Just when you think you know everything there is to know about pasta, the complex carbohydrate wonder of the decade, you meet a pasta perfectionist like William F. Gomez.
Gomez, the manager of the Olive Garden restaurant, speaks of pasta with intimate, endearing terms - as if he and a gang of noodles had been old pals since kindergarten. When he speaks, you know he's a pasta purveyor with panache.And like best friends do, Gomez shared the secrets of precise pasta.
"It's a simple serrated edge," he explained. "The rough, textured edges of any fresh noodle cling to the sauce, even absorb it. When you have a flat, smooth edge, like you do on dried pasta, the sauce sinks through the noodles. When you use homemade pasta with more texture, the sauce grabs on to the noodles."
Gomez resolved another pasta problem - how to determine the al dente or "to the tooth" stage of noodle doneness.
"When you break a single noodle and see a speck of white on the inside, the pasta is done. Only a trace of white, but not all the way through. To be accurate, you need to use a taste test. Cooking pasta is based on taste, not timetables. Suggested times give only an indication of doneness."
Preparing pasta menus approaches national pastime status.
Steve Shiffman, owner of the Pasta Market in Cincinnati, Ohio, estimated, "If the nation's annual pasta consumption were laid end to end, it would stretch to the moon and back 300 times, Mars and back twice, around the equator 5,743 times . . . A pound laid out stretches 217 feet; average eaters slurp up 14.7 pounds a year or 3,189 feet, which translates to 900 hours of twirling forks. Americans eat 3,497,400,000 pounds a year, roughly the same as the weight of the entire population of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky."
Pasta is a familiar grocery product, but occasionally the twist or turn of a noodle shape may be confusing. Because different regions of Italy apply different names to the same cut, pasta nomenclature is complex. Some of the more commonly used but misunderstood names of pasta are:
- Cannelloni - rectangles of pasta, usually about 3 inches by 4 inches, stuffed, rolled into tubes, sauced and baked.
- Fettuccine - The favorite flat noodle of Rome, cut about 1/8-inch wide. Particularly good with cream sauces.
- Ravioli - Two face-to-face squares of flat pasta stuffed with a filling of meat, cheese or vegetables.
- Tagliatelle - The favorite flat noodle of Bologna. Very similar to fettuccine, although slightly thinner and wider, about 1/4-inch.
- Tortellini - A small square topped with meat, vegetables or cheese, then folded and twisted into a ring-shaped dumpling.
- Farfalle - Butterflies; a flat noodle about 2 inches long and 3/4-inches wide, pinched together in the middle to form a bow-tie shape. Good with tomato or meat sauce.
- Fusilli - Long, spaghetti-length corkscrew noodles; good with thick, clinging creamy sauces with bits of meat or vegetables.
- Penne or mostaccioli - Tubes about 2 inches long, cut diagonally on the ends. They are generally paired with a tomato sauce.
- Rigatoni - Ridged, hollow tubes about 2 inches long and 1/2-inch wide. Rigatoni are delicious tossed with meat sauces, bits of which get trapped inside. They hold their shape well and may be baked in sauce.
- Rotelle - Short, 2-inch, corkscrew-shape pasta; good with chunky sauces.
- Ziti - Long hollow rods, about the length of spaghetti. Use with hearty meat or mushrooms sauces, or bake like rigatonis.
Whatever the shape, length or thickness, it's clear Americans prefer the possibilities of pasta menus. October is designated as "National Pasta Month," but few of us need a reminder to heat up the pasta pot.
On the whole, we agree with actor Alan Alda who admits, "I chronically suffer from a serious pasta deficiency. I must have those happy noodles slapping against my insides or I begin to look wan and lifeless."