FOR lovers of pasta, there's no staple more essential than dried spaghetti. Chop a garlic clove, drizzle some olive oil, sprinkle a little cheese, add spaghetti and you've got dinner. Who doesn't need that kind of comfort waiting in the pantry?
But there's spaghetti, and then there's spaghetti. At a recent tasting by The Times tasting panel of 16 brands of imported Italian spaghetti, we found that though the differences in flavor from brand to brand are subtle, the differences in texture -- and in the way texture conveys the flavor of sauce and cheese -- are marked indeed.
Why spaghetti, and not, say rigatoni or linguine? We wanted to test just one shape, figuring it wouldn't be fair to pit penne against pappardelle, farfalle against fettuccine. Every pasta producer we came across makes spaghetti, so that seemed the perfect shape to test.
The spaghettis were tasted blind, simply boiled in salted water until al dente, and tossed with a little fresh, fruity olive oil from central Italy. If it seems odd that we tasted them with olive oil, rather than plain, we did so for two reasons. First, we needed to toss them with some kind of oil, or else they'd quickly get gummy. I had thought of using a neutral canola oil in order not to impart any flavor, but columnist Russ Parsons reminded me of a similar tasting here at The Times a number of years ago. In that tasting, the panel learned that the difference in the pastas' flavor was so subtle from brand to brand that it was difficult to characterize it in a meaningful way. However, that panel found that pastas with a bit of texture actually conveyed the flavor of a sauce or olive oil better than slicker pastas. Therefore, in order to see which spaghetti brands would be best for delivering flavor from a sauce, we chose an olive oil with some character.
Joining me on the panel were Parsons, staff writers Charles Perry and Amy Scattergood and assistant Food editor Betty Hallock. We assessed the spaghettis for texture, mouth-feel, intrinsic flavor and ability to deliver the flavor of the olive oil.
The clear and unanimous winner was Latini -- not the more expensive Latini Senatore Cappelli spaghetti, but the spaghetti from the company's regular line in the red box. Rustichella d'Abruzzo was the clear second-place winner, also by a wide margin. After that, the margins were narrow, with several ties (indicated by asterisks) and three-way ties. The best value was Whole Foods Market 365 spaghetti, which came in fifth and costs only 69 cents for a 1-pound package.
The pastas are listed in order of the panel's preference. All packages are 500 grams (1.1 pounds) unless otherwise specified.
1. Latini spaghetti. Great texture, nicely springy, gentle nutty flavor with a sweet wheat finish. This pasta showed off the olive oil flavor to great advantage. "Just what I want in a pasta," said Parsons. Available at Bristol Farms markets, various locations; Bay Cities Italian Deli and Bakery in Santa Monica, (310) 395-8279, about $4.75 for 1 pound; and at Mario's Deli in Glendale, (818) 242-4114, about $3 for 1 pound.
2. Rustichella d'Abruzzo spaghetti. Terrific texture, nice wheat flavor, a little nutty; really held the flavor of the olive oil. Available at Whole Foods markets, various locations; Bristol Farms markets; Cheese Store of Silverlake, (323) 644-7511; Surfas in Culver City, (310) 559-4770; and Bay Cities Italian Deli and Bakery. About $5.50.
3. Pastificio Lucio Garofalo 20-inch spaghetti. Very long strands with nicely rough texture and nutty flavor, though one taster said it tasted "flat." Available at Surfas, about $7 for 2 pounds, and Claro's Italian Markets in San Gabriel, Arcadia, La Habra, Tustin, Upland and West Covina, www.claros.com about $5.50 for 2 pounds.
4. Montebello organic spaghetti. Though this one was smoother in texture than the panelists liked, most praised its nice, round, nutty flavor. (One detractor, however, found it "bland.") It conveyed the olive oil's flavor well. Available at Whole Foods markets, about $3 for 1 pound.
5. Whole Foods Market 365 spaghetti. Best value. Good wheat flavor, not much texture and not a great conveyor of olive oil flavor. Available at Whole Foods markets, 69 cents for 1 pound.
*6. Latini Senatore Cappelli spaghetti. Good, slightly rough texture but not much flavor. Conveyed the olive oil flavor acceptably well. Available at Bristol Farms markets and Bay Cities Italian Deli and Bakery, about $6.
6. Whole Foods Market 365 organic spaghetti. Thick, supple strands. Panelists were divided about the flavor -- some praised its nice wheat flavor, others found it bland. Available at Whole Foods markets, $1.29 for 1 pound.
*8. Rao's "homemade" spaghetti. Slick and rather bland, though one panelist dissented, praising its good texture and flavor. Available at Whole Foods markets and online at www.raos.com, about $3.75.