Pasta sustains whole countries and, along with pizza, fuels countless thousands of American college students. It's as universal as the stars, a vehicle for hundreds of sauces and fillings, and it comes in more sizes and shapes than '60s hairdos. Italy claims more than 300 pasta varieties, an estimate some consider conservative.
Although humble by nature, pasta can be elevated to sublime heights. In the United States, it's too often overcooked, drowned in some prepared, commercial, tomato-based sauce, dumped unceremoniously onto a cold plate, and then dusted with that unmentionable grated cheese that comes in a green cylinder shaker. Sawdust would be an improvement.
We should take a lesson from our Italian friends. They treat their pasta with respect.
Usually served as a separate course before the main meal, it is always cooked al dente ("to the tooth"), dressed modestly with sauce, and - when Parmesan cheese is called for - even more modestly dressed with the king of Italian cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano, a cow's milk cheese from Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. Other, American cheeses that claim the Parmesan moniker are weak imitations.
A few hints: Pasta should be cooked, uncovered, in copious amounts of salted water and brought to a rolling boil. It may be cooked ahead of time, as many restaurants do, drained, and then reheated for 30 seconds or so in boiling water.
Oil in the cooking water coats the pasta, thus preventing it from absorbing the sauce.
Serve pasta in bowls, rather than dishes, to help keep it hot. If possible, heat the bowls beforehand. Pasta should be eaten with a fork only. Spoons are an unnecessary pretension, something you would never see an Italian use. Knives and pasta do not go together.
Although Italians are particular about exactly what pasta shape and size should go with what particular sauce, odd shapes can add visual interest to a dish.
The general rule: The chunkier and more robust the sauce, the bolder the pasta shape.
The recipes at left are deliberately missing one ingredient: tomato sauce. There is no law that says tomato sauce has to be served over pasta. The two we've included are made with olive oil and other simple, fresh ingredients.