Pasta – The ultimate comfort food.

I have often stood in front of the dried pasta section in supermarkets trying to remember if I knew anything about any of the brands.  Ultimately, it was the design on the box that helped me choose.

Most of us love a bowl of pasta, and not all dried pasta in the supermarkets is created equal.  The pasta part of a pasta dish is not just a vehicle to deliver the sauce to your mouth.  It is an important ingredient of the dish, and it should be of the best quality.  The best might be a little more expensive than the tasteless stuff, but it is worth it.

First, you may have a choice between buying fresh or dried pasta, depending on where you live and what’s available.

Fresh pasts and dried pasta are very different from each other.  They are usually made with different flours. Fresh pasta is often made with white wheat flour and eggs which makes for a more delicate noodle.  Dried pasta is made with only semolina and water.  It is great with all sauces, but especially chunky sauces, or a pasta dish that requires lots of tossing in the pan.

There are three ways that pasta is made:  by hand, by lamination (where dough is flattened by machine, and by extruder (where the dough is fed into brass tubes (dies) and cut into shapes. This pasta has a rough exterior that makes sauces cling better.  This is preferable to the smooth exteriors the commercial brands produce.

Once pasta has been extruded, it traditionally is slow-dried which preserves flavor, relaxes gluten and gives the pasta a great consistency.  The more commercial brands speed up the slow-dry by applying heat but that reduces quality.

Look at the ingredients:

As you peruse the bags and boxes of dried pasta in the market look for the following ingredients:

Semolina is a coarse ground flour, made from durum wheat which gives this pasta good structure and an earthy flavor.

Whole grains like farro could be mixed with semolina flour to give the noodles more structure.  Without semolina flour, the pasta might collapse into a gummy mess and mixing with whole grains adds additional strength to the noodles.

Gluten-free pastas have come a long way. Pastas that are chick-pea based, and brown rice pastas work well as substitutes for gluten pastas. If you see guar gum or xanthan gum in the list of ingredients, that’s fine because those are plant-based additives that help bind the wheat flour substitutes.

Protein content should be checked in the ingredients because the higher the protein content the better tasting the pasta and the higher grade durum wheat was used.

What to buy in the supermarket:

Imported pasta is not necessarily better.  In fact, all but tortellini and oven-ready lasagna from Barilla are made in the USA even though Barilla is an Italian company.

  • Look for a rough, sandy texture.
  • Pasta should not be shiny, but matte, dull, or flat. These pastas will be a little more expensive, usually made in smaller batches, artisanal style, using the old-fashioned brass die mentioned above. They are well worth paying extra for.
  • The better brands will let you know if their pasta has been slow-dried or not. Choose the slow-dried.
  • Choose pasta with 13% or higher protein content.
  • Make sure the pasta does not have white spots, which is an indication of age.

Dried pasta brands that receive consistently great reviews are:

DeCecco makes authentic and pure pasta but it is not slow-dried. makes olive oil, harvests delicious, meaty Castelvetrano olives, and has recently introduced six traditional organic pastas made from ancient grains.  They are cut on bronze dies and air-dried. They are sold at Whole Foods.

Rao’s Homemade Spaghetti has great texture with an earthy flavor. All Rao’s pasta is made with an all-semolina dough and extruded through bronze dies.

Garofalo Spaghetti is 100% durum wheat semolina with no additives or additional flavors. The company has a tracer that allows customers to see exactly where the wheat in their package came from.  The online tool also lets customers see the results of quality tests performed on their retail pasta packages.

DeLallo sells authentic Italian pasta made with high quality durum wheat and extruded through artisan bronze dies.  It has great texture and springiness.  This company also makes pasta in unique shapes.

Rustichella D’Abruzzo produces more rustic pasta made with wheat having the correct levels of proteins and gluten.  The pasta is slow-dried for two days.  It has the perfect texture for grabbing sauces.  This company also specializes in unique shapes.

Faella still relies on the pasta-making techniques the company developed over 100 years ago. The pasta is extruded through bronze dies and slowly air-dried before packaging.  The pasta has a rough texture that smooths with cooking. One product has recently received press attention – their wide strips of dried pasta for lasagna that are now available for sale in the U.S.  The strips require about 5 minutes of parboiling prior to using them to make lasagna.

Pastificio Di Martina is a premium pasta associated with the clothing designer Dolce & Gabbana from their design collaboration in 2017.  It has the texture of fresh pasta and it is easy to cook al dente.  The noodles are delicious alone and shouldn’t be buried in an overwhelming sauce.  Pair them with a simple tomato sauce, or just olive oil. It is found in gourmet stores or on Amazon.

Cooking tips:

Never overcook pasta.  It should be al dente.

Rao’s Homemade sauces consistently rank number one or two as the best sauces.  They are thick, chunky, and full of color.  They also smell delicious.  Rao’s uses imported tomatoes and Italian olive oil.  The sauces are simmered in small batches over long periods of time.

Victoria is also a very popular tomato sauce and uses only imported tomatoes and olive oil from Italy.  The basil is locally sourced to ensure freshness. The company kettle-cooks its sauces for hours, resulting in sauces that taste homemade.

If you prefer to make your own tomato sauce, here is a good recipe from New York Times Cooking:

Simple Tomato Sauce


Yield:About 5 cups

  • ¼cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • ¼ teaspoon red chili flakes (optional)
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans whole or diced plum tomatoes
  • 2 sprigs basil or 1 bay leaf
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper


Step 1

In a large, straight-sided skillet over medium heat, warm the oil. Add garlic and cook until just lightly golden. Add chili flakes if desired and cook 30 seconds.

Step 2

Stir in tomatoes and juices, basil or bay leaf, and salt and pepper.

Step 3

Bring sauce to a simmer and cook until sauce is thick and tomatoes have mostly fallen apart, about 30 to 40 minutes. Adjust heat as needed to keep at a steady simmer. If using whole plum tomatoes, mash them up with the back of a wooden spoon or a potato masher to help them break down. Remove sauce from heat and discard basil or bay leaf.