Last Noodle Standing

From left: Cesare Cavella, Mark Ladner, Marco Canora, Steve SchirripaPhoto: Hannah Whitaker

Despite fluctuations in the price of wheat, pasta seems the ideal recessionary meal, especially when you cook it yourself. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s filling, and, relatively speaking, it’s still cheap. But which brand is the best? And is the artisanal Italian variety—the kind made in small batches from high-quality durum-wheat flours that’s been extruded through ancient bronze molds, and then left to dry gently on wooden racks for days—significantly better than what you can get at D’Ag’s?

To find out, we convened an expert panel of pastavores: Marco Canora of Insieme, Hearth, and Terroir; Mark Ladner of Del Posto; and Cesare Casella of Salumeria Rosi, accomplished pasta cooks all. For the layman’s perspective, we invited actor Steve Schirripa. He doesn’t cook, but as Uncle June’s faithful manservant Bobby Baccalieri on The Sopranos, he once whipped up a nice chicken cacciatore.

We met at the International Culinary Center (where Casella serves as dean of Italian studies) and blind-tasted eight brands of dried spaghetti that Casella boiled in salted water four batches at a time. As with all taste tests—especially those involving three Italian chefs and one Italian-American actor—there was some disagreement right from the get-go. Casella, a purist, wanted to taste the spaghetti plain to ascertain its wheaty essence. Canora was adamant about adding butter and Parmesan because who, after all, buys pasta and eats it plain? Finally, Schirripa, the voice of reason, stepped in to ask, “Why not try it both ways—first plain, and then with butter and Parmesan?” Ladner seconded the motion, and, after a failed petition by Casella to substitute a fruity olive oil, the slurpfest began. The four judges rated each pasta on a scale of 30 points: 10 each for flavor, texture, and how well the spaghetti conveyed the butter and Parmesan, for a possible perfect score of 120.

The results were surprising, to say the least: The 99-cent underdog from Trader Joe’s triumphed, edging out the pricey artisanal competition. Most surprising of all perhaps was the poor showing of the mid-priced Setaro, which is highly touted by just about every top Italian chef in town, present company included. “No flavor at all,” is how Schirripa put it. “Like eating paper.”

The Carbo-Contenders

Trader Joe’s
99 cents a pound
Cheapest of the bunch, and best in show. Canora praised it for its “great aroma and nutty, malty flavor” Ladner called it a “great performer.” “Not bad at all,” said Schirripa. Rustichella
$6.50 for 17.6 ounces at Dean & DeLuca
Neck and neck with Trader Joe’s for texture and sauce-gripping ability, only lost the flavor race by one point. “Pulita!” exclaimed Casella, which means “clean” or something like that in Italian. Martelli
$8 for 17.6 ounces at Marlow and Daughters
Ladner liked the texture, not the flavor. Schirripa demurred: “I’d love a big bowl of this with some meatballs and sausage.”
Latini Classica
$8 for 17.6 ounces at Dean & DeLuca
This acclaimed artisanal brand scored high in the sauce-absorbing department. Ladner, Casella and Schirripa liked the flavor well enough, but Canora said it tasted “cardboardy.” 94 93 83 71

Benedetto Cavalieri
$8.79 for 17.6 ounces at Garden of Eden
Good scores for flavor, middling ones for texture. Schirripa surmised that it was a “cheap brand.” Little did he know. Setaro
$6.95 for 35 ounces at BuonItalia
Big surprise here in that only Casella gave it high marks, succinctly stating on his scorecard: “I like.” The best the others could muster was “not terrible.” Barilla
$1.79 a pound at D’Agostino’s
America’s most popular pasta was far less so among our panel in every way. Schirripa liked the flavor, but admitted that to him “even an old shoe would taste good with butter and Parmesan.” Rummo
$1.99 a pound at DiPalo’s
Poor Rummo elicited the lowest scores and harshest comments (“overall crappy,” “yucky gummy,” “a shit pasta”) and rendered Ladner almost speechless. “No like much,” he wrote on his scorecard. 67 62 53 35

Additional reporting by Christine Whitney.

Last Noodle Standing