The Italians are the masters when it comes to pasta, so it makes sense to go right to the source for several reasons. In Italy, you will find high-quality pasta, learn the best way to cook it and discover how to eat it to improve your experience- both for your pleasure and health.
An excellent pasta dish is measured by the quality of the pasta, the portion size, and what you put on it. It all begins with the flour.
If you've ever traveled to Italy, you've probably noticed you had an easier time digesting pasta there than in the U.S. It's common to hear people who are gluten-sensitive say they can eat pasta- and pizza- in Italy without experiencing any discomfort. People also often report not gaining weight despite eating a lot of these foods in Italy. One reason for these phenomena is the type of flour used. The flour used to make pasta in Italy is different from flour grown and milled in the U.S.
Many Italian flours are made from soft wheat, which has a lower protein content compared to the hard red wheat grown in the U.S. Lower protein results in lower gluten. Consequently, the gluten levels in Italian flour tend to be lower than those found in the U.S. due to the relationship between protein and gluten content. Many find flour with a lower gluten content easier to digest. However, it's essential to note that many pastas in Italy have a high gluten content, so this is not the only reason many people report being able to digest pasta in Italy better than in the U.S. How the wheat is grown and processed into flour can be a more significant factor than the gluten content in the flour.
Is it the Gluten?
It is often assumed that gluten in the flour is the only culprit for difficulties digesting pasta. However, part of the problem may lie in how the wheat to make the flour is grown, not the flour itself.
Glyphosate, commonly known by its brand name "Roundup," is a widely used herbicide in wheat agriculture. It is used to control weeds, promote crop growth, and accelerate the drying and maturing process, making it easier to harvest the crop. The use of glyphosate on wheat is purported to lead to a myriad of health problems and increase gluten sensitivity. Simply put, our bodies were designed to digest food, not chemicals. The use of glyphosate is much more common in the U.S. than in Italy. Therefore, the chances of finding quality flour in Italy are higher than in the U.S.
However, we can't judge flour solely based on its gluten content. If we do, how do we explain that the typical flour used to make pasta in Italy is durum wheat semolina, a hard wheat with about the same amount of protein as American-made all-purpose flour? Remember, the higher the protein, the higher the gluten content. So it is not the lower gluten content alone in Italian flour that makes pasta in Italy easier to digest. We must also examine how the wheat is milled, produced, cooked, and served.
Milling and Processing
The milling process in Italy is an art that dates back centuries, a tradition that has been perfected over time to produce some of the world's finest flours. The milling process in Italy involves a slower grind, which produces finely ground flour, helping to preserve more of the wheat's natural flavor and nutrients. The result is a more nutritious, lighter, and easier-to-digest final product, and as many agree, more flavorful.
Many pasta producers in Italy adhere to high standards, such as in the town of Gragnano, the birthplace of dried pasta. Gragnano is a small town located right off the Amalfi coast in the Campania region of Italy; it is known for having the best pasta in the world.
Gragnano pasta holds Italy's IGP certification, which stands for Protected Geographical Indication. This certification is awarded to products produced within a specific geographical area, following established quality standards. This certification is a testament to the pasta's authenticity and adherence to traditional methods.
In order to obtain the PGI stamp on their packages, producers must comply with precise production regulations, with detailed information on both the raw materials and the final product. A third party verifies every year that the production complies with the requirements and decides whether or not to grant the sticker. This way, it is ensured that the ancient production method of Gragnano is respected and that all the phases that make this product unique in the world are respected.
The people of Gragnano have been producing dry pasta for over 1,000 years, and it is considered among the best in the world for several compelling reasons:
Heritage and Tradition
Gragnano has a rich history of pasta-making dating back to the 16th century. The town's pasta production is deeply rooted in tradition, with many family-owned businesses passing down their expertise from one generation to the next. This legacy of craftsmanship ensures that the pasta made in Gragnano adheres to authentic, time-tested methods.
Gragnano pasta is typically made using durum wheat semolina, which is known for its high protein content and superior gluten quality. The wheat used is often sourced from local fields, resulting in a specific flavor and texture that's unique to the region.
Pasta from Gragnano is extruded through bronze dies, a crucial step that imparts a slightly rough texture to the pasta. This allows sauces to cling better, enhancing the overall eating experience. Mass-produced pasta often uses Teflon dies, which results in a smooth texture that does not help the sauce cling to the pasta.
