Monday, July 22, 2013

American Pasta: 11 Ways You're Doing It Wrong

Nine years ago I moved from Italy to the United States into a very gastronomically-conscious community, so I'll say from the start that I've had some good pastas here, especially from my friends of Italian-American descent.

I have, however, also witnessed and then consumed some proper atrocities. Pastas so overcooked, tasteless, and weird that they have become staple horror stories for my family and friends back home. This might sound mean, but let me assure you: It's not. Everybody is judgmental about how their traditions are carried out and interpreted, and since as Italians our only sense of pride these days is food, we're going to get pretty resentful and emotional about it.

In the future I will write a full post on how to prepare a perfect pasta that would please an actual Italian, but for the moment, check out these common mistakes and learn to avoid them:

1. KNOW YOUR PORTIONS. Italians do not eat a shovelful of pasta per meal. We eat about 2-3 oz depending on hunger level and/or occasion. Mega portions are frowned upon, unless you're a particularly active adolescent or a pregnant woman like myself (in that case, shovel over and suspend judgement). You don't care and want to eat more? Fine, but adjust water and salt accordingly, as explained below.

2. START WITH THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF WATER. Purists will ask for a quart of water per portion. I find that you can definitely get away with less, especially if you're preparing an unpretentious home meal. However, there needs to be enough water to cover the pasta comfortably. Spaghetti might stick out for the first minute or so, but then they should swim happily in the water. So, a sauté pan might work to boil 2 portions of penne, but you still want a taller pot for spaghetti and other kinds of long pasta.

3. YOU NEED WAY MORE SALT THAN THAT. Pasta water needs to be salty. You cannot just add a pinch of salt to a stock pot--that's completely useless. The rule of thumb is about one teaspoon per person, or for 2-3 oz of pasta. This will make pasta flavorful in itself and allow it to absorb more of the sauce once you get everything in the pan. Oh, you can add the salt once the water is boiling. Definitely add it BEFORE you put the pasta in.


5. STIR, NOW! Stir the pasta for about 30 seconds, less if it's not very crowded. This will prevent the pasta from sticking. Some people suggest adding some oil to the water, but that is based on a myth.

6. TIME IT, BUT TASTE IT, TOO. You want to read the cooking time of the pasta format you have chosen, but really, you should taste it, too. The amount of water, the size of your pot, how crowded the pasta is... these are all variables that can slow down the cooking time. Try the pasta a couple of minutes before it supposed to be ready. If you see the "soul", or a tiny white speck or ringlet inside the pasta, that means it should be ready in a minute. If there's no soul in your pasta, then drain it. No matter what, though, do not let the pasta cook for much longer. Good-quality pasta can tolerate a couple of extra minutes in the water, but cheap pasta will become a gluey mess.

7. DON'T LET IT DRAIN FOR HOURS. This I saw multiple times. The pasta is drained on the sink and then left there, in the colander, for a painfully long amount of time. If you want to shock an Italian, this is definitely the way. Pasta should be drained and then immediately mixed with the chosen condiment, in a bowl or back in the hot pan. If you let it sit, it will get cold, it will stick, it will become an inedible glue. It will suck beyond belief, and the damage will be pretty much irreparable. You might add a little bit of oil just to prevent sticking right after you drain it (and once I did exactly this, out of desperation, at someone else's house), but really, do not let the pasta sit in the sink.

8. SERVE THE PASTA MIXED WITH THE SAUCE. I was often served pasta and sauce in separate bowls. This basically has the same effect of letting the pasta sit in the sink. It will get cold and stick, and it won't mix well with the sauce once you finally mix it. If you're using an uncooked sauce, like pesto, mix pasta and sauce in a bowl and serve it. If it's a cooked sauce, then mix or even sauté pasta and sauce together in a hot pan.

9. EAT IT, NOW! Pasta should not sit there and wait for you to finish your cocktails, appetizers, or whatever. It should be eaten nice and warm and still al dente. If you let it sit, it will continue cooking and become horribly mushy. So once it's done, please serve it and eat it. The only exception is lasagne, which keep pretty well even for a couple of days (if prepared correctly).

10. DRY BASIL TASTES TERRIBLE. Many pre-made tomato sauces contain dry basil, which has a very off, dark, and overpowering flavor that immediately signals a foreign interpretation of pasta. Read the ingredients of the sauces you buy and make sure only fresh basil is used. Needless to say, do not add dry basil to any Italian preparation. Promise?

11. NO CHICKEN ON PASTA. Pasta works wonderfully with pretty much anything. In the end, you should think about it as bread. Instead of a sandwich, you're eating vegetables, meat, fish or whatever with this amazing starch. Still, a grilled chicken breast should never be placed on top of pasta. It's really hard for me to explain why, but the combination has a bland and microwave-y flavor no matter what spices and cooking method you use. If you really insist on pasta with chicken, that's fine,  just don't serve it to your Italian friends. They won't understand.

Now you can move on to the next post on the subject, Perfect Pasta: Dead Chef's Technique.


  1. I am so happy to see this! It's wonderful to know that I've been cooking pasta the right way. I'm Chinese living in Seattle for 16 years and my Italian American husband could never understand why I salted the water so much, if at all.
    And the sauce! I think sauce should be just enough to coat the pasta but NO! The pasta have to be drowning in the sauce so there will be enough in the plate to mop up with garlic bread later. Serving the sauce in separate dish for the garlic bread just WILL NOT DO!
    Ah well, I'm just Chinese, what do I know about pasta, no?! ;-)

    1. Hi Jennifer! It's so interesting to me how Italian-American cooking differs from actual Italian cooking. But yes, I think salt makes all the difference: It really allows for the noodles to absorb the condiment better.

      BTW, the bread-cleaning thing your husband does is an actual thing in Italy, too. It's called "scarpetta" (=little shoe), but we do it with regular bread, and just with a couple of pieces, because there isn't that much sauce left. The sauce on the side instead is a totally alien concept for Italians! So funny!!!


  2. Hi, I really appreciated your blog!
    I am Italian, still living in Italy, and started a Italian food blog in English for my international friends and as a cookbook for my daughter -(if ever she will remember there is also something different from junk food...) and I consider your 11 points very important for my readers as well. I am going to repost it, under your permission and quoting your blog, in my blog. Thanks for your prompt reply!

    1. Ciao Roberta! Perdona il ritardo della mia risposta. Sono stata molto occupata dai miei bambini a casa per le vacanze! Grazie mille del commento e riposta pure. E ci vediamo sul tuo blog. Qual e' il tuo URL?