker, smiled, and holding firm to the fellow's arm, brushed off almost every single bit. Since milled semolina is granular in structure, sort of like sugar, only minimal markings were left as the grain fell to the floor. "See," he said. "Si," I replied. I'm slow, but I'm not stupid. I will repeat the term "Grain" three hundred times today before we leave.

Certainly as retailers there are few of us sufficiently skilled in agronomic analysis to able to assess how good a particular grain is going to be. But the point is that the best dried pasta should taste of the grain; if you know a noodle with flavor and character it's likely the maker has managed to buy from better sources. Conversely, pastas with little flavor are usually those made from lesser wheat.

2. The Water

Although few people think about it, the quality and flavor of the water that's used is going to effect the flavor of the pasta. After all, all there is in these pastas is grain and water. Since the water in any given area has its own chemical and mineral makeup the water makes a difference, just as it does when you brew coffee or tea. A bag of the same grain, mixed in California instead of Campania, is likely to yield different flavors in the finished pasta.

3. The Mixing

If you're after more flavorful pasta, longer, slower and cooler mixing is considered preferable. As with the mixing of bread dough excessive heat is the enemy of the traditional pasta maker; slow, cool, gentle mixing will help to preserve the character and flavor of the wheat and enhance the integrity of the finished pasta. Gentler mixing also allows the pastaii to mix for a longer period of time, enhancing the glutens in the dough which are so essential to creating a vital, vibrant texture. Finally, the traditional pasta maker must be ready and able to adjust his mixing to changes in weather and humidity, just as his counterpart, the artisan baker, does with bread.

If you think that there can't be this much to it, I'll tell you that artisan pasta makers regularly pick pieces of pasta off the line as they fall from the dies, tasting and testing the raw dough with their fingers and in their mouths to make sure they've got all their adjustments in place. Like cheesemaking or bread baking making traditional pasta is a craft. Simple in theory, yet, difficult to do well.

4. The Extrusion

Once the dough has been mixed, it will be extruded through variously shaped dies, a different die for each of the dozens of shapes of pasta being made. Strands of spaghetti or other long pastas are pushed through holes, then cut at the appropriate length. Short tubular pastas like penne start out by winding their way around a hole-making rod suspended from the top of the die, then exit by a smaller hole at the bottom of the form. This narrowing forces the dough to come back to form the hollow tubes and twists we're all accustomed to. Notches in the holes in the forms force the exiting dough to curve or curl, making shapes like "elbow" maccheroni.

More modern operations now extrude through smooth surfaced, teflon-coated dies. The Teflon lasts longer, and allows for more rapid (and hence cost reducing) extrusion. But it yields a pasta that's slick, smooth-surfaced. What's wrong with smooth spaghetti? Well, there's nothing at all inherently evil about it. It's just that when you dress its smooth surfaces with sauce, the sauce will run off the smooth surface of the pasta. Instead of the well-integrated combo of sauce and pasta Italians prefer, you'll end up with a bunch of nearly naked noodles laying atop a pool of sauce.

The best dried pastas, in my eating experience, are extruded through old-style bronze dies, what Italians refer to as trafile di bronze. Bronze is a softer, meaning the life of the forms is shorter and replacement costs higher. But the beauty of these old-fashioned forms is that they force the dough out leaving a rough, sand paper-like finish to the pasta. If you pick up a handful of each, there's no way you'll mistake one for the other. Where one is slick and smooth (a characteristic many unknowing Americans have actually come to expect), the other is rough, like a well-worn sea shell. The little pits on the bronze extruded pasta welcome the sauce with open arms. They embrace it, incorporate it- as you eat you get effective integration; the flavor of the pasta, perfectly intertwined with the flavor of the sauce.

Additionally, take note that slower extrusion usually yields superior pasta. As on the road, speed kills; in this case, causing unwanted warmth, which can do damage to texture and flavor of the finished pasta. Those who take the extrusion process at a more leisurely pace protect the natural glutens in the dough, which in turn insures that the pasta's all important texture is preserved during cooking.

5. The Drying

This is the stage that gives dried pasta its long shelf life, arguably making it mankind's ultimate convenience food. The drying takes the moisture content of the fresh dough down to less that half of its original 25 percent.

Up until earlier in this century, all Italian pasta was dried in the sun, often for up to a week to reach the appropriate level of desiccation. In these days of air pollution and depleted ozone layers, sun-drying noodles is no longer an option. Fortunately for food lovers, in 1919 a pasta drying machine was invented.

Of course each pasta maker has his or her own "recipe" for drying, and each is convinced that their technique is the best. In my experience, the best pastas are still dried very, very slowly (though it can't start out too slow, or the fresh pasta dough will be vulnerable to unwanted bacterial action). In faster moving, more cost conscious establishments, the drying is certainly more efficiently. It may be completed in a matter of hours, letting high heat eliminate the moisture from the dough, in a mere matter of hours. The problem is that the high heat essentially "bakes" the pasta; finished noodles are often brittle and easily broken. The high heat also damages the flavor of the grain, and the integrity of the finished product. Smaller, artisan pasta makers, on the other hand, dry at much lower temperatures. They may take as long as twenty four, thirty six, forty eight, even fifty-plus hours to dry their pasta. This type of drying takes place in very warm (but never high heat) humid environments in which moisture can be reduced slowly, without damaging the texture of the finished product.

Different Cuts for Different Cooks

Although pasta's popularity has skyrocketed, few Americans understand the importance of matching the appropriate shapes with the right style of sauce. Even casual cooks are aware that certain shapes are meant to be matched with certain sauces. Italians take their shape selection pretty seriously. A recent survey of Italian pastas counted something like 500 different cuts. "No one in Italy, for example, would dream of putting clam sauce on rigatoni or Bolognese meat sauce on spaghetti." Raffaela Prandi in Gambero Rosso, No. 7, 1996

Nearly every region of Italy has its preferences, in general:

Generally, long, thicker cuts like spaghetti are associated with stronger flavored sauces; olive oil and garlic; tomato; cheese. With long hollow noodles like bucatini or pici, Italians might opt for something like a spicy tomato sauce. Long, thinner pastas, like linguini or even angel hair, would probably be paired with more delicate sauces, often those made from seafood.

Short, hollow shapes like penne or maccheroni are meant for meat or vegetable sauces; solid bits and pieces of the sauce will collect inside the tubes, making it easier for eaters to integrate pasta and sauce. Very short pastas are a good match for sauces with dried peas lentils, beans. Flat pastas like farfalle (bowties) are a good match for cream or cheese-based sauces.

Grooved pasta was introduced when industrial methods made pasta more slick.

Tiny short shapes-say, ditali, annelini, .. -are ideal for soup. Italians take the selection of shapes seriously. I once asked a pasta maker which of his cuts he would recommend for soup. His answer: "Which soup?" When it comes to pasta, a question often begets a question. "Let's see," he said with a smile, "There's tubettini for minestrone, ditalli and anellini for broth, ditalli for stronger stocks."

The better job we do as retailers of recommending the right shape for the right sauce, the more likely our customers will enjoy their eating experience, the more likely they'll be back for more.