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Fat Guy

An interesting dried-pasta tasting

35 posts in this topic

The dried-pasta tastings I've read about in the past, such as the ones performed by Cook's Illustrated, have never struck me as particularly credible. But New York Magazine recently put together a tasting at the International Culinary Center that seems, on the face of it, to be the best of its kind done to date. The tasters were Marco Canora of Insieme, Hearth, and Terroir; Mark Ladner of Del Posto; and Cesare Casella of Salumeria Rosi; and they tasted the pasta both plain and dressed. When I heard about this tasting, I thought for sure, finally, this would prove the superiority of imported artisanal dried pasta.

Trader Joe's won.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'd like to see the ingredient labels on each of the top contenders just to see if we're comparing apples to apples. When they talk about taste difference there are so many factors, but I'd like to know that the TJ brand hasn't added something like "natural flavors."

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Interesting! Though I do wonder why De Cecco didn't make the cut. Rummo I've never heard of.

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I always find these taste testings completely bizarre. Why taste pasta with nothing on it? It's like tasting gin at room temperature, when it is not meant to be consumed that way, and giving that evaluation major weight in the final rating. But then they decided to taste with butter (?!) and Parmigiano, which may be too strong.

I have a hard time trusting any rating where no one mentions that Latini's strand pasta is gummy. Although this brings up another issue: how was the pasta cooked? I'm given to understand that the Latini folks prefer their pasta extremely al dente, which probably mitigates the gummyness.

I think it's interesting that the director of the Italian Culinary Academy and the only actual Italian among them was also the one who rated Setaro the highest.

I would much rather have seen them test the different brands with a light coating of a light tomato sauce or something like that. Why not evaluate the pasta in a context at least somewhat similar to the way the pasta will normally be consumed? It seems quite possible to me that one pasta might be preferred with only butter, whereas another might do better with a more involved condiment.

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Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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I wonder if it wouldn't have been a good idea to also test a different shape pasta, say penne, from the same producers. and then average the scores.

Agreed that DeCecco, at the least, should have been included.

At least the brand that I like the best, and which I buy most often, came in second... cheaper at Whole Foods, btw.


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But, they do not mention what sort of water was used -aside from mentioning that it was salted. I recall stories of Italian chefs complaining that they could not replicate Italian food properly because the water in America is different.

At home, I use filtered water for pasta.

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"The water is different" is a common reason given for why all kinds of things are different -- usually completely fallaciously (no, the reason the pizza in Peoria isn't as good as it is in NYC has nothing to do with the water). I can't imagine that water qualities, mineral concentrations and mineral types aren't just as variable in Italy as they are in the United States. Regardless, New York City has some of the best municipal water in the world, soft, pure and with very little chlorination needed.

By the way, if you're filtering your pasta water through an activated charcoal filter, you're just wasting the charcoal. Things such as chlorine that are removed by this kind of filter will boil off almost immediately.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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This is very interesting. I too wonder about De Cecco as that's what I buy for most of my dry pasta.

If I had the patience and the time I would do the tasting myself. That's what I did with tomatoes and the results really surprised me. Now I don't have to overpay for D.O.P. which are probably not the same D.O.P. eaten in Italy when I can use Pomi or Muir Glen depending on what I want.

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It is kind of strange that those with the resources to conduct these sorts of tastings never seem to design them with much rigor.

Were we to have the power to stage a do-over of this experiment, what would be its general outlines?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think you'd first have to have some general understanding of the different pastas and what they're going for. For example, I've mentioned before that the Latini family believes in cooking the pasta extremely al dente. Other pastas -- De Cecco, for example -- might be considered more "general purpose" pastas. To whatever extent possible, you'd try to cook the various pastas in ways that display their qualities to good effect, with the understanding that this won't be the same way for each brand.

I'd also have "blind cookings" as well as "blind tastings." Many of us have observed that artisinal pasta, as well as different brands of industrial pasta have different cooking properties. For example, some industrial brands seem to have a very narrow window of "just right" between undercooked and overcooked. This is important in choosing a pasta, in my opinion.

