Philacatessen | What I Learned in Italy About Cooking Pasta

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I’ve been cooking pasta for most of my life. And I discovered on a recent trip to Italy that I’ve been doing it semi-wrong.

Fortunately, this is fixable and there is no point crying over decades of noodle errors. As I tell my kids on every misstep, “You can only go forward. Live and learn.” So henceforth, I shall employ the lessons I acquired from several accomplished Italian home cooks, and enjoy pasta the way it was intended to be eaten.

Here are my lucky seven newly learned tips:


  1. Salt is your friend. Salt the cooking water generously; later on, this water will be a useful ingredient for finishing the dish, so you want it seasoned.
  2. Use a big pot — even for a small amount of pasta. Crowding the noodles in a small pot impedes uniform cooking.
  3. Al dente, al dente, al dente. Meaning “to the tooth,” pasta in Italy is served with a harder texture in the middle of every noodle. Not cracking your bridgework hard, but you feel it: No mushy noodles. In the past, I have cooked my pasta for one minute less than the package instructs to achieve the al dente result, but I learned that was still too long; now I am backing that down even further — checking at two minutes less than directed. The pasta will cook a bit more at the finish (see tip 5) so don’t fear the slight chewiness.
  4. No oil in the water. This was not a habit of mine, but many American cooks add oil to the water to keep the noodles from sticking together. According to my Italian friends, this is like putting a raincoat on the noodles; it prevents them from absorbing the sauce, which is the whole point of the dish.
  5. Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce. Don’t pour it in a bowl and dump the sauce on top. After draining the pasta, pour it in the skillet or pot containing the sauce and toss it around to coat. This final step, which takes about 30 seconds, enables the sauce to permeate the pasta and fully integrates the flavors.
  6. Don’t oversauce the dish. Because you will put the pasta in the sauce to coat it, make sure you have an even proportion and the right amount. If you have made a vat of Bolognese to feed your family for the next month, remove the majority of it from the pot before you deposit the pasta.
  7. Use the cooking water. The idea that we just dump the water out shocked my friends. They reserve at least a cup before draining the pasta, and then sprinkle it in gradually during step 5 (above) to ensure that the sauce coats each noodle. They may not use the entire cup, but better to have too much than not enough.

These simple modifications make a difference: Since my return from Italia, I have noticed an improvement in my pasta dishes and my family agrees.

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