Pasta is for Italy what strings are to a violin, or what Manolo Blahniks are to Carrie Bradshaw. It is the very heart and soul of Italian food, and, although data says that Italians are eating less and less of it, it is still the most loved food on our table along with pizza.
Personally, I do not eat it much. And I do not eat it much because I know it well.
Hailing from a family of pasta makers, homemade pasta was, and is, the standard fare of all of our sunday meals. We make it with local wheat, coarsely milled – which is not good for pasta, but better for nutrition, and Italian small batch durum wheat flour. When you know where your ingredients come from, it is all that much easier.
The problem with packaged pasta is that we often do not know, or do not pay attention, to where the pasta is coming from.
Some big italian (and non-Italian) brands produce their pasta abroad, with wheat sourced from countries that have no regulations or quality standards. Because of the hefty demand for wheat, GMOs are a necessity to make it grow tall, strong, and rid of any weeds. Needless to say, pasta produced with such low quality wheat is not only harmful for the environment, as buying it means promoting the GMO and mass production, low quality industry, but it is not great for our health as well, as gluten in GMO wheat tends to be superpowered and is one of the main causes of today’s increase in gluten intolerances and celiac disease.
I have lived around wheat long enough to know what I am talking about.
This is why I am making myself an advocate of the small batch and much prefer to spend more money on a box of pasta I’ll eat less often, but will enjoy way more.
So here’s a little guide on selecting high quality pasta – even if you think you have no idea what you’re doing, plus a little list of brands I like.
WHAT SHOULD THE VARIOUS KINDS OF PASTA BE MADE OF?
- DRY PASTA
Dry pasta should be made with durum wheat flour, or semolina flour. Pastas that have regular wheat mixed in are generally low quality and tend to overcook and get mushy.
- FRESH PASTA
Fresh pasta should contain 1 egg per every 100g flour, though that is very unlikely that this ratio will be kept in any pasta that you can buy in stores. Fresh pasta can be either entirely made of durum wheat flour or a mix of flours, but the higher the egg and durum wheat content, the better the quality. Look for yellow pasta!
- SPECIAL CUTS
Some cuts of pasta, like orecchiette, strozzapreti or other egg-free kinds of pasta could have some regular wheat flour mixed in, but you should still look for pasta made entirely of durum flour, or whole wheat, spelt, buckwheat, or whole grains.
WHAT TO CHECK WHEN BUYING PASTA?
The lower the quality of the pasta, the smoother it is going to be. High quality pasta is very rough, to the point of looking indented and uneven at the edges. Rough pasta retains the sauce well, so always make sure you can see the texture through the package. There is a reason if most low quality pasta boxes don’t have any transparencies.
The best quality pasta will also have a thin coating of starch left on the surface, which contributes to enriching sauces and producing a much, much better dish.
Because of the starch coating, the pasta you want to look for is opaque and of bright but not brilliant colors. Beware of smooth dry pasta that looks really yellow, unless you’re looking for fresh. In that case, the more yellow it is, the higher the egg and durum flour content will be, which is a good thing. Still, look for that layer of starch on the surface, which makes everything a little white-ish.
3. INGREDIENTS AND SOURCES
Good quality ingredients for pasta do not necessarily have to come from Italy, but you should always make sure it comes from a trusted source and is possibly organic and non-GMO. GMO wheat is one of the main things responsible for the increased gluten intolerances of the modern era, and with good options available on the market I’d advise everyone to spend a little more money on their pasta, and have it less often.
One of the best cultivars of wheat is called Senatore Cappelli, which produces great durum wheat flour. If you read that name on a package, you’re sure to buy a good quality product. Senatore Cappelli is an ‘ancient’ grain, just like farro: a grain that is still grown without altering its properties. You can also source small local manufacturers from your area, and see if anyone makes their own Pasta in the vicinity of where you live using ancient grain.
And, speaking of ancient grain, durum wheat isn’t the only option: try pasta made with farro or spelt, buckwheat and whole, unprocessed grains. Read the labels carefully, and have a good look at the boxes.
4. GOOD BRANDS SOLD ABROAD
While there are some amazingly bad pasta brands available around (including some top famous Italian ones), many great brands are exported, and I’ve actually seen some great pasta brands available in the US that I couldn’t even find here where I am.