So, then you'd choose a few preparations. You could do a simple "in bianco" preparation with nothing more than pasta water and a hint of olive oil; you could do a seafood pasta; you could do pasta with a light application of tomato sauce. These would all be evaluated in both the blind cooking and blind tasting stages to see how they cooked and tasted. It strikes me as not impossible that a pasta that worked best with clams, olive oil, parsley and garlic (not exactly as "sauce," per se) might not be the same pasta that works best with an actual sauce.

In the end, I think what you hope to be able to do is say: "the combination of the way this pasta brand cooks and tastes in this specific preparation gives us the best chance of getting the highest quality dish." For another dish, or other stylistic goals, it might be a different pasta.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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"The water is different" is a common reason given for why all kinds of things are different -- usually completely fallaciously (no, the reason the pizza in Peoria isn't as good as it is in NYC has nothing to do with the water).  I can't imagine that water qualities, mineral concentrations and mineral types aren't just as variable in Italy as they are in the United States.  Regardless, New York City has some of the best municipal water in the world, soft, pure and with very little chlorination needed.

By the way, if you're filtering your pasta water through an activated charcoal filter, you're just wasting the charcoal.  Things such as chlorine that are removed by this kind of filter will boil off almost immediately.

I use a filter because the water here in Phoenix can be high in particulates occasionally. We also have a public water company that has a history of not disclosing dangerously high levels of chemicals from industrial accidents at a couple of local companies. So, we have water that can be ridiculously high in arsenic or toluene pretty much at any time. The EPA brought legal action in 2003, but, we have had more incidents since then.

If I were to do a similar test, I'd have more tasters to get some age variance and some female opinions. I would also run it over several days, so that more brands could be tested without tasters getting too full. (maybe have the best of each day's tasting appear in a final taste-off day) I'd also taste with a tomato sauce if only to see how the pasta held up to the acidity of sauce. I like the suggestion of testing various shapes, too. Maybe have a baked ziti category to test how it holds up in a baked dish.

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Doing a few different shapes from each maker, and doing more than one trial of each should also be a minimum if the results are to have much weight.

It's a lot of work ... testing anything with scientific riggor is hard.

The most basic elements of experiment design usually demand much more attention than these magazines ever commit. slkinsey hints at some issues when he mentions different pastas requiring different amounts of cooking. A typical, oversimplified experiment design would call for cooking everything identically, to level the playing field. This obviously gives useless results. But the alternatives make it harder to design the test: exactly how and how much do you cook each pasta? How do you decide?

There's a simple control that I'd like to see implemented in all taste tests like this: some samples should be doubled. in other words, if you're being asked to taste ten different bowls of spaghetti, some of those bowls might contain the identical product (but it's a blind test, so you wouldn't know). If if you give different judgements of two tastes of the same pasta, then the weight of your judgements is diminished (a statistician can even determine how much).


Edited by paulraphael (log)

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I'm sure there are factors aplenty in both cooking and tasting pasta, and I'm interested in everyone's opinion.

What makes me giggle is the outright assumption here that TJ's couldn't possibly be the winner.


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Being a home cook I'm not that consistent with my sauces. Let's say I want to make bucatini all'amatriciana. It's possible that depending on how dry the sauce is the difference between bucatini and bucatini rigati is more significant than that between De Cecco's bucatini and Trader Joe's bucatini.

Because different brands have slightly diffrent texture, it's possible that what's attributed to a brand is actually due to a particular combination of pasta and sauce. Having different shapes/textures on hand is always a good idea.

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What makes me giggle is the outright assumption here that TJ's couldn't possibly be the winner.

I don't assume that, because we have no way of knowing who actually makes it for them.

What seems fishy is that a brand like Setaro gets burried ... and this is a pasta I only know about because a lot of (real) Italian chefs like it. I don't know anyone who's been swayed by Setaro's marketing, because I don't know anyone who's seen any.

