How to Recognize Good Ingredients: Pasta. And a 3 Tomato Garlic Pasta Recipe

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. 

wheat fields, Italy

The wheat fields just around the Hortus HQ!

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.A guide to choosing pasta - Orecchiette

WHAT TO CHECK WHEN BUYING PASTA?

1. TEXTURE
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.

2. COLOR
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.

As for supermarket brands, look for Garofalo (which also has a gluten-free line), Rummo (LOVE their packaging!), De Cecco, Molisana – in my order of preference.

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.

A guide to choosing pasta - Linguine

See how rough these are? The tattered edges are a good sign!

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.

Cherry tomatoes, tomato pasta, Hortus

Garlic pasta with tomatoes 3 ways

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3 Tomato Garlic Pasta
(Serves 2)

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.

What brands do you use, and what is your favorite cuts? people on Facebook and Instagram expressed their preferences, and I loved to read about it! Please let me know in the comments!

Garlic pasta with tomatoes 3 ways

  1. What a great post, thanks so much I’ll definitely be looking into the ingredients of the pasta we get here in Australia!
    Love your blog :)
    Charlott

  2. Awesome tips! I never really thought about what to look for in pasta. I see a lot of these things when we get pasta from the local vendor at the farmer’s market…I guess that’s a good thing! Will have to keep this in mind for the future. :)

    • Oh, you have a local pasta vendor at the market? that’s awesome! I hardly ever saw crappy stuff on sale at farmer’s markets…now you know what to look for! You are in the UK, right? I once had a very interesting experience with some packaged Tesco noodles. Thank God London has Whole Foods now… :)
      (Or Waitrose. Waitrose sells Rummo and De Cecco, if you can muster up the courage of going in there after laughing your butt off after seeing this page https://www.facebook.com/overheardinwaitrose )

    • Actually I’m in New England (USA), but we have some nice local pasta places around here. We like to get pasta from Di Fiore Co in Hartford CT. :)

    • Yeah, right? I strongly dislike them. Glad this news made it to the US as well, it was quite a big deal here..especially considering that all of their ads are family-centric, with all the nice polished moms and kids and dads who are all shiny, polished, properly combed and properly made up and properly panted and are oh so happy to chug down their 150g of crappy pasta (while nobody tells you that most people crash on the desk at 3 PM if you do that). Eeeeeeek.

  3. Under unfortunate circumstances, I was subjected to eat poorly-prepared, crusty-edged, undercooked pasta for longer than I’d like to remember. My look on pasta was destroyed and I haven’t touched it since, despite it being in some of my favorite meals. You, however, have restored my faith in it, what with your beautiful photos, lovely dishes, and the piece of your culture you continually give us readers. “When you know where your ingredients come from, it is all that much easier.” That tastes so true on my tongue, and I will keep it in mind as a scrounge around for a quality pasta to nourish my long-subdued craving. Thank you so much.

    • Hi Meghan! Don’t tell me all of this was tied to a college experience… :) I know, some foods that are actually amazing can really be poorly made (I re-discovered a love for tahini after making it myself this week, after buying a very disappointing – and expensive jar of it). Please, do give good pasta another chance. I also suggest trying to buy some good quality pasta and making it yourself, rather than going to a restaurant and run the risk of repeating a disappointing experience once again. This is a very quick recipe that is super effective and really lets the pasta shine through. If you need more dressing suggestions I’m here to help! I also have a classic pesto and pistachio pesto up on the blog. Let me know how it goes if you give pasta another chance!

  4. Love, love, love this post! Martelli is probably one of the best quality pastas sold here in Finland and the packaging is just too cute. While I totally agree with you that B. is not the best pasta around, it’s still one of the best pastas in its price category (and, at least in Finland and in Germany, you’ll find top quality pasta like Martelli or Mancini only in specialty stores). Few people outside Italy, unless they’re food lovers like we are, will buy pasta that costs as much as for example Martelli. I’m encouraging people to rather buy B. or De Cecco than many of those really low quality products. I know it can be frustrating to watch people spend money on lower quality products but this may just be one of those points when ideals and reality collide… Anyway, this pasta dish looks fabulous and I can’t wait to make it and serve to a large crowd!