For example, any pasta that comes from Gragnano is probably going to be good, as Gragnano is one of the birthplaces of pasta and is still carefully produced.
Martelli sells for a pretty penny, but it’s manufactured in small batches in Tuscany (and how cute is the package?!)
Afeltra, which is a pasta factory in Gragnano, sells some very high quality products, too.
For lower-end brands, both Garofalo and Rummo make some very good supermarket standard pasta.
Mancini, which also has some of the coolest minimal packaging around, is also one of the top quality brands of pasta you can ever find.
Cocco and Cavalieri are two of the top quality brands in Italy, and both are famous for their gorgeous, special cuts of pasta, like Cavalieri’s spaghettoni (thick spaghetti).
Other great brands include Gentile, Monograno Felicetti, Pastificio dei Campi, Verrigni, Alce Nero.
There is this brand that I am not going to mention (Ba*COUGHCOUGH*la) that just plain sucks. You find it at most grocery stores and comes in a solid blue box. Their wheat comes from all over and, well, just plain sucks.
For the rest, keep in mind the tips above and be your own judge next time you pick your pasta.
HOW TO COOK YOUR PASTA?
Here’s a cool video by Gennaro from Jamie’s Tube on cooking the perfect pasta!
(Just a couple notes in this video:
1. 100g of pasta per person is a lot. And I mean a lot, unless you’re a male athlete or something. You’d count 80g per head, or 60-70 if whole wheat.
2. That music in the background is an insult to my country.)
And now, on to the recipe!
This is one of my favorite pasta dishes, hands down. It takes no more than 10 minutes total if you time it right with boiling the water, and, if you use good quality pasta, it really is a dish that requires no more than these 5 ingredients. It’s super simple, super quick, and super tasty. It involves tomatoes prepared 3 different ways, to make things even more interesting, but you can skip the roasting part if you’re in a rush.
The best formats are either pasta kinds that form pockets, like shells or orecchiette, or long, rough cuts like linguine, spaghetti or angel hair. Pick your favorite, but I suggest you go with rough, whole wheat or spelt pasta.
This is one of those dishes that is Italy on a plate. Make sure to pick good, flavorful tomatoes, as this bowl doesn’t need much else but some love for good ingredients and 10 minutes of your time.
3 Tomato Garlic Pasta
160g (5.6 oz) Pasta if using regular durum wheat, or about 120g (4.2 oz) if using whole wheat or spelt (which I recommend).
Best formats are orecchiette, shells, penne, linguini or angel hair spaghetti.
20-25 cherry tomatoes, divided
3 pieces Dried tomatoes in olive oil
2 Garlic cloves
2 tbsps extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 tbsp for drizzling
2 tbsps almond slivers
Salt & Pepper
Some basil leaves
Preheat the oven to 200 C˚.
Halve half of your cherry tomatoes, drizzle with the oil, then sprinkle on some salt and a pinch of sugar. Bake the tomatoes for some 20-30 minutes, until most of their water is gone and they are nicely caramelized.
Bring a pot of water to a boil and salt it generously, preferably with coarse salt.
While the water gets to a boil, peel and finely mince the garlic, halve the remaining cherry tomatoes and chop the dried tomatoes. (or quarter if they are large). Add the garlic, almond slivers and dried tomatoes to a pan along with the olive oil. Heat over medium-low, and briefly cook the garlic, but do not let it color! This sauce has to cook briefly and on gentle heat, because we are using good quality olive oil.
Once everything is sizzly and aromatic, add the cherry tomatoes, a good pinch of salt and pepper, and stir-fry until they get soft, about 5 to 7 minutes. The sauce is done.
When the water boils, add the pasta, making sure you drain it a couple minutes before the time indicated in the package. Reserve a few tablespoons of the cooking water.
Add the pasta to the pan with the sauce, and heat it up. Stir-fry for a couple of minutes, adding 2-3 tbsps of the pasta water. Let it reduce, so that the sauce gets creamier and the pasta finishes to cook. Add a few torn basil leaves, and serve, topped with more basil.
PS: I used shells and not orecchiette because my mom was going to eat that, and she was like ‘orecchiette does not make sense here!’ But then again, she thinks orecchiette only makes sense with rapini and garlic, so there you have it.