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This is no different than the 2 buck chuck winning wine blind tastings. Look TJs has great buyers. For the most part they put decent to good to great products on their shelf by finding a good product, cutting a helluva deal and getting it on the shelf. They must have done that here.

My problem is more how magazines do these things with accessible products - but that's only because my store works hard to find the less accessible products that are great, not just good, so magazine reviews leave you thinking you've found the best when you haven't (are you listening Cooks Illustrated readers).

So to answer Steven's question more directly, the study is for a mass audience, so cook it like a mass audience would OR exactly as the package indicates. If a certain brand likes to be al dente with only a razor lip female geen South Pacific clam with Australian butter sauce...too bad because the average home cook is going to dump that bottle of Prego on it.

Its sort of like saying which computer is best. The reality is that 99% of the buyers are not going to use, nor will they need, all of the bells and whistles that make the computer the best. Same goes for all consumer products. NY magazine is not geared toward the eG crowd, nor the chef crowd...we are residual.

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What do you think of Pastificio Artigianale Romita? I'm not an expert on pasta by any means but I love their product. It has the great variation in texture and al denteness that I haven't even ever had at restaurants.

I find the quality difference between Romita and De Cecco greater than even that between De Cecco and the bottom-shelf supermarket brands.

Central Market also carries Rustichella D'Abruzzo. It's about the same price but I find the quality just a cut above De Cecco.

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Have you tried Mammarella?

Is it me or is it not so good? And it's very expensive. The box is just 12 oz and I think it's about $5. And I've tried it al dente and well cooked and everything in between and it's just gummy. But maybe it's a regional thing.

Super packaging.

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I've always suspected that the Cook's Illustrated tests are flawed because they don't seem to take into account variation in, say, how long a box of pasta has been sitting on the shelf, and other storage-related issues. So when they decide that Muller's is better than DeCecco, it could well be that the DeCecco pasta was old and stale. Dry pasta definitely can get stale. Seems as if the NY Magazine trial could have had the same problem. I don't know how you'd control for it other than by getting stuff shipped directly from the manufacturers, and then other questions would arise, I suppose.

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Well, I dropped a dollar on the Trader Joe's Italian Penne Rigate ("Authentic Italian Pasta" :wink:), and I gotta say that it ain't bad at all! I parboiled until just before al dente, and finished cooking it in a simple tomato sauce, and it seemed to turn out perfectly (good bite, not mushy, etc.)

However, it's been a while since I've had decent pasta at home, as I've been working through the last of a Costco "special buy" :blink:. At this point, I can't quite recall what I liked about De Cecco or other premium grocery store brands, and I haven't had the stomach to order the Setaro from Buon Italia yet.

If someone can put together a head-to-head, I think it would make a worthy addition to the eG Cook-Off series...


So we finish the eighteenth and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, "Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know." And he says, "Oh, uh, there won't be any money. But when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness."

So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.

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I'd like to see the ingredient labels on each of the top contenders just to see if we're comparing apples to apples.  When they talk about taste difference there are so many factors, but I'd like to know that the TJ brand hasn't added something like "natural flavors."

Trader Joe's Italian Linguine

Ingredients: Durum wheat semolina, niacin, iron lactate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid.

Trader Joe's Organic Spaghetti (Imported from Italy)

Ingredients: Durum wheat semolina.

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Trader Joe's and Trader Giotto's (the organic line) pastas are both imported from Italy. I'm pretty sure that TJ's does not sell any non-Italian-manufactured pasta.

I think it should be stressed again that Trader Joe's does not manufacture anything themselves -- they have buyers that scour the globe for great producers, put the screws to said producers to cough up a deal they can't refuse, repackage the product and sell it.

For all we know at this point, TJ's pasta could be some highfalutin Italian brand that eGulleters have paid through the nose for...


So we finish the eighteenth and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, "Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know." And he says, "Oh, uh, there won't be any money. But when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness."

So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.

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