There are only two answers to that question. One is short; the other one endless. The short one is pretty straight forward, and is an explanation most of us have heard many times: you know pasta is cooked al dente when you bite into it and it's still firm. Pretty simple isn't it? And yet something is missing. Where's all the emotion, hand gesticulation, anxiety? And that's when the endless answer to al dente comes in. Pasta cooked al dente means...well, how much time have you got? Because when we're asking about al dente, the best way to answer is with another question, as in whose dente is it? Mine? Yours? Zio Nicola's? Ask 10 different people to cook a serving of pasta al dente and you'll most likely get 10 different results.
Last year, there were nine of us sitting at our table at my niece's wedding. We had just finished eating the antipasto and the pasta arrived, piping hot topped with a beautiful tomato sauce. We passed the grated parmesan around the table and began eating without much dialogue. Everyone was hungry. It was a typical wedding. The cocktail hour had gone on longer than usual and we were eager to get to the eating part of the party. I took one bite of the penne lisce and thought to myself: "Finally, pasta cotta al dente! I can't believe someone cooked it the way I like it. Two to three minutes past the half-cooked mark. I want to find the chef and shake his hand!" Thirty seconds later, I understood that not everyone was sharing in my joy. You could break the tension at the table with a veal-chop mallet. There were concerto-like cries.
"It's not cooked."
"I can't eat this."
I looked up. Dare I jump into the combat zone with my idea of what perfect pasta tastes like? This was, after all, pasta al dente. Propio al dente, the way God had intended it to be. I looked at my table mates. Emotions were raw. In this corner, my 80-year-old-uncle with daggers in his eyes. I think he was offended. What am I saying? He's Italian! Of course, he was offended! Across from him, our two fine-dining chefs. Yes, my brothers-in-law, both who cook pasta (among other things) for a living and people rave about their dishes and come back for more. And then my two cousins (who lived in Italy for at least a decade) and they weren't touching theirs either. Could I risk it? Would I jump in with: "But this is what past al dente means!" Why take a chance, I thought. Why start another family feud? Haven't all of us had a lifetime of drama already? Just stay calm and consult with Mr. BBQ.
I leaned over to my husband. Before I could open my mouth he whispered in my ear: "Do you want mine? It's not cooked." I grinned. "Is the sky blue?" Looking at my other table mates, I marveled at this situation. Where were the happy faces? There was pasta in front of us! We should have been eating and joking and pouring the wine. How could this be? Weren't we all Italian? How are we supposed to explain what al dente means to other cultures when we can't even agree amongst ourselves?
That's when I decided I would be crazy to add my opinion to this magnum opus. Sing high: "I love it!" Sing low: "I hate it!" I can't do it, I thought to myself. If I open up that Pandora's opera box of al dente definitions, I may get a noodle in the head. It's just not worth it. I ate in silence, contributed nothing to the conversation, traded plates quietly with my husband (cringing as I did so in case anyone noticed and confronted me with: "What, are you crazy?") and ate all of his share, too. That was one night I definitely broke the 1/2-cup-per-person-rule. I could have starred as Woman Versus Food at my table that night-- I know an opportunity when I see one-- but honestly, I just can't eat that much.
You know that explanation: throw pasta at the wall and when it sticks, it's cooked? Well for me it's more like: throw pasta at the wall and if it bounces back more than a little, it's cooked. That's how it is to my dente anyway. Which explains why my mom has this crazy way of cooking pasta. She leans to the person closest to her when the pasta is past the half-way mark and takes a filo out of the pot. It goes like this:
Mom: "Che dici, e cotta?"
Taste tester: "Ummm...two more minutes."
This prompts the next tester in the kitchen: "Let me check!" Another filo goes out. Taste tester Number Two: "Ummm...Io dico five more minutes." Other fili get distributed and while everyone is talking and tasting, mom drains the pasta and nobody notices. No one ever complains and almost everyone has seconds. But if there's ever any whining about the pasta not being al dente, we never really know whose dente mom went with.
In fact, in our family the only thing we agree on when it comes to Al Dente is that it's the name of one of our favorite restaurants. I mean, why expend all your energy on pasta? That would leave us no room to argue about who makes the best cannoli. I've heard it's Francesca's Italian Bakery in Scarborough but don't hold me to it as I haven't checked out this tip yet. In case you get there before I do, please spread the word. If they're as good as they say they are, we want to keep them in business for as long as possible. And check out Al Dente Restaurant, too. Here's their web site http://aldenterestaurant.com Delicious food, really good prices, a great place for private parties. Definitely worth the trip to Markham.