Pasta with Sauce Pasta Sauces & Service - Overview
Italy is the center of the world of Pasta Sauces, so most of our information will be about Italian sauces - but the general rules apply to sauces of other European regions - most of which developed their sauces from Italian practice.

Asian pasta usage is far different from that of the Western World, so it is not considered here.



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The Nature of Italian Sauces

Most Americans are under the impression that Italian pasta sauces are almost all based on tomatoes and need very long cooking. This impression is constantly reinforced by the advertising of pasta sauce manufacturers - they want to discourage you from making your own sauces, for obvious reasons. There is also the matter of Italian-American tradition.

Here we must firmly differentiate between Italian cuisine and Italian-American cooking, a matter which distresses visitors from Italy to no end. The vast majority of Italian immigrants to North America were from the impoverished south of Italy. These people barely knew what food was.

These immigrants did, however, know spaghetti. And, in their warm homeland, any sauces they made had to be kept simmering day in and day out for lack of refrigeration. Also, any meat they could afford was tough, possibly even from a retired work horse or water buffalo. It could only be tenderized by tossing it in the simmering sauce and leaving it there for many hours. This is the basis of Italian-American cooking.

This does not at all jive with real Italian practice. With the exception of the Ragu class, most Italian sauces are simple, quickly prepared and with short (or even no) cooking time. Emphasis is placed on preserving the fresh flavors and light textures of the ingredients. Many are based on tomatoes, but many are not.

Serving Details

Here we have a major difference between Italian and North American practice, and it greatly affects the use of sauces. This is a life style issue and isn't going to change, at least not here.

In Italy, with the exception of certain baked casseroles such as Lasagne al Forno and Cannelloni, pasta is not a main dish - it is served in a small portion just before the main course. Pasta is not always served, often being replaced by soup (which often contains pasta, of course).

In North America, the pasta dish is commonly the main dish, preceded or followed by salad, and may share the plate with meat or other major items.

All Italian cookbooks tell you to drain the pasta (do NOT rinse), not too dry, then stir it together with the sauce and serve immediately in shallow heated bowls. The saucing should be light, the pasta should not be swimming in it.

Given that, for me, the pasta serving is rarely an accessory, but commonly the main dish, I prefer to serve it differently. I return the drained pasta to the pot (again, not rinsed and not too dry) and stir in a few drops of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (it takes very little) to keep the pasta from sticking.

I serve a larger than Italian amount of pasta on deep plates, with a big dollop of pasta in the center, and garnished as I see fit. This also provides a more attractive presentation. The photo at top left of this page is an example, but the pasta I serve is often intermingled with green beans, wedges of Brussels sprouts, broccoli florets, or other attractive accessories.

This method gives a lot more flexibility, and makes it possible to add a little more pasta or a little more sauce as desired. It also works very well for buffet service, with the pasta in a slow cooker set to "keep warm" and a selection of sauces for the guests to choose from.

Of course, in Italy this would be sacrilege - might as well insult the Pope! It is held the Olive Oil will keep the sauce from adhering to the pasta. Personally, I don't find this much of a problem.

Once again - the saucing is to be fairly light so you can enjoy the taste and texture of the pasta itself - not drowning in a flood of sauce Italian-American style. Incidentally, "Spaghetti and Meat Balls" is unknown in Italy, that's purely Italian-American.

Pasta Shapes for Sauces

There are several factors in choosing an appropriate pasta shape. While in Italy, shape to sauce combinations are often dictated by regional tradition, we don't have those traditions here and are on our own.

  • Sauce:   How well will the sauce cling to the shape? For light sauces, long thin strands are fine. For chunky meat sauces short shapes or wide flat ribbons are much better.
  • Consistency:   How well will the size and shape of the pasta match the size and shape of other ingredients? For pasta with green beans, it's best to select a pasta of similar size and shape to the cut of the beans, for instance.
  • Appearance and Variety:   Do you want a decorative shape as a feature, or a plain shape so other ingredients are featured? Fancy shapes go best with light sauces.
  • Colored Pasta:   These go best with butter/oil sauces so the colors are featured, not covered by a strongly colored sauce.
  • Setting and Skills:   If it's a buffet party with folks wandering around and paying more attention to conversation than to eating, shapes to about 2 inches are best. Also, less experienced pasta eaters may have problems, particularly with spaghetti and full length bucatinti.
  • Availability:   All the shapes photographed for these pages were available in Los Angeles - but other regions may be more impoverished, shape-wise.
Eating Pasta

This is not real hard. You do it with a fork. This is particularly easy with short pastas. If you have a lumpy sauce, it's easy to get some sauce on your fork, then pick up a piece of pasta, stabbing it if appropriate.

Long pasta is more of a problem. While, with wide pastas like Tagliatelle, cutting into segments with the side of your fork may be acceptable, it is not with thinner shapes.

You wind it around the fork against the curve of the plate. Of course this is easier with plates that are of modest size and have a definite curve at the edges. That's the kind I use for everything - I find the current style of American dinner plate much too large (and nutritionists consider that large size a factor in the obesity epidemic).

NEVER wind the pasta against a spoon - that's considered totally unacceptable in polite circles in Italy, and should be here.

You get it pretty much all wound around the fork. Sucking in cascades of pasta with loud slurping sounds may pass muster in Japan, but not here.

Choice of shape definitely affects ease of winding. This is why I very much prefer linguine to spaghetti, it behaves much better on the fork, particularly for the distracted or less experienced, and it holds sauces better.

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©Andrew Grygus - agryg@clovegarden.com - Photos on this page not otherwise credited are © cg1 - Linking to and non-commercial use of this page permitted