best natural foods

Choosing great pasta brands

There are about 900 pasta brands in the world, according to an article I once read. There is no way I can tell you which is the best.

What I can share with you, however, are some of the better brands of pasta that I have tried and, more importantly, some tips on how to discover good pasta brands for yourself.

First, you must know what you are looking for in a good pasta... basically three things:

  • good flavour - sometimes described by words like "wheaty" or "nutty".

  • good "al dente" texture - not soft and mushy, but firm to the bite. This depends not only how you cook the pasta, but also the quality of the pasta.

  • an ability to hold on to the sauce rather than have the pasta sauce sink to the bottom of your dish.

No difference?

Don't believe those people who claim that there are no differences among different pasta brands. On one Internet forum, for example, I read a comment by someone who claims to cook pasta several times a week and swears that there are no differences. Either that person has poor discernment, or he has been choosing among different brands of poor quality pasta. Sure, if you compare bad with bad, you will find no differences.

In my case, I don't claim to have a lot of experience with pasta brands. I only started eating pasta more often only since around 2009. Before that was once in a long while. Even then, I don't cook pasta all that often - sometimes three or four times a week, sometimes not at all for three or four weeks.

Previously, I bought mainly the house brand pasta from Carrefour supermarket - because tt was organic, semi-wholemeal and cheap - cheaper than many non-organic brands. But when I began cooking pasta more regularly, I began to search for better pasta brands.

I asked a friend who cooks (pasta and food in general) a lot more than I do. He is someone who cares about food quality. He is never content with buying the cheapest and most convenient but would, instead, make special trips to different supermarkets and specialist grocers for quality products.

He recommended Barilla pasta and I found it pretty good. But at the back of my mind, I was not convinced that the world's biggest pasta manufacturer, with its gigantic scale mass-production, could be all that fantastic. I was more attracted to some of those more exotic sounding Italian pasta brands, from companies that I never previously heard about.

The two of us began to explore... And we quickly discovered that Barilla pasta is merely good, but not great. My friend, who previously swore by Barilla pasta, now no longer buys it. I learned the first lesson about how to discover a great pasta:

Explore. Don't just go with popular or reputable brands! Most consumers don't know - and probably don't care - much about quality. They are happy so long as certain minimum quality standards are met. And that's usually what you get from large, global manufacturers - basic standards rather than excellence.

Artisanal pasta

Our explorations led us to discover artisanal pasta brands, made by small companies.

My first discovery was Martelli pasta, which comes in its very distinctive vivid yellow packaging, unlike almost all other brands that come in see-through plastic. I was introduced to Martelli pasta by the owner of a small Italian delicatessen, Quattro Stagioni or "Four Seasons" (previously outside the Meidi-ya supermarket in Singapore, now at Orchard Central basement). He told me that the pasta is dried naturally (apparently on the roof top) and that Martelli makes only as much pasta in a year as what Barilla makes in one day!

Call this marketing talk if you will. But I was impressed. I gave it a try despite the much higher price - S$8 for a 500 gram packet, compared with S$3+ for a packet of Barilla or the organic pasta from Carrefour, or even cheaper for the Australian-made San Remo brand. I found Martelli to be good. I bought it a few times and introduced it to other friends who enjoy pasta. But I do have budget constraints. And I don't find it that good to justify paying the higher price on a regular basis.

Another good, and cheaper, pasta brand that I found at Quattro Stagioni is La Molisana. This brand has large pasta shapes like Conchiglioni or large shells, which La Molisana calls "Fantasy shapes".

Meanwhile, my pasta buddy was introduced by his specialist grocer, Huber's Butchery, to Cavaliere Giuseppe Cocco pasta. I rather like this, especially the spaghettini. And I find the price reasonable at just under S$5 for a 500 gram pack. For a while, Cavaliere Giuseppe Cocco became one my most regular pasta brands.

So the second lesson about how to discover great pasta brands is this:

Ask your specialist grocer. True, these are business people who have a vested interest in promoting the brands that they sell. But people who set up specialist businesses – I once did so myself - tend to know and care about quality and sell only those products that they know to be good.

By the way, don't be afraid to shop at specialist grocers just because they seem expensive. This is not always the case. For example, Huber's Butchery sells organic beef cheaper than non-organic beef at "Fairprice" supermarket. However, its Cavaliere Giuseppe Cocco pasta does costs a few cents more.

Back to commercial brands...

My pasta buddy's current favourite is De Cecco pasta. He finds this better than Cavaliere Giuseppe Cocco but I have not done much comparison.

De Cecco pasta might also be considered a commercial-brand as De Cecco is the second largest pasta maker in the world after Barilla. But with a difference - De Cecco still makes its pasta the traditional way, among other things using a slow drying process and with the pasta shapes extruded using bronze dies - to give a rough surface texture that helps it hold the sauce. Also, De Cecco gets its flour from Abruzzo in Italy, where the best durum wheat for pasta is said to be produced.

I had learned abot De Cecco from an Internet forum discussion on "the best pasta brands". I was intrigued that so many people recommended it highly, yet I had not previously seen / noticed it among the many pasta brands at the various supermarkets. A further search revealed that it is available at Meidi-ya, a Japanese supermarket at Liang Court, River Valley Road, in Singapore. I have since discovered that Meidi-ya is one of the best places to buy great pasta in Singapore.

My third piece of advice on discovering great pasta brands is this:

Don't rule ouf commercial brands. Artisanal pasta may not always be better. In fact, one taste test that I read ranked some artisanal pasta brands quite poorly. I have some doubts about this paricular test so I won't mention the details, but it is worth noting that it ranked De Cecco in second place.

The search for good brands of pasta continues. Click here to read about one of the best pasta brands that I just discovered.

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