Sorrento Italian Market import specialist Steve Lanzarotto knows his noodles

By Richard Foss (

Steve Lanzarotto is still discovering new favorite pasta varietiesw  Photo by Richard Foss

Steve Lanzarotto is still discovering new favorite pasta varietiesw
Photo by Richard Foss

A century ago, pasta was disdained by middle-class Americans as the food of poor foreigners. But then a movement to explore and elevate Italian cuisine began in the 1960s, followed by exuberant experimentation — noodles with inspiration from the Pacific Rim, raviolis stuffed with nearly anything.

That we now make pasta frequently doesn’t mean we make it well, however, or pair different pastas with the sauces that suit them best.

Steve Lanzarotto, the import specialist at Sorrento Italian Market in Culver City, can help. Operated by the same family since 1963, the market offers aisle after aisle of dried pasta and a refrigerator case of the fresh stuff.

There’s a bewildering variety here — why buy one pasta instead of another?

It’s not flavor, because they’re almost all made with the same ingredients: semolina flour and water. There is a big difference in the way they’ll cook, and you use certain shapes depending on what you’re serving it with. Angel hair goes with a light tomato sauce, or maybe an oil-based sauce, because the pasta is so fine and cooks so quickly. Thick meat sauces, sauces with wild boar or hare, need a thick, flat noodle. Oil- and butter-based sauces are different, as are those with fat from pancetta. … We have some noodles here that have a rough surface, which helps hold the more slippery sauces. The sauce becomes one with the pasta, and a lot of the better pastas have a scratchy texture.

That explain pastas of varying thickness, but why all the varieties?

It has something to do with tradition, because Italian food is so regional. Every city — almost every village — has their own sauce, usually with a shape of pasta that goes with it, and of course a local wine. Naturally those things go together, and if you have a traditional recipe it’s best to follow it rather than make substitutions, at least the first time you make it.

What are common mistakes when cooking pasta?

Pasta doesn’t stop cooking when you take it out of the water, so, especially if you have a very thin and delicate variety like angel hair, you don’t immediately put a hot sauce over it. You cook ultra-thin pastas for as little as two minutes, and there’s very little margin for error. You never overcook pasta in Italy — they’ll throw it away rather than serve it to someone. They also always salt the water. If you forget, you’ll throw that away. It imparts a flavor, keeps it from being bland. You can tell immediately if it isn’t there.

When would you use dry pasta versus fresh?

Italians always prefer fresh pasta to dried pasta, because it’s lighter and has more springiness. You can keep it refrigerated for about a week, but you really should buy it on the day you cook it. Each day it’s going to get gummier, and it will be harder to handle. This is especially true of the thinner pastas, which are supple when freshly made.

What about spinach pastas and others with vegetables in the noodle? And is squid ink pasta just a novelty?

There is a long tradition in Italy of adding vegetables to pasta, though often just for coloring. The vegetable affects the texture and flavor slightly, and it generally involves cooking just a bit longer. There’s an Italian dish that calls for mixed spinach pasta and regular pasta — the name translates to grass and hay, and it’s usually served with peas, cream sauce and ham. It’s delicious!

Squid ink adds a little flavor to pasta, and it’s always used for seafood dishes. It’s great with clam sauce or frutti di mare, generally with a white or oil-based sauce rather than tomato. And Italians never, ever put cheese on seafood pasta. If you start to do it in a restaurant, they’ll stop you politely. They say, “Please, no cheese on the seafood.” It’s kinda funny.

And egg pastas?

Egg pastas are lighter and cook a bit quicker because there’s a little less wheat. They’re ideal for cream sauces, and they have a character more like fresh pasta. If I’m having a really thick meat sauce, I like an egg pappardelle.

Are there any obscure Italian recipes you think will catch on here?

I find a new favorite thing every time I go back. You don’t see mascarpone sauces here often — that’s the sweet cheese they use to make tiramisu. You can add that to a tomato sauce with a little pancetta or guanciale and it’s magnificent. Also, in the north of Italy they have pastas made with buckwheat. They call it grano Saraceno, Saracen grain. It’s used in a dish with potatoes and cabbage, and you can tell from those cold-weather items that it’s from the north. We have that pasta here, and I want to experiment with it. It’s so exciting to bring these new things to the area — we’re breaking that chain of just seeing the same items and brands everywhere.

Sorrento Italian Market, 5518 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City (310) 391-7654