For many years I thought that all dry pasta was alike. I was wrong.
First I learned that there were specific and important differences between the major brands like DeCecco and Barilla -- differences in taste, texture, finish, and the final surface that results after the pasta is cooked. Surface texture matters because this is where the pasta connects with the sauce.
But my pasta education continued when on a trip to Italy I learned that there is an elite selection of dry pastas that are truly different from and superior to those we normally find in our grocery markets. What's different about them?
- Although tagged artisanal, they are usually not made by hand but in small factories and in small batches.
- They are made from specially grown durum wheat which gives the pasta a more complex flavor.
- They are made more slowly, especially during the part of the process in which the pasta is dried. The artisanal pastas are dried at a lower temperature, taking far longer (one report says two to four days versus four hours in the industrialized big production factories). Slow drying preserves the structure of the starches as well as the pasta's color, flavor and aroma.
- They include no additives and are made from only two ingredients: semolina flour and water.
- The artisanal factories use bronze dies to shape the pasta, giving each piece of pasta a rougher surface. The big industrial factories use Teflon-coated dies which work faster but also give the pasta a slicker surface, and thus, make it less receptive to holding sauce.
The result? More flavor and a more successful combination with any sauce or other ingredients you add to your pasta.
Dry pasta is a totally different product than fresh pasta. Unlike dry pasta, fresh pasta is almost always made with egg, sometimes olive oil, plus a softer flour, resulting in a very different kind of pasta than dry pasta which is made simply with water and semolina flour, produced from hard durum wheat.
Italy can't grow enough durum wheat of its own to meet the demand of its big pasta factories so much of the mass market dry pasta, including excellent imported brands like De Cecco, are made from durum wheat that is imported from elsewhere in Europe. But the small artisanal producers still only use locally and specially grown Italian wheat to make their flour and produce their pastas.
For example, Latini is an artisanal pasta producer that makes all its products from durum wheat grown in the region known as Le Marche, south of Venice.
If you touch the surface of Latini pasta before it's been cooked you can feel its rough surface -- it's almost like a microscopic sandpaper. After it's been cooked, this surface character remains and helps holds your sauce, even if it's only a drizzle of olive oil and a dusting of grated cheese. Moreover the pasta itself has a more complex flavor so that the pasta actually contributes to the taste of your dish. It's not just a vehicle for holding the sauce.
If you've never tried an artisanal pasta, the next time you're planning a special pasta dish, or even if you'd like to experiment with a taste test, using a long-time favorite sauce, buy a package and see if you notice or appreciate the difference. You may find the extra cost can turn an ordinary bowl of spaghetti into something exceptional.
Just because a dry pasta is in a fancy package, is imported, claims special ingredients and has a high price, doesn't mean it will have a beautiful finish and special flavor. But there are some that stand out and are worth seeking.
Latini -- This company is probably the best known of the leading artisanal pasta producers. Founded in 1990 in the region known as Le Marche, south of Venice, Latini now makes four different types of pasta, each in a variety of shapes and sizes, including : spaghetti, bucatini, farfalle, trenette, orecchiette, and tiny pastas, perfect for soups such as stelline. Costs range from about $6.50 to $8.50 per 500 gram (1.1 lb.) box.
- Classica (red box) -- the initial line, made in over 20 shapes and sizes. Versatile for most any pasta recipe.
- Senatore Capelli (blue box) -- made from a single variety of durum wheat (it's like having a single malt Scotch), in about a half dozen shapes. Best to stand up against vivid flavors in a sauce or roasted meat.
- Taganrog (yellow box) -- made in about 5 shapes from a high protein and delicately flavored wheat, perfect for pasta salads and more delicate sauces.
- Farro (orange box). Made in about 10 shapes from an ancient semi-whole grain, high in fiber and with a rich flavor. Excellent with robust vegetables.
Martelli -- A classic durum wheat pasta made by a family business in Tuscany that cooks to an usually refined finish and a balanced flavor. This dry pasta almost has the rich flavor of a fresh pasta, but with all the versatility of dry pasta. Packaged in bright yellow bags. Shapes include spaghetti, spaghettini, penne, maccheroni. About $7.50 per 500 gr. package.
Benedetto Cavalieri -- Founded in 1872 in Lecce, Italy, where it is still made. Shapes include spaghetti, farfalle, maccheroni, fusilli, bucatini, tagliatelle, and other short and long shapes. This pasta has a full, almost wheat-like flavor but with a subtle finish. Prices range from $6.50 to $8.00 per 500 gram package.
Many of our better Italian and fine food markets have a selection of artisanal dry pastas.
Until recently, Martelli used to be available through Williams-Sonoma but this small Italian producer seems to have pulled back from supplying this big national retailer and is now available only through specialty merchants like Bronx-based Gustiamo.com.
Latini is available at Dean & Deluca, Blue Apron Foods, Agata & Valentina, Marlow & Sons, Stinky Brooklyn, and Gustiamo.com.
Benedetto Cavalieri is available at Balducci's, Forager's Market, Amish Market, sometimes at Zabar's and sometimes in Williams-Sonoma but only in the stores, not on-line.