All Hail Ronzoni?
In our May/June issue, we did a dried pasta taste test (updated 2001) at Cafe Bondi in New York. Among the experts were Anna Teresa Callen, Italian cookbook author and teacher; Arthur Schwartz, restaurant critic for the New York Daily News; Antonino Settepani, co-owner of Cafe Bondi; and Kathleen Spadaro, president of a local pasta company. The pasta was prepared by Cafe Bondi's chef, Francesco Crescenzo-Crescenzi, a native of Naples.
When I first heard the amazing result-Ronzoni was rated the number one pasta-I felt like Forrest Gump had just won a seat in the Senate. The Ronzoni I remember from childhood was limp, starchy, and without tooth. There had to be something amiss with our tastings.
I asked that the tasting be repeated with the same cook but with the entire staff of Cook's Illustrated as the tasting panel. We sampled the same eight pastas in a blind tasting. We agreed on the characteristics of the ideal pasta: a clean, nutty, wheat flavor; good bite; no starchiness; springiness; slight chewiness; and a pleasant, fresh aftertaste. The cooked pastas were served on individual plates, and an extra plate of each sample was left on the table for reference. We dug in and spent two hours rating pastas.
It quickly became apparent that pastas are difficult to rate. Unlike soy sauce, the variations are, for the most part, quite subtle. A pasta tasting consists of slight differences in bite, shades of wheat flavor, and degrees of color varying from manila to buff. Halfway through the tasting, I was beginning to lose my confidence. Could I really compare the bite of a pasta sampled an hour ago to the spaghetti on the plate in front of me?
Near the end of the tasting, we sampled a pasta that I thought was quite different. The color was darker than the rest-a rich hazelnut-and the first taste was lively and wheaty with an assertive, nutty aftertaste. This was a pasta that could stand up to any combination of anchovies, garlic, capers, and tomatoes; not a pasta to quietly sit in the back seat and enjoy the scenery, but a pasta with a driver's license.
After we finished up our tally sheets, the brands were identified. As the names were read aloud, I was pleased that I counted DeCecco, the number one Italian import, and Barilla, the best-selling pasta in Italy, in my top four. But when my favorite pasta was identified, I felt the hot rush of embarrassment. Ronzoni! I had picked a mass-market brand, a brand name that lived in the suburbs next to Heinz and Kraft, not in the bustling ethnic neighborhood of DeCecco and Delverde.
But after an espresso and some reflection, I realized the results were both consistent and liberating. In the second tasting, four pastas received much higher ratings than the others. Three of these (Ronzoni, DeCecco, and Creamette) were also rated in the top four in the original tasting. Also, the expensive pasta with the lowest rating in our first tasting (Martelli at a whopping $4.29 per pound, versus $1.19 for Ronzoni) came in next to last in the second round. The results were generally consistent.
Most of all, these tastings go a long way to making the basic point of this publication, which is that first-hand experience counts for a lot. I may think that Ronzoni, at just over a dollar a pound, is a pale imitation of the pricey Italian imports, but it just ain't so. There is something very American about this "show me" attitude, something that leads us away from the prevailing fascism of the gourmet police (do we really need to buy imported extra-virgin olive oil at $20 a bottle?) and moves us closer to a sane, democratic notion of good food. Why not Ronzoni?
For that matter, why not Heinz vinegar or Redpack canned tomatoes, other winners of Cook's Illustrated tastings? Maybe "Made in America" really counts for something in the 1990s. It seems to me that American wines, cheeses, breads, produce, and specialty foods have skyrocketed in quality since the 1970s, while Europe seems headed toward a love affair with convenience. The flaunting of the gastronomic superiority of the French peasant becomes untenable in an age when most of them quit the farm, move to Paris, get a job in the federal bureaucracy, and grab some take-out in time to catch Larry King Live. We import Dijon mustard and export Burger King. In my book, it's the French who are running the trade deficit.
As for Ronzoni, I will swallow my professional pride, trust in first-hand experience, and do the right thing at $1.19 a pound. I'm proud to be an American.