The Quest for the Perfect Pasta

First off, let me admit something I am, not proud of: I considered – briefly – calling this article “Mission: Im-pasta-ble!” (I also batted around “Lotsa Pasta” and “Fiori to Pastina: The Existential Gulf Between Perceived Inferiority of Minutia in Extruded Grains and the Lasting Psychological Imprint of Indecision on the Amateur Chef.”) For some reason I feel like getting that off my chest in this public forum will reduce my shame; only time will tell.

But y’know what, dammit, that “Mission” one would have been a fine title for this piece (except for its wretchedness, is all) because picking the right pasta is no easy feat. When was the last time you stepped into the pasta aisle of your local supermarket and really looked around at the options available? Try it sometime. Don’t just grab the first thing that seems to be fill the gaping hole in your life—I mean the needs of your recipe; really take some time to look at all the different types of pasta there on those shelves. Chances are you’ll basically freak out.

I’ll wager that few people are going to confuse, say, orzo with lasagna noodles, or macaroni with angel hair, but once you start digging deeper, it gets weird. What, for example, is the difference between Rotelle and Rotini? Probably not much, you say? AHA! It’s a HUGE difference! The former is shaped like a wagon wheel, the latter a tightly wound spiral, you see? Nothing in common! (Save the fact that they are both pasta, will taste the same if made of the same ingredients, and can be interchanged for many dishes.)

Now let’s say you want to cook up a nice “noodle” pasta dish. Spaghetti is spaghetti, right? WRONG! NO! NOT… not right. Try cooking a pot of Capellini for the same time you would boil up a handful of Bucatini and see what you get. You know what you’ll get? You want to know? Mushy, glue-like goo pasta, that’s what. There goes your dinner party, you monster.

Wait, that was too harsh—try this: There goes your dinner party, you savage.

I could rattle off dozens of noodles, shells, decorative pasta twisty thingies, and on and on, but rather than extoll the virtues of this Bigoli or that Fusilli or this Fellini (eh?), rather than waste all of our time, I think I’ll circle around to the point:

It doesn’t really matter.

All these types of pasta? Not all that important. Penne vs. Rigatoni? Meh.

Just pick a broad category of pasta appropriate for your meal – lasagna? Flat wide noodles. A big bowl of pasta? Long thin noodles. Etc. – and then choose based on the pasta’s ingredients and the rough noodle size. See, that is what actually matters about a pasta. Whole wheat is healthier than enriched wheat, but in some cases you may want to sacrifice a bit of the health factor for the taste. A very small noodle, like angel hair pasta, is going to take on more of the flavor of a thinner sauce than a heartier pasta, but just so a tiny little pasta may be lost among beefier ingredients like chopped onions, peppers, and meatballs. Noodle size? That matters some. Specific type? Not so much.

If someone says they just love stuffed manicotti shells but says they have nothing for Conchiglioni, they’re not wrong… but they’re not right. Get it? If you like a specific kind of pasta for any reason, then I say go for it, but know that there’s never really the exact right kind of noodle; there is just the right kind of noodle for you.

Unless you try to make a four layer lasagna with Rotelle, in which case there is indeed a wrong kind of pasta, and you have brought great shame to us all.