Can you find authentic Italian dried pasta – pasta secca -- on American grocery store shelves? Kind of yes and kind of maybe.
Pasta falls into one of those tricky gray areas. There are no DOP* or IGP* standards governing the production of pasta secca. As a result, everybody and his brother produces it. If you go to any number of American grocery stores or Italian specialty shops you'll find any number of dried pastas bearing “Made in Italy” or “Product of Italy” labels. As discussed in other articles, all this means is that some portion of the production process took place in Italy. The product itself could have been manufactured in Pakistan, but as long as it was packaged in an Italian factory it qualifies as a “Product of Italy.”
American pasta producers are among the most egregious offenders when it comes to misleading consumers because American consumers are among the most easily mislead. All you have to do to make an American think he is buying an Italian product is to make it look or sound Italian. Hence, if you take a bunch of poor quality spaghetti made from substandard wheat and wrap it in red, white and green packaging and stick a name on it that ends in a vowel or incorporates the word “Mama,” you'll lead gullible Americans into thinking they've bought an authentic Italian product. I mean, spaghetti is Italian, right? And spaghetti is spaghetti, right? And the stuff in the faux Italian wrapper with the fake Italian name sells for ten pounds for a dollar, so why not buy it? All you're gonna do is dump a gallon of canned tomato sauce on it anyway, so what's the difference?
Ronco must be a real Italian brand because it's wrapped in the colors of the Italian flag and has a name that ends in “o.” Nope. Produce by the oddly named American Italian Pasta Company, which sold over six hundred million dollars' worth of spaghetti out of Kansas City in 2009.
DaVinci. Surely anything named for the great Italian master must be for real. Kinda sorta. It's imported by World Finer Foods, headquartered in New Jersey, which “sources” over 900 specialty food products from around the country and around the world. These products are then sold to a network of distributors who service supermarkets nationwide. Italy is designated as the country of origin for DaVinci products, so there is at least a chance that it has Italian roots.
Now, there are some American companies that do have actual Italian roots. Ronzoni, for example, was founded by a real Italian immigrant, Emanuele Ronzoni, who started making pasta in New York back in the 1880s. But just because my grandfather supplied bootleg hooch to Chicago back in 1921, does that qualify me as a master distiller today? I seriously doubt that the stuff ConAgra dumps into cans these days under the “Chef Boyardee” label bears any remote resemblance to the food Ettore Boiardi once sent home with his Cleveland restaurant customers in used milk bottles. Let's hammer that nail one more time; just because it has an Italian name doesn't make it an Italian product.
So how does an average American food shopper get quality Italian pasta? The closest you'll find will come from either De Cecco or Barilla. Both are noted Italian pasta makers. Both are headquartered in Italy. De Cecco is based in Fara San Martino, and Barilla is located in Parma. Each has a corporate office in the United States.
Barilla S.p.A. was founded in Parma in 1877 by Pietro Barilla. It's still there today. Pietro never left Italy and neither did his company, although its products are now marketed all over the world. The company is still privately held by a fourth generation of Barilla family owners and is a true Italian company producing a true Italian product. The difference is that while Barilla bills itself as “Italy's #1 Brand of Pasta,” its products are produced all over the world from locally grown ingredients. In the US that means Ames, Iowa. They use the same procedures in Ames as they do in Parma. Even the production machinery is the same. But it's still made in the United States.
De Cecco, on the other hand, generates more than one-third of its total revenue through export. De Cecco was founded in 1886 by brothers Nicola and Filippo De Cecco in the small town of Fara San Martino in central Italy's Abruzzo region. Destroyed by German bombs in World War II, De Cecco rebuilt, adding facilities in Pescara and a new factory in Fara San Martino to meet increased post-war demand. Since all of De Cecco's products are manufactured in one of two Italian plants and exported to markets worldwide, the short answer to the authentic Italian pasta question would probably be De Cecco.
But does it all really make a difference? Isn't pasta all the same? Emphatically not! I could go on for another two pages breaking down the various types and grades of durum wheat and the semolina flour produced from the wheat and the manufacturing processes that convert the flour into pasta. I could talk about the relative merits of pasta extruders that employ brass or bronze dies versus those that use plastic or Teflon. But the best way to see the difference is by experience.
Not long ago, some in-laws were planning a big spaghetti meal for a special occasion. My offer of assistance was eagerly accepted. Unfortunately, I was not involved in the buying phase and had to make do with the cheapest store brand spaghetti money could buy. And it was simply dreadful. When cooked for a length of time that should have yielded perfect al dente results, the cheap pasta remained chewy and underdone. Another couple of minutes in the pot and it turned out looking and tasting like the mushy, textureless stuff that comes out of a can. In other words, the American ideal.
You can also judge good quality dried pasta by looking at it. Extremely smooth pastas are the result of cheap and fast manufacturing processes. They'll have a slick texture when cooked and won't hold on to a sauce like pastas with a visibly rougher texture, a sign of a more authentic, artisinal approach. Color is important, too. Good pasta has a nice light – almost pale blond – color. Cheap pasta is a dark yellow, indicative of a high-heat drying process.
Trust me. If you're one of those people who buys the cheap stuff because it's saves fifty cents less than the good stuff, splurge a little and buy some De Cecco or Barilla. Or at least take a gamble on one of those “Made in Italy” brands. Cook it properly – and throwing a pound of spaghetti into a two-quart saucepan with one quart of water to which you have added a half teaspoon of salt and a cup of oil and then cooking it for fifteen minutes is not, not, NOT the proper way to cook it – and you will immediately see the difference real Italian quality can make.