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Pasta Times: These days, everyone's trying Italian, thanks to a proliferation of bottled pasta sauces.

Mondo Pasta

Commercially produced pasta sauces are everywhere, providing more delicious quickies than a Verdi opera

By Christina Waters

THE BOOM IS OUT OF CONTROL. Where once there was only Ragú--now that's Italian--there are now Newman's, Coppola's, Millina's Finest, Rao's, Frutti di Bosco, Muir Glen, Classico, Basilla and a gazillion house brands of designer pasta sauces packed into jars.

Many of them are tasty. Many of them are pillars of salt disguised as marinara. All of them are breathtakingly easy to use. You buy a 26-ounce or 32-ounce glass jar (which will cover from three to four spaghetti dinners). You fork over anywhere from $3 to $9, depending upon just how designer, organic or tastefully packaged the product might be.

Then you take it home, put on a big pot of water, bring to a boil, insert pasta, remove pasta, top with heated pasta sauce and serve. The kids love it. Your roommates love it. And you look highly competent.

Chef Boyardee got it all started. That can of gooey, overly sweet convenience represented one-stop shopping for 1960s Americans in need of some safe generic deconstruction of what they thought was Italian food. Everybody just called it "spaghetti." The sauce and the noodles (this was before we started using the word "pasta" to describe pasta) were already packaged. You opened, heated and served. And there was even a ravioli version that is still found in many college dorms today.

Simplistic to a fault, it led the way for the upgrade that was Ragú, onto Prego and now this exploding world of Mediterranean sauces. As the millennium dawns, the average supermarket carries a dozen brands--and four or five variations within each brand--of bottled pasta sauces. And this is happening because?

Since the organic movement went mainstream a few clicks back, even your local Safeway started stocking preservative-free sauces made with organic ingredients. What that means is the new glut of sauces tends to taste damn good, and be good for you (if you squint at the astronomical sodium levels).

Actually, that's a big caveat. Calories may be negligible, even fat content is under control. But some of these products contain more than 900 milligrams of sodium per half-cup serving. That's enough to keep Mono Lake saline until the year 2300.

We've been experimenting with commercial sauces for several years, discovering the ones we like best and customizing them to add more flair. Here are some of the leading favorites along with tasting notes. Each pasta sauce was sampled with spaghetti--and without the application of grated cheese, a completely unnecessary addition if sauce and the pasta are of good quality.

Frutti di Bosco: Marinara With Garlic and Basil ($4.95 for 26 oz.) This is a luscious sauce packed with huge chunks of organic tomatoes, whole garlics and a Sargasso Sea of basil. Authentic, home-cooked, freshly made flavor, good balance of herbs. Low sodium. 9 out of 10 points.

Frutti di Bosco: Truffle & Porcini Disappointing, acridly tomatoey. Insignificant flavor, fails to cling to pasta. Another taster found this one "sour and overly garlicked." No porcini flavor, thin in sauciness, unclear as to flavor determination. 4 points.

Coppola: Pomodoro-basilico ($3.95) Filled with thick tomato chunks, nice tomato flavor but no central coherence. As if it's expecting parmesan, or meat, to complete its point. 5.5 points.

Newman's Own: Venetian Pasta Sauce ($3.50) It's all natural, and the profits go to charity, so it's hard to knock this reliable if uninspired product. A sodium count of 590 mg. per half cup puts it in the midrange, saltwise. Chunks of tomatoes enliven a sauce that can be called "nice." 6 points.

Whole Foods: Boscaiola ($2) The cheapest of the house line, it's full of all-natural stuff. Extremely intense in the green-pepper department. Too acrid--wipes out the faint porcini flavor. Acceptable over chicken. 4 points.

Cafferata: Roasted Garlic Sauce ($4.50) Low in sodium, very garlicky, with a terrific, not-too-thick consistency that clings well to pasta. Direct in flavor, makes an excellent background for chicken, meat raviolis, etc. 8 points.

Whole Foods: 365 ($2.50) Everyday (get it, 365) pasta sauce that is straightforward in flavor. Has smooth texture, clings well, utterly basic. Unadorned marinara, with one foot in Chef Boyardee Land. 4 points.

Millina's Finest: Marinara With Herbs ($3.65) Low sodium (380 mg. per half cup) and fat-free, this one is anything but rich and satisfying. Dry and fluffy, rather than smooth, with texture of pulverized tomatoes. Mono-dimensional with no frills, no mouth feel--good for you and that's about it. 3 points.

Prego: Traditional ($1.50) Really cheap, with medium sodium and bright red flavor. It's all-natural, sweet enough for kids and will do nicely if you add candles, an Andrea Bocelli CD and a decent Chianti classico. 6.5 points.

Rao's Marinara ($6-$9, depending on store). The Rolls Royce of pasta sauces, it tastes exactly like it was made from an old family recipe and simmered for three days. And it was--part of a product line from a 100-year-old Neapolitan dining room in East Harlem. Flavor balance is incredible. It's the sort of pasta sauce you'd actually serve proudly to your stock broker. Or Martha Stewart. It is unbelievably satisfying. The Siciliana, with eggplant, is to kill for. 10 points.

A final word: When cooking pasta, remove the noodles from the boiling water one minute before the time shown on the package. If you do exactly as I just told you, you will always make perfect, toothsome spaghetti. And by the way, spaghetti is the queen of pastas. Linguine is for wimps, penne is always a default pasta and tortellini are for the gastronomically challenged. This is just the way it is. Spaghetti or nothing. Now go out and mangiare tutto!

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From the April 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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