In a review of an Italian restaurant earlier this year, the doyenne of restaurant critics in my city wrote, “The house-made pastas here are so good, so springily al dente….” Not the correct choice of words; not the “springily,” which my spell-checker flagged, but “al dente.” This mistake is forgivable, as most food writers – and most everyone – are quick to use “al dente” when describing pasta whether or it is accurate.
Concerning the attributes of house-made, or freshly made, pasta – pasta fresca in Italian – al dente is never correct. “You cannot do fresh pasta al dente!” screamed the longtime, Italian-born chef at San Francisco’s Fior d’Italia, the oldest Italian restaurant in the country, on a Travel Channel show, Pasta Paradises. Made with hard wheat flour, commercially made dried pasta – pasta secca – like spaghetti, linguine and penne, is what can be – and, according to those in Italy, especially, should be – cooked al dente. This is the toothsome texture, neither hard nor mushy, but a bit chewy.
“When made with all purpose flour, fresh pasta will not have the al dente quality of dried pasta, but instead will be meltingly tender to the bite.” This is from a cookbook on the subject, Pasta Fresca by Viviana La Place and successful Los Angeles restaurateur, Evan Kleiman.
There is a caveat for those freshly made pastas that use hard-wheat flour in the southern Italian tradition. It can be cooked al dente. It is rare here – and getting rarer in Italy – as soft-wheat flour (such as all-purpose) requires much less effort to make into pasta by hand. You might find some pastas made in this age-old fashion at restaurants, but it is very much an exception.
You will find hard wheat flour in the egg pastas imported from Italy that are often used as a substitute for fresh pasta. These are typically packaged as little nests or balls of pasta. By law in Italy any packaged dry pasta has to use hard wheat flour even if soft wheat flour might be traditional.
Also, part of the misuse of al dente is due to the fact that Americans typically like their pasta cooked to a softer consistency than Italians. What they believe is al dente is really not; it is softer. A great percentage of Americans will likely not enjoy a plate of dried pasta cooked in the Italian fashion, truly al dente. So, when it comes to any pasta that is soft, but not mushy, many say that it is al dente.