What is so special about fresh pasta? Pasta is pasta—a filling, easy-to-make meal, a vehicle for tomato sauce and cheese—right? According to five different pasta vendors in the Boston area, pasta is much more than an easy meal, and much more than meatball’s bland, starchy partner. Pasta is a complex food in and of itself, and all our local vendors approach pasta with creativity and innovation, whether it is a family tradition or a new-found culinary expedition.
According to The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer, in the world of pasta manufacturing “macaroni” refers to any dried pasta that is made out of flour and water. While the term “spaghetti” refers exclusively to string-shaped pasta (spaghetti literally means “little strings”), the term “noodle” refers to dough made with egg. Within these basic definitional limits, Carol Field paints an expansive portrait of pasta: “Pasta can be short or long, handmade or factory made, stuffed or not, floating in broth or tossed in sauce. It can be made of durum wheat or soft-wheat flour with eggs and/or water.”
FRESH V. DRIED
Many food blogs and food historians are quick to point out that fresh pasta is not necessarily better than dried pasta. Rather, they are two different kinds of pasta, each with their own unique qualities. Fresh pasta is usually made with egg and high-gluten flour, kneaded like bread dough, pressed through rollers, and then shaped into long strips or various stuffed shapes, like tortellini or ravioli. Fresh pasta is softer and more delicate than dried pasta and, when cooked, has a more complex texture than dried pasta. Fresh pasta goes well with delicate or cream-based sauces, like Alfredo, that allow its soft texture and subtle egg flavor to shine through. Dry pasta, on the other hand, is made out of semolina flour and water, mixed into a paste and shaped using molds. The drying process takes a couple of days, but once dried, it has an incredible shelf life. Whereas fresh pasta boasts a soft, textured structure, dry pasta has a firmer structure and smoother texture, and thus works better with heavier sauces.
Though the specific origins of pasta are hazy—food historians like Charles Perry trace the origins of pasta to China—one thing is certain: Italians claimed pasta as their own, and made it famous. As Kummer outlines in his article, “Pasta,” pasta first made its way to North America by way of English settlers, and by the time the Civil War hit, pasta was widely accessible. Though the influx of Italian immigrants between 1880 and 1921 increased the number of North American pasta-eaters, most Italian immigrants preferred to purchase their pasta abroad, and few American farmers took the time to grow and process pasta’s main ingredient: durum wheat.
According to Kummer, pasta’s true rise in America did not come until the first World War when imports significantly decreased and American farmers took on the task of domestic pasta production. Nutritionists began marketing pasta as a healthier-than-bread carbohydrate with higher protein content. Campbell’s and Heinz got in on the gig and offered pre-cooked spaghetti canned with tomato sauce. Paired with Kraft’s recent invention of pre-shredded Parmesan cheese in a cardboard container, pasta became a quick, affordable, and allegedly healthy meal. Interestingly, as the canning procedure involved heating the mixture to temperatures above and beyond the ultimate cooking temperature for spaghetti, many Americans grew acquainted with exceptionally over-cooked spaghetti.
In a similarly non-traditional manner, pasta’s debut in the U.S. marked the beginning of “Italian Cuisine” as we know it—carbohydrate heavy, meat-laden, and cheese covered. As Italian immigrants found it difficult to procure the vegetables they paired with pasta in Italy, they turned to meat as a readily available, relatively cheap substitute. According to Kummer, thus came the birth of spaghetti with meatballs: a purportedly Italian, definitively American meal.
Be it Shaws, Star Market, or Market Basket, your local grocery store undoubtedly offers an endless array of dried pasta in different shapes, sizes and colors. Cooked correctly—not too long—and served with a delicious sauce, these pastas certainly have their place. That said, the finely crafted, locally produced pastas may open up your palate to a whole new pasta experience. Ever tried butternut squash ravioli? How about squid ink pasta?
According to their website, owners Albert Capone and Jennifer Capone Hegarty aim to offer “homestyle food for busy people.” In addition to fresh homemade fettucini, tortellini, and ravioli, Capone Foods offers frozen homemade entrees, like Lasagna Bolognese, Mushroom Napoleon, and Spinach and Mushroom Strata.
2285 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02140
14 Bow Street
Somerville, MA 02143
DAVE’S FRESH PASTA
This speciality food and wine shop boasts fresh pasta and ravioli, artisanal cheeses, fresh bread, and outstanding employees with the knowledge to help you curate a culinary adventure.
Dave’s Fresh Pasta
81 Holland Street
Somerville, MA 02144
DEPASQUALE’S HOMEMADE PASTA
Located in Boston’s famous North End, Depasquale’s Homemade Pasta Shoppe brags fifty different kinds of pasta, with each and every one made in-house daily. With this level of freshness and variety, it is impossible not to find something that peaks your interest or expands your palate. Check out their website for detailed recipes.
Depasquale’s Homemade Pasta
66a Cross Street
Boston, MA 02113
MARIA’S GOURMET PASTA
Owner Liberato “Libby” Mancaniello blends the traditional with the new, and focuses on freshness. Named after Libby’s mother, Maria, and inspired by her traditional recipes, Maria’s offers over 130 different kinds of pasta and produces exceptionally small batches with outrageously fresh ingredients. “When you ask for 100 pounds of fresh Asparagus wrapped in a black pepper pasta ravioli for Tuesday, the ingredients are purchased on Monday, made Tuesday morning and shipped Tuesday afternoon,” writes Libby.
Maria’s Gourmet Pasta
245 Ferry Street
Malden, MA 02148
What Nella Pasta lacks in family tradition, they make up for in ambition, passion, and renown. Nella was founded in 2008 by two friends, Rachel and Leigh, who met through unchallenging desk jobs and bonded over their love for food. Rachel and Leigh’s business is exceptionally community-focused, as they use only locally sourced ingredients and they make a point of giving back to the community through donating their delicious pasta to local charities, like Community Servings in Jamaica Plain.
31 Germania Street
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130
Corby Kummer, “Pasta,” The Atlantic, July 1986, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1986/07/pasta/6226/.
Carol Field, forward to Encyclopedia of Pasta, by Oretta Zanini De Vita (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), ix-xi.
The Kitchn. “Dry Pasta vs. Fresh Pasta: What’s the Difference?” Accessed December 20, 2011. http://www.thekitchn.com/thekitchn/noodles-pasta-and-grains/dry-pasta-vs-fresh-pasta-whats-the-difference-047888.
“Fresh pasta vs. dried pasta” The Second Pancake, November 19th, 2008. http://thesecondpancake.typepad.com/the_second_pancake/2008/11/fresh-pasta-vs-dried-pasta.html.
“Fresh Pasta v. Dry Pasta” The Balanced Plate, April 7th, 2008, http://thebalancedplate.wordpress.com/2008/04/07/fresh-pasta-v-dry-pasta.