The kitchen has become a contentious place. Not only is it the ground on which a good day turns bad or a bad day turns good—it’s making us a divided people. Are you a quarantine contessa on your high horse baking sourdough-discard crackers? Or are you eating supermarket bagels (which, sorry, are just bread) with peanut butter every night? It just doesn’t have to be this way.
Enter: packaged dry pasta, our great unifier. Whether you’re milling tomato sauce like an industrious homesteader or your inclination toward culinary laziness is at an all-time high, trust me (and the experts interviewed here)—premade pasta is the good kind of cheating. Unlike Pop-Tarts, pasta comes with both plenty of room to experiment and a guarantee that you’ll be able to cook great stuff with minimal effort. A win for everyone!
Here, eight chefs spill the sauce on their favorite brands and shapes, and the best way to zhuzh them up. With olive oil and cheese and a can-do attitude, you probably already have all the tools you need to enliven just about every kind of pasta.
The pasta: This wavy shape is exactly what Suzanne Cupps, executive chef of 232 Bleecker in New York, craves as the weather gets warmer. “I like making cold or room-temperature pasta salads,” she says. Cupps loves the nutty flavor and smooth texture of Sfoglini’s domestic-grown emmer wheat, and says the short ribbons “hold sauce well.”
The recipe: Cupps’s go-to is a summer squash pasta salad: “Toss cooked reginetti with zucchini pesto, diced and roasted summer squash, torn basil, and thinly sliced Fresno chili.”
The pro tip: To make zucchini pesto, use sunflower seeds instead of pine nuts. “They’re half the price and tastier!” says Cupps. Blitz them in a food processor with basil, Parmesan, and blanched zucchini for a fresh summer sauce.
The pasta: Three of our chefs recommend bucatini as their go-to noodle. Hawa Hassan, CEO of Basbaas Sauce in Brooklyn, loves that “the hole through the center works to suck up any flavors—like hollow spaghetti,” she says. Ashleigh Santi, chef at Benne on Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina, agrees, adding, “Who can resist little sauce-filled noodles?” And Angie Rito, chef at Don Angie in New York, just loves that “the long shape is fun to eat.”
The recipe: Hassan likes to make silky sauces that “coat the whole strand,” like Sicilian pesto trapanese (pesto with fresh tomatoes). Rito pairs bucatini with shellfish in a garlicky white wine, lemon, and butter sauce. “I always add a lot of oregano and a touch of chili flakes, and for a next-level version of this dish, I add smoky pork flavor,” she says. Santi has six words of advice: “Whatever you do, make it saucy.”
The pro tip: “It’s crucial to allow plenty of room for the pasta to ‘swim,’ by using a lot of cooking water,” says Rito. And according to Santi, bucatini takes “a tad longer than most long pastas” to reach al dente. Hassan recommends using tongs to transfer your cooked pasta directly into the pot of sauce. “Toss it right in the skillet, adding pasta water if needed, and let the sauce soak into the pasta in that last minute of cooking,” she says.
The pasta: Adam Leonti, chef at Sofia’s in New York, is a longtime fan of the historic Gentile pasta house and brand, from Gragnano, Italy. He loves that casarecce—a rolled and twisted tubular pasta—is made from exclusively Italian wheat and then left to dry slowly for many days. When cooked, the bite is firm, chewy, and, says Leonti, “incredible.”
The recipe: He recommends buying from quality brands, as the pasta should be the star. He suggests serving casarecce plain with a little olive oil and salt or good-quality truffle butter. If you do want to get fancy, try a slow-cooked meat or cream sauce.
The pro tip: Leonti says the best pasta dishes are all about quality ingredients used sparingly: “What dresses such a pedigree pasta should only be that—a dressing.” Read: Go easy!
Spaghetti alla Chitarra
The pasta: These square-shape noodles, which texturally sit somewhere between spaghetti and bucatini, have “a nice al dente chew,” according to Sarah Grueneberg, chef at Monteverde in Chicago. “Meat sauces cling really well” to the porous, rough surface, she says, earning it a place in her pantry and an occasional feature on the Monteverde menu.
The recipe: Grueneberg turns to spaghetti alla chitarra when making a tomato-based ragu at home. “I’ll cook the spaghetti alla chitarra in a separate salted pot, add it to the ragu pot with a touch of unsalted butter, and combine,” she says. “Top it all with ricotta or burrata if you’re looking for some creaminess.”
The pro tip: When making a ragu, Grueneberg says it’s important to layer the flavors. “Don’t overcrowd the pan,” she says. “If you need to cook the meat or veg in batches, do it, as the caramelization in the pan is the most important thing.”
The pasta: Austin Baker, head chef at Saraghina in Brooklyn, turns to this ribbed, tubular pasta because it allows sauce and cheese to cling better than smoother shapes. He also loves that this brand uses domestic wheat and is locally made in New York.
The recipe: Rigatoni is commonly featured during the Sunday meal in Sicily, and it’s a perfect match for most sauces. At Saraghina, Baker loves to serve rigatoni alla Norma: tomato sauce with eggplant, oregano, chile, breadcrumbs on top, and shaved ricotta salata.
The pro tip: When making a tomato- or meat-based sauce—anything that’s been cooking for a few hours—Baker recommends boiling dried pasta a few minutes less than the instructions and finishing it off in the sauce with a little extra pasta water. For cream-based dishes: “Cook your pasta all the way in the pot before combining with the sauce,” he says.
The pasta: Michael Serano, executive chef at Rucola in Brooklyn, loves that this eponymous pasta shape has a “rougher texture” and a natural pocket, meaning “the sauce will have no problem sticking to the outside of the shell and it will also get caught inside,” he explains. He also likes that the brand mills its own flour.
The recipe: Serano prefers a cream-based puree—garlic, onion, and fresh corn cooked in olive oil and cream—served with sautéed shrimp. “The noodles will catch and hold the sauce perfectly,” he says. For a real treat? Cut your shrimp into smaller pieces to find “some surprises inside the shells.”
The pro tip: Make sure you have enough water for the amount of pasta you’re boiling—“at least one gallon of salted water per pound of pasta,” says Serano. He also recommends reserving some pasta water so you can adjust the sauce’s thickness after it’s combined with the cooked shells.