So many people - myself included - come back from Italy asking, why is pasta better in Italy?
It’s easy to put it down to the happy holiday vibes that make everything taste better, but it’s more than that. And interestingly, the superior pasta experience goes beyond just how Italian pasta tastes, it’s also the effect it has on the body. A lot of people – again, myself included – for whom pasta doesn’t agree with at home (think bloating and unhappy digestion) report they don’t have these problems in Italy.
Here’s four reasons I think pasta is better in Italy;
and if you can master these four simple things you’ll find a little piece of Italy in your kitchen at home.
How pasta is made
Italian pasta typically has strict government quality standards and control around it, and is made with 100% durum wheat, called semolina flour, or semola di grano duro in Italian. This means that not only is the pasta higher in protein, but more importantly it stands up to the rigors of cooking well.
Even better, when you get pasta that has been slow dried, it retains some of the nutty flavour and texture of the durum wheat.
Italians know how to cook pasta
I’m sure we’ve all heard of cooking pasta al dente, but in Australia and similar countries we don’t instinctively understand this and have a strong tendency to over-cook. Italians, however, seem to know that moment pasta is cooked al dente and trust their instincts. Because there’s a very fine line of being perfectly cooked and overcooked.
Once cooked al dente you need to act quick - get it into a colander, let the residual heat finish the cooking - then sauce and enjoy. Carlo Latini, whose small family firm in the Marche region on the Adriatic Sea produces pasta by old-fashioned, low-temperature, artisanal methods from wheat grown to his own specifications, is very precise about it: ‘when you cut into a strand of cooked spaghetti, it will appear cooked through, except for a white ghost, a tiny spot of not-quite-rawness, at the center of the strand’. Mr. Latini calls this the anima, the soul of the pasta
A small piece of trivia, al dente translates 'to the tooth' in Italian.
Italians balance their pasta dishes
They don’t tend to eat dishes that are all about a strong, dominant sauce; in fact you’ll struggle to find these in Italy. What you’re more likely to find is a simple sauce that respects the pasta as much as the sauce. Simplicity and ease of approach are the keys to good pasta in Italy and a beautiful sauce may be as simple as chopped garlic and chili fried in olive oil with spaghetti tossed through. And in Italy it’s never cream based sauce - even a traditional Roman carbonara is much lighter than we think as it’s made simply with eggs, pecorino and pancetta (or better still guanciale, the cheek of the pig) and whilst rich sauce, it delicately coats the pasta, with not an ounce of cream in sight.
We also get water wrong on a number of fronts. Some argue that the water supply in Australia, America etc. is tainted by chemicals added to keep it ‘clean’. I know Melbourne water whilst good by world standards can sometimes taste chlorinated; whereas water in Turin for example, comes straight from the Alps. But aside from filtering your water you can’t do much about that.
Italians know not to scrimp on water in the pot; if you don’t have enough water you’re effectively stewing rather than boiling your pasta, which is going to result in a gummy, over cooked pasta which is neither authentic, or desirable.
Also ensure the water is boiling when the pasta goes in and remains boiling - pasta should not be simmered. And don’t be afraid of salt - salt that water freely when boiling, add the pasta, stir and get ready for great pasta.