10. It doesn’t matter what sauce you pair with which pasta.
While Americans love their noodles, most don’t give a hoot what sauce they serve with which shape. Not so in Italy: Italians feel strongly that certain shapes work best with certain types of sauce. And within each region—or village or family—there are specific traditions for pasta and sauce pairings. In general, oily or watery sauces, such as white clam, go on thinner strands, such as linguine. Hearty, chunky sauces go with larger, often tubular noodles, such as ziti and shells. Meaty ragùs cozy up to pappardelle or fettuccine. When you think about it, these traditions do make sense, but I don’t let them rule my kitchen.
11. Pasta is all about the sauce.
When it comes to saucing pasta, we Americans are prone to the belief that if a little is good, a lot must be better. As a result, we often drown our noodles in sauce. But in Italy, it’s all about the pasta. Sauces are applied lightly, to enhance, not smother, the wheaty flavor of the noodles. To do this well, many chefs and cookbook authors actually finish cooking the pasta in the sauce. They stop boiling the pasta about a minute or two before it’s pleasantly al dente, and transfer the noodles—along with any water clinging to them—directly from the pot to a large skillet containing the sauce. Then they cook the pasta in the sauce, tossing it, for a couple of minutes, so that the flavor of the sauce actually gets into the noodles. The Italian term for this is macchiare, which means to stain.
12. Pasta cooking water is your friend.
As noodles cook, they release starch into the water, and it’s this mildly starchy water that can bring the pasta and the sauce into a more perfect union, as described above. It’s also the secret to perfect pesto. Pesto is so rich with nuts, oil, and cheese that the last thing it needs is more oil to thin the paste to a coating consistency. Instead, stir some pasta water into pesto that you’ve placed in the serving bowl before you add the pasta, and it will transform itself into a sauce that coats the noodles beautifully. Or, as many an Italian nonna will tell you, until the pasta comes nice.
Kemp Minifie was wrapped up in all aspects of food at Gourmet magazine for 32 years, and is now part of the Gourmet Live team. For more tried and tested tips and tricks, check out her Kemp’s Kitchen column on the Gourmet Live blog.