    • Sini, why are you so awesome? Even though I saw Gennaro use it in the video, I didn’t include it in the supermarket list! I didn’t think it was well known abroad, I never noticed it much in the US…editing right now! De Cecco is much better than Barilla (but then again, most pastas are…)
      I also didn’t think Martelli was so widely available abroad! I’ve seen it all over. It’s so difficult to find here in Italy. But that is really expensive…all of these other pasta brands offer whole wheat options that are amazing texture-wise.
      Of course, I wouldn’t think people would buy the expensive brands unless they are really up for a treat, so thanks for encouraging people to go towards the right directions with supermarket brands! :D

    • Haha, yes, De Cecco definitely is a better alternative. Also, I’m happy that Garofalo (my choice of brand when it comes to everyday pasta) and Rummo are becoming more and more widely available in grocery stores here in Finland. Martelli isn’t that easy to find here but a small specialty store in my city has sold it for years already. AND you really need to use less pasta when you use good quality brands (like you said, 100 g of say Martelli would be way too much!). So maybe you’re actually paying more or at least nearly the same amount of money when buying brands like B. because you end up using more..? Actually, the same thing applies to other ingredients, such as meat, as well. Again, such a great, thought-provoking post, Valentina!

  5. thanks for the wonderful post! i really do love pasta, because it’s so versatile. but even here in Austria it’s not easy to get your hands on the really good brands. i always stock up on quality pasta during my holidays in italy.

    • Hi Claudia! Thanks!
      So strange, and to say that Austria is so close! The cool thing about getting pasta in Italy though is that you can get the regional specialties :)

  6. Thank goodness for this post! I stopped buying that type of pasta a while ago, although I am like you that I don’t eat it that much when I do I want to make sure I am putting wholesome ingredients into my body. In Brooklyn, we live around the corner from a great place that makes homemade pasta. It is delicious and tastes worlds away from that company you mentioned:)

    • Hi Alison! You have so many great options in Brooklyn and NY in general (well, OBVIOUSLY). What is that place called?
      There’s this Brooklyn manufacturer that’s called Sfoglini, and their pasta is AWESOME. Yeah, prices. I know. But the texture is so gorgeous.

  7. OMG!!!! Thank you SOOOOOO MUCH for this wonderful information. You make me want to make my own pasta :)
    Those brands suggestion are so helpful, and I appreciate those tips very much. I will never look at pasta the same way again.
    so long Barillaaaaaa!!!!

  8. A wonderful and informative post, as always, thank you Valentina! Such a simple dish but delicious flavors, it would be perfect with heirloom cherry tomatoes available at the moment at my local farmers market. I’ll make it for lunch and with the gorgeous weather we are (finally) having here in the UK, I can imagine I’m in Italy…

  9. We can find wonderful and expensive boutique pasta varieties at the Mediteranean wholesalers here in Brunswick, Melbourne. At the cheap end of the range, I buy de Cecco.
    Barilla pasta, despite the fact that it is ‘Pasta Industriale’ and very ordinary, is being dumped here in vast quantities since it’s reputation became so tainted over Guido Barilla’s homophobic comments last year.
    http://nypost.com/2013/09/26/barilla-chairman-gays-can-eat-someone-elses-pasta/

    • YES! I am so happy the news was big enough to spread worldwide. That was such a low hit.
      Australia really has great food and products, I’m glad you can find so much good stuff! I’d love to explore the Australian grounds at some point!

  10. We had a disastrous flood in Benevento a couple days ago near the area i live in Italy. Over 6 inches of rain fell within a couple of hours…many livelihoods were lost as agriculture and vineyards were washed away….there is an appeal to save the local pasta company which is under water from the river rising. This reminds me of the earthquake in Modena that threatened the livlihood of makers of Parmigiano cheese. The Netflix documentary, Chef’s Table featuring Chef Massimo Bottura, owner of Osteria Francescana, considered the 3rd best restaurant in the world created a simple pasta recipe using the cheese, and there was an appeal to save the Parmigiano cheese. Restaurants around the world joined in solidarity to make a dish that saved the industry…millions of Euros worth of Parmigiano cheese were shipped all over the world and so many livelihoods were saved. BUY RUMMO PASTA!! http://Www.pastarummo.it