For a busy weekday cook, having a good dried spaghetti in the pantry is about 90 percent of having dinner made. Dress it with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano, or chopped fresh tomatoes and olive oil, and you have a memorable meal with little more than the time and effort it took to boil water. § When my go-to daily spaghetti brand disappeared from store shelves, I was bereft, robbed of the foundation for a dozen easy meals. Fortunately, the L.A. Times Test Kitchen was there to help. I bought 10 supermarket brands of spaghetti, all of them priced less than $4 a pound, and then we cooked them. § In the end, I found my replacement pasta, but there were some significant surprises along the way, including a gluten-free that was nearly as good as our favorites. § First, let’s specify that what we’re talking about is dried spaghetti noodles made from wheat, water and not much else (some brands, both domestic and Italian, add vitamins and minerals for the American market). Egg pastas that have been dried are not the same thing.
But even with such a simple ingredient, there is good and not-so-good. The difference is not what you might expect: The actual flavor of the noodles we tasted varied little. Tasting naked spaghetti is like differentiating among various degrees of beige.
When the differences really showed up was after we dressed the noodles with a little inexpensive bottled sauce. Because the most important thing about a pasta is how it carries flavor, and that can vary dramatically. Stirred with the same jarred sauce, some spaghetti tasted simple and bland while others tasted almost like something we’d make at home.
When we went back over the spaghetti brands we liked best, the thing we found in common was a rough, almost pitted texture on the uncooked noodles. This is what carries the sauce and allows you to get the full effect of it rather than just whatever liquid managed to cling to the noodle.
Which spaghetti did we like best? The Garofalo sold at Costco and Amazon.com ($3.81 per pound), Whole Foods’ store-brand 365 “organic” ($1.49) and supermarket staple Barilla ($1.49).
That gluten-free? It was also from Barilla ($3.29). It had terrific bite and only a little of the mealy texture you might expect from a dried noodle made without the benefit of gluten from hard wheat. The package reads, “Made with corn and rice.”
One thing we found curious was the difference between two seemingly similar noodles, one we bought at Trader Joe’s labeled Lucio Garofalo (99 cents) and the more expensive Costco brand that we liked, labeled simply Garofalo.
When you read the fine print, they both had the same simple ingredients (semolina and durum wheat), but more significantly they both gave the same address for the manufacturer (indeed, the Garofalo website lists the full name as Pastificio Lucio Garofalo).
But while the Trader Joe’s brand wasn’t bad, it certainly wasn’t as good as the other Garofalo. And when we inspected the raw noodles, we could see why: The Trader Joe’s version was nearly smooth, while the Costco/Amazon version was the most pitted of any of the pastas we tested.
We’ve done these tastings a couple of times over the years with a mix of high-end and everyday brands. The Latini brand had won both. It was certainly a terrific pasta, but it seems to have disappeared (one importer says the brand was sold and is no longer making pasta). Rustichella d’Abruzzo did well both times too, but with it costing as much as $8 per pound, it may be a bit pricey for everyday use.
After all, there’s no need to break the bank for what should be the daily luxury of a simple, well-prepared plate of pasta.
20 minutes. Serves 4 to 6
1 pound spaghetti or bucatini
4 ounces guanciale, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 generous tablespoons olive oil
3 eggs, at room temperature
3½ ounces freshly grated
pecorino Romano or a
combination of pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Cook the spaghetti in rapidly boiling salted water over high heat until it is just tender but with a needle-thin core of crisp.
2. While the spaghetti is cooking, heat the guanciale and oil in a skillet over medium heat just until the guanciale begins to brown and crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, but keep it warm.
3. Break the eggs into a small bowl and add all of the cheese and a generous grinding of pepper. Whisk gently until smooth.
4. Drain the cooked pasta (reserving and keeping warm a cup of its water) and put it in the skillet with the guanciale over low heat. If it sizzles loudly, the pan is too hot; let it cool slightly. Toss quickly to mix well and coat the spaghetti with the rendered fat.
5. Holding the skillet slightly above but not touching the burner, pour the egg and cheese mixture in a stream into the pasta. Toss the pasta or stir it quickly with spoons to coat the spaghetti in a creamy sauce made from the lightly cooked eggs. Work quickly so the spaghetti does not get cold, or the eggs will stay raw and runny. But don’t let the pan get too hot or the eggs will curdle. If either starts to happen, you can rescue it by stirring in a little of the reserved warm cooking water.
6. Taste and add more salt and pepper if desired before serving immediately.
NOTE: Adapted from recipes from Gino Angelini of Angelini Osteria and “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant.