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On Cooking and Serving Pasta

How Do Italians Serve Pasta?

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This column has two sources of inspiration: From Italy, the Truth about Pasta, an article Nancy Harmon Jenkins wrote for the New York Times a while back, and a thread on the rec.food.cooking newsgroup in which people said that they preferred their pasta be served with a spoonful of sauce on the top and more on the side so they could add it if they wanted to. When one lives in a country one tends to assume that the national dishes are served the same way beyond the national borders -- this is not necessarily the case when it comes to pasta.

The major difference between pasta as it is served in Italy and pasta as it is served elsewhere is that for an Italian pasta is generally a first course, to be followed by a second course of some kind, be it meat, fish, vegetable, or even pizza (many elegant Italian pizzerie offer huge selections of pasta dishes for their guests to start off with). In other words, it is a part of a meal -- important, yes, but certainly not dominant.

Portion size reflects this: One generally figures a bit less than a quarter pound of uncooked dry pasta per person (i.e. 70-80 grams), which translates into a pleasantly full deep-dish plateful. A mound is too much, because it will leave no space for the rest of the meal.

Saucing is also quite important: Moderation is again the key. One to two tablespoons of a liquid sauce such as aglio e olio, and at the most a quarter cup of a thicker sauce such as sugo alla bolognese per person, stirred into the pasta in the serving bowl so as to thoroughly coat the pasta. The pasta should not be swimming in the sauce, nor should it be bone dry: The one complements the other. Grated cheese? Depends upon the sauce; tomato sauce and meat-based sauces generally call for it and cream sauces sometimes profit from it, whereas it can be distracting in vegetable or fish-based sauces. In any case, it is served at the table, and most people opt for one or two teaspoons, not a heavy dusting that overwhelms everything else.

We now come to a thorny issue: What kind of pasta? Though Italian cookbooks, like their English language counterparts, give detailed instructions for home-made pasta, few people here have the time to make it at home except on special occasions. Day-in-and-day-out it's commercially prepared dry pasta out of a box. Nor is this a fallback; properly cooked good quality commercially prepared pasta is just as good if not better than what most people can make at home.

The difference lies in the flour: Commercial producers use semolina, which produces a pasta that will bear up well to cooking, maintaining its pleasant al dente texture on the way to the table. Unfortunately, as a friend of mine who owned a pasta factory observes, preparing dough from semolina requires industrial mixers or several hours of kneading -- more than enough to burn out the motor of a home pasta machine. Because of this home cooks resort to soft wheat flour (grade 00, which has slightly less gluten than American cake flour). The results can be superb but require extreme care in the cooking because the pasta overcooks easily.

Next, the kinds of commercial pasta Italians use..

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