"Come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys someday." So speaks Peter Clemenza, the larger-than-life capo in the classic film The Godfather. He’s teaching young Michael Corleone how to make tomato sauce for a crowd. It’s good advice, but he never mentions that component’s natural pairing: dried pasta, something every pantry should have in good supply.
Dried pasta (pasta secca) can be marvelous if you know what to look for. And because it has a shelf life measured in years, rather than days (like fresh pasta), you can always have it on hand, ready to be made into a memorable meal. After all, you never know when a guest or six might surprise you with a visit, or stay later than expected.
Great pasta begins with dough made from durum wheat (the hardest type), which is extruded through dies to give it any number of distinctive shapes. The type of die is key. In a world where precision and clean lines are rewarded, pasta is an exception—you want a rough surface, and that comes from pasta extruded through dies made of bronze. Mass-produced brands are typically made on dies made of Teflon, or other smooth metals, that enable faster production and easier maintenance. Such bronze-extruded Italian pastas as Delverde and De Cecco are porous and bumpy, so they embrace a sauce like a lover returning from a long trip. Even more highly prized pastas come from Italy’s small-batch producers, such as Giuseppe Cocco and Setaro. Either way it’s a very affordable luxury at between $3 and $15 a pound.
The universe of pasta shapes is vast. In her comprehensive Encyclopedia of Pasta (University of California Press, 2009), author Oretta Zanini de Vita found 1,300 various shapes. Most have colorful names, many of which hint at the object they resemble. Garganelli, a tubed pasta with deep ridges, describes a chicken’s gullet. Orechiette, which means little ears, is a cup-shaped pasta popular in the south. It adores rich, meaty sauces.
So while Clemenza may have over-indulged in pasta, don’t let his downfall turn you away from stocking your pantry with a gourmet treat that can be ready in around eight minutes. Take the pasta—leave the cannoli.