We Tried Dozens of Different Pasta Brands (in 4 Different Shapes) — And Yes, There Were Winners
As long as I have a box of pasta in the pantry, I know that I’m just moments away from a quick and easy homemade dinner. Whether I defrost tomato sauce that I made from scratch, crack open a jar of the pre-made stuff, or simply sauté some garlic in a splash of olive oil, it doesn’t take much to turn a bunch of noodles into a warming, kid-pleasing supper.
Of course, while there are tons of pasta shapes out there to choose from, there are four that are, in my opinion, the most versatile: I’d even go as far as to declare them The Holy Quartet of pasta shapes. That’s why I make sure I’m never without boxes of spaghetti, penne, fusilli, and orzo.
These shapes are commonly stocked at nearly every supermarket and there are countless brands to choose from. I visited several mainstream grocery stores in my area and (with the exception of orzo) found each shape offered by dozens of brands. Would one brand of spaghetti be better than other brand? Ditto for penne, and so on?
In order to find out, I set out on the intrepid mission of tasting (nearly) all of them. I gathered every contender I could find at the supermarket, got my pots boiling, and got to work. You could say I … used my noodle.
How I Picked the Pastas
I limited the search to mainstream grocery stores including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Target. I didn’t try any whole-wheat, grain-free, or protein-enriched options. I ended up with 10 to 12 brands in each category (again, except for orzo, for which I could only find four varieties).
How I Tested
I cooked the pasta according to package directions but often stopped short of the listed time, when the pasta was al dente (firm but cooked through). I cooked four brands of pasta at a time, so each was tasted hot and fresh. The winner of each round would be pitted against each other in a second round of tasting. In the final round of tasting, my testers and I tried them coated with jarred marinara.
Many, many plates of pasta later, it’s safe to say there is simply no “bad” boxed pasta out there. As long as you’re careful not to overcook the noodles, you won’t be disappointed. However, some brands really set themselves apart, either with deeper flavor or a bouncier texture. These are the ones that rose to the top — the best dried pasta to buy at the grocery store, broken down by shape.
The Best Supermarket Spaghetti: Rao’s Homemade Spaghetti
After boiling up no less than 12 brands of spaghetti, my testers and I concluded that all spaghetti is good spaghetti. But still, the noodles that had the best texture after boiling scored the highest, and those that offered a depth of flavor easily became the favorite. DeLallo was particularly bouncy, De Cecco was lovely and plump, Rao’s was hearty and robust, and Barilla was fun and slippery. However, once we sauced these noodles up, a clear winner emerged: Ultimately, the robust flavor and al dente perfection of Rao’s spaghetti provided the perfect blank canvas for sauce — and ran away with top honors.
Buy: Rao’s Homemade Spaghetti, $3.79 for 16 ounces on Amazong
The Best Supermarket Fusilli: Rao’s Homemade Fusilli
Fusilli is corkscrew-shaped pasta, but during my search I often found these twisted shapes labeled “rotini” instead. Was there a difference? Technically, yes, fusilli is supposed to be made of a noodle twisted into a corkscrew, while rotini is pasta dough extruded into a twisted shape. However, in this country, fusilli and rotini are essentially both extruded corkscrews — even when the pasta is imported from Italy. The only true fusilli I found was an import called Pastificcio di Martino at Whole Foods, which featured hollow noodles twisted into super-tight coils.
Moving on. I noticed some brands offered a tighter twist than others, which affected the mouthfeel (the more twists, the more fun and bumpy on the tongue). The final four contenders included one wide-twist brand (Rao’s), two-tight twists (De Cecco and DeLallo) and one sort of in between (Seggiano). I realized afterward that these were all made in Italy from 100% semolina flour and were bronze-die extruded. There seems to be a theme here! It was very hard to pick a winner until I sauced them up. Once again, in a blind tasting, Rao’s took the lead. What is their secret? The sauce cloaked the noodles like the two were made for each other, the noodles were bouncy and chewy, and their slightly deeper toasty flavor added depth to the sauce.
Buy: Rao’s Homemade Fusilli, $2.50 for 16 ounces on Instacart
The Best Supermarket Orzo: Good & Gather Signature
Orzo is pasta made to look like grains of barley, and it’s often served in much the same way — in soups or side dishes, not doused in marinara. Because it’s so teeny tiny, I didn’t expect to be able to tell a difference between brands. Turns out, there are some big differences! I cooked up all four brands, being careful to stagger when we started them by about a minute, so we weren’t frantically trying to drain them all at the same time. I made sure to pull each off the heat while they were still just-firm, so none got overcooked. Still, three brands ended up with a soft-though-not-quite-mushy texture. Eating a spoonful wasn’t that dissimilar from eating a spoonful of rice (although it was less sticky). But Target’s Good and Gather house brand offered a deeper flavor and more firm, chewy, distinctive texture that was reminiscent of, well, pasta. I could see this working particularly well in orzo salad and baking up delightfully chewy (rather than mushy) in soups, side dishes, and orzo casseroles.
Buy: Good & Gather Signature Orzo, $2.99 for 12 ounces at Target
The Best Supermarket Penne: De Cecco Penne Rigate No. 41
The variations among the penne brands that I tried mainly had to do with size and thickness. Most of the imports from Italy were extremely thick-walled and a bit long, and had a wider hole in the middle. Pretty much all of the domestic brands we sampled were thinner (and ideal for casseroles). The brands that made it to the final round of testing turned out to all be made in Italy with 100% semolina and bronze dies. Once again, these had the best texture (bouncy, not mushy) and flavor (toasty wheat, not watery). But the one that nabbed the top spot was supermarket staple De Cecco. It had the slightly thinner, more approachable size that most of the domestic brands had, but it had the sweet wheat flavor and firm, bouncy, chewy texture of the imports (of which it is). I couldn’t stop eating it plain and un-sauced, which is a good sign.
Buy: De Cecco Penne Rigate No. 41, $1.97 for 16 ounces at Walmart
Did you favorite boxed pasta brand make the list? Tell us in the comments below!