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Kinds of Pasta Italians Use

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There are two basic kinds of commercial pasta:
  • Pasta all'uovo, egg pasta such as tagliatelle, fettuccine, and whatnot (these are the same tagliatelle one makes at home, but made with semolina), and:
  • Pasta di semola di grano duro, made with semolina, water and a touch of salt.
The former are flat and of varying width, while the latter comes in all sorts of shapes, from spaghetti to penne to cart wheels.

Which kind should you use?

Egg pasta goes well with hearty fare, for example meat-based sauces or rich pomarola. Tagliatelle are also commonly flavored with other ingredients, for example spinach, which turns them green, tomato, which turns them red, or squid ink, which turns them black. Lasagne made with egg pasta are also superb.

Because of the variety of shapes it comes in, pasta di semola di grano duro is more versatile; which shape to use depends upon the sauce and personal taste. Spaghetti, spaghettini, bucatini and other strands go well with fairly liquid sauces. Shorter hollow pastas, for example penne or tortiglioni, go well with thick sauces, in part because they trap the sauce. They also work well in baked dishes, because they have considerable body and can withstand being heated through a second time. Other shorter flat pastas, for example farfalle (butterflies or bow ties), work nicely with cream sauces because the sauce tends to stick to their surfaces.

In terms of purchasing commercial pasta, there are many brands to choose from; in Italy the most popular are Buitoni, De Cecco, Barilla, Agnesi, and Voiello (not necessarily in this order).

There is also pasta artigianale, pasta made in smaller factories by artisans whose chief concern is quality. Though the basic ingredients are the same, that's where the resemblance ends: The artisans extrude their pasta through bronze dies that leave microstriations to capture and hold the sauce, and also dry it at lower temperatures, thus preserving the flavors of the wheat. According to Nancy Harmon Jenkins, four of these producers export to the United States: Rustichella D'Abruzzo, Latini, Benedetto Cavalieri and Martelli.

Should you not find Italian pasta in your market: Read the labels of what's available, and pick pasta made with durum wheat flour or semolina. Avoid dried pasta made with simple bread or soft wheat flour (much of the Northern European pasta, for example) because it won't hold up to cooking.

Next, How To Cook Pasta

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