Slow Drying Process
Gragnano pasta is dried slowly at low temperatures. This meticulous drying process helps preserve the flavor, nutritional value, and structural integrity of the pasta. The slow drying also contributes to the pasta's firmness and ability to absorb sauces without becoming mushy.
Pure Spring Water
The town of Gragnano is blessed with an abundant source of pure spring water, which is used in the pasta-making process. This water is free from contaminants and imparts a unique taste to the pasta.
Gragnano's geographical location plays a role in its pastas’ quality. The local climate, with a balance of sea and mountain influences, is ideal for drying pasta, resulting in an exceptional texture.
Pasta Shape and Variety
Gragnano offers an impressive variety of pasta shapes, from classics like penne and spaghetti to more unique options like paccheri and fusilloni. This diversity caters to various preferences and assures you will never become bored with serving the same pasta.
In addition to pasta Gragnano pasta, there are many other excellent quality pastas made in Italy by caring producers who control the ingredients and process to provide you with an outstanding result. Then, it is up to you to control the rest. How you cook and serve pasta will ensure quality at your table for your pleasure and health.
Cooking Pasta to Perfection - Al Dente
Any Italian will tell you the only way to cook pasta is al dente. "Al dente" is an Italian term that refers to pasta cooked to be firm to the bite. Translated, it means "to the tooth." The pasta is cooked to be still slightly firm and has some bite rather than entirely soft. Italians cook pasta al dente because it better preserves the texture and flavor of the pasta, and it has "a lower glycemic index than when it's cooked to be soft or mushy. A lower glycemic index helps keep blood sugar levels stable, so you feel fuller longer (and avoid blood sugar spikes)." U.S. News. Al dente pasta is also easier to digest. To cook pasta al dente, reduce the cooking time by 1 ½ to 2 mins than the package suggests.
In addition to the quality of the ingredients in a pasta dish, the portion size is important. In the U.S., portion sizes are often much too large. In Italy, the main dish portion sizes are more reasonable and served with light, fresh ingredients, not drowned in commercially processed sauces.
In Italian cuisine, it is common to serve a small portion of pasta between the first and main course. Think of it like a side dish but served before the main dish. This is known as Primi Piatti, or "first dish." The purpose of this course is to be enjoyed on its own. It is served separately to ensure that it is fully appreciated.
Serving food in courses has numerous benefits. This style of serving encourages eating slowly and mindfully, allowing you to save room for the next course. It also helps manage portion control since it is a small serving. You'll want to be mindful about saving room for the next delicious course rather than devouring a meal too quickly and, as a result, eating too much.
Shopping for Pasta
There is no difficulty in finding dried pasta at your local grocery. Still, it's worth shopping online. At online stores, you will find a wider variety of pasta in unique shapes and made in Italy by third- and fourth-generation family-owned businesses that pay attention to the details that distinguish quality pasta from average.
I am always excited about the many types and choices of pasta available, with hundreds of varieties in Gragnano alone. For me, pasta is like wine; it's difficult to choose just a few. I suggest finding a trusted source for quality pasta, whether it's your local grocery or a specialty shop, where you can discuss it with the shop owner to get recommendations. Consider an online source that curates the best from Italy.
Yummy Bazaar is my preferred online store because of the variety of products and low prices. Yummy Bazaar curates pasta from around Italy, offering many choices and consistently adding new ones.
When you find a brand you are interested in, you can read about it on the company website to learn more about production and quality. Ordering online is a quick and convenient way to stock your pantry, and since dried pasta can be stored long-term, you can order every few months, along with other quality staples you find on Yummy Bazaar.
A three-generation family company, pasta de Martino has the PGI certification and commits to making their pasta with the best 100 percent Italian durum wheat semolina non-GMO flower. Their pasta is favored by restaurants and Michelin-starred chefs, and offers you more than 120 shapes of pasta to bring to your kitchen.
Pasta dei Campi
This pasta is also PGI certified and their motto, "OUR WHEAT, OUR GOLD," speaks to the high standards they adhere to.
"After years of industrial pasta, we seem to have forgotten that true pasta is not a heavy dish. It is enjoyable but also a nutritious food that is absorbed slowly. Our pasta is light, easy to digest, and has excellent nutrition with a scientifically guaranteed low glycemic index." Pasta dei Campi
At La Campofilone, they care about quality and pride themselves on controlling the production of every ingredient to ensure that quality, including the eggs. Their egg pasta contains 10 eggs per kilo of flour and nothing more to make their IGP-certified pasta.
