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The Strands of Luxury

Is a box of artisanal spaghetti worth the splurge? We test 11 brands and make a surprising discovery.

October 02, 2002|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Artisanal pastas--dried noodles made (at least ostensibly) in small batches by traditional methods and sold for higher prices--seem to be everywhere these days. Shop at any high-end grocery store and you'll find at least three or four brands.

Think of them as the new olive oils: rustic, simple ingredients that have been raised to new heights by careful manufacture and by cooks always hungry for the next level of refinement.

But spaghetti is such a simple ingredient, can there really be that much difference among brands? Can one really be worth three or four times the price of another? And what does artisanal pasta mean, anyway?

Shopping online and in local markets, we rounded up eight examples of pricey spaghetti of varying degrees of "artisanality." Then we threw in three commonly available ringers to test how much difference there was between the high-priced stuff and the rest.

We cooked 2 ounces of each spaghetti in a quart of rapidly boiling water to which we'd added a tablespoon of salt. When the pastas were done, we drained them and dressed them with a tablespoon of olive oil.

At first, choosing among these naked noodles seemed like picking different shades of beige. By themselves, they were nearly identical, differing mainly in slight degrees of wheat flavor and resilience. But it gradually dawned on us that while the pastas themselves were pretty tough to tell apart, some of them seemed to have a much stronger olive oil flavor than the others.

Intrigued, we pulled out our five favorite brands and tasted them again dressed only in a tablespoon of cheap bottled tomato sauce. With three of them, the result was exactly what you'd expect--nice pasta flavor accompanied by thin, scorched sauce.

But two of the samples were different. With these, this same sauce tasted full and rich. What had seemed scorched with the other pastas emerged as a deep roasted flavor. It was the spaghetti equivalent of those expensive Riedel wineglasses--flavors and aromas seemed amplified and clarified.

When the brands were revealed, both of our favorites were made by Latini--the regular red-box brand and the Senatore Cappelli type made from an heirloom wheat variety. That Latini fared so well was no shock; it's the dried pasta of choice for most of the great Italian restaurants in this country.

But why do these noodles work so well? One reason is obvious once you look closely enough: The surface of the raw artisanal noodles are rough, rather than smooth. This is true in varying degrees; the Latini noodles were by far the roughest, almost to the point of being grainy.

After the starches have swelled during cooking, the difference isn't so obvious. But it's still enough to allow the spaghetti to hold more sauce, amplifying its flavor.

Dried pastas have had their ups and downs. For a period in the 1980s, they were scoffed at by foodies as inferior to fresh. That is over. Since the '90s, imports of Italian dried pasta, already high to begin with, have increased by an average of 7% per year.

To begin with, it's important to recognize that dried pastas are not fresh pastas that have been dehydrated. It's not a raisins and grapes thing. Except for dried egg noodles, which are a very small part of the market, dried pastas are made from different ingredients, in a different way. Fresh pastas are made from eggs and soft wheat flour ground from the seeds of the wheat variety Triticum vulgare and are rolled out. Dried pastas are made from water and hard semolina flour ground from Triticum durum and are extruded--pressed through dies.

In fact, by Italian statute, dried pastas can contain nothing but semolina and water. With many Italian firms opening factories in the United States to manufacture the noodles they sell here, one way to tell if it's the real thing is to read the ingredient labels. If they contain additions such as niacin, iron or folic acid, they were made in America, no matter if the label reads "Italy's No. 1 Pasta."

Of course, there's nothing inherently superior about Italian-made pastas. In fact, many of them have their roots in this country. Though Italy is the world's leading producer of durum wheat, it cannot grow enough to keep up with the world's hunger for Italian noodles. This year Italy will import about 650,000 tons of durum wheat from the U.S.--more than half of what is grown in this country.

This is nothing new. Until the early 20th century, Italy's great sources of durum wheat were the Ukraine and Volga River valley. The very best pastas were labeled "Taganrog," for the Russian port city on the sea of Azov, near the Black Sea, from which they were shipped. This source dried up in the 1920s during the great Russian famines brought on by drought and Stalin's collectivization.

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