"They [the hens] grow up in units of 800 hens, living on the ground in a ventilated and dry place because they are sentient beings, not just egg machines. In keeping with the life cycles, we feed them with cereals from our chain to get the very high-quality eggs that are used in making La Campofilone egg pasta. Their feed is designed to be balanced to their nutritional needs: Noble cereals such as maize and barley for intense and fragrant yellows. These clean vegetable fats condense fat and minerals, giving the calcium needed for a healthy shell. Campofilone pasta is an intense and delicate yellow color, like our amazing eggs."
In addition to producing their own eggs, La Campofilone uses old-world methods of production.
"It's [pasta dough is] made on marble tables, not wood as many believe, to keep the dough at a cool temperature. So, the first rule is always to have cool working temperatures and long processing times. Although this is expensive, it ensures a total quality product. The ladies let the dough rest for at least half an hour, so we made a double dough mixer to rest the dough before it was extracted through bronze dies. Once sliced and cut, the pasta was left to dry on paper sheets in a dry place. So we dry the dough in a dry, warm place but never above 36 degrees [Celsius]. Over time, a modern production method has emerged that perfectly respects this tradition."
You can find many excellent brands of pasta to choose from once you know what to look for and start exploring. Then, once you have identified your preferred brands, select different sizes and shapes of pasta to try.
Selecting Your Pasta - Shapes and Sizes
Today, over 200 different pasta shapes are produced in Gragnano. The size and shape of pasta you select depends on your personal preference, but also, consider that certain types of pasta are best suited for certain sauces.
For example, thin pasta, such as spaghetti, capellini, or angel hair, pairs well with thin sauces such as tomato or aglio oil. The slender shape of the pasta allows the delicate sauce to evenly coat each strand, ensuring a harmonious blend of flavors.
In contrast, thicker noodles such as tagliatelle, pappardelle, or Fettuccine's broad and flat nature is perfect for creamy sauces like Alfredo, bolognese, or carbonara. The thick sauces cling to the wide surface area of the pasta, resulting in a perfect blend of sauce and pasta in each bite.
Although there are classic sauce and pasta pairings, don't be afraid to explore. For example, serve conchigliette when you are in the mood for a delicate dish and small bites.
Tagliatelle when you feel like something heartier and more comforting.
Discover pasta with twists and curves that envelope your leftovers to perfection.
The concave shape of orecchiette cradles the butter and sage in Burro e Salvia pasta.
Small, delicate orzo cooks quickly, so it's quick to prepare, and you can make something like a cold pasta salad for lunch.
When you need a quick last-minute dinner, break the "pasta rules" and work with what you have on hand. Carbonara served with spaghetti or even penne pasta is just as divine as tagliatelle. Carbonara is a recipe worth knowing as it is a kid's favorite and so simple to make. It's an excellent family-friendly quick dinner go-to and can be made with whatever type of pasta you have.
Once you explore several shapes and sizes of pasta, you will determine what you like best. You may find you like smaller shapes because it's easier to take small bites and eat slower.
Serving a variety of pasta shapes and sizes ensures that your family will not get bored. Plus, the change is exciting for kids, and we always want them to be excited to come to the table. In the end, it's just pasta, so play, have fun, break the "rules," and mix it up.
If you have shied away from pasta in the past, do you see pasta in a new light now? In addition to how pasta is made and cooked, how you serve it and what you put on it matters. Pasta dishes found in restaurants don't always represent the art of Italian pasta. An excellent example of this is Fettuccine Alfredo.
The original Italian recipe from Rome is one part Parmesan cheese and one part butter for the sauce. This authentic version is more flavorful and lighter than those typically found in U.S. restaurants. Many restaurant versions are made with cream or, worse yet, a commercially made processed sauce from an industrial-size jar.
One reason restaurants do not make this simple dish fresh from scratch is that this dish must be eaten as soon as the sauce is made because it separates easily. Therefore, a large batch cannot be made ahead of time. Since it is not always possible for a restaurant to make the sauce on demand, cream is added to prevent separation or a commercially made jarred sauce is used instead of making it fresh. Both options result in a heavy and difficult-to-digest dish. In addition, a commercially made sauce contains additives, preservatives, and likely mediocre-quality ingredients. In this case, it is easy to understand why one would shy away from pasta, but as you can see, it is not the pasta's fault.
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