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Jul 4, 2008 04:55 PM

"A Great Sauce Can't Save A Lousy Pasta" (?)

I heard someone say this on television the other day and I happen to agree 100%. And as a matter of fact I think that the same holds trues for sandwiches and pizza (i.e. great fillings or toppings can't save a sandwich or pizza made with lousy bread or crust).
The importance of great bread, crust and pasta I believe is so underestimated by our culture when preparing sandwiches, pizza and pasta dishes. And it's the cheapest component! Why are these items which are so simple to prepare so often neglected in primarily mainstream restaurant establishments?


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  1. I totally agree. We are in Boston and go North on weekends . If I don't make it to the Bakery ( Flour) on Friday our snacks , sandwiches etc are inferior even with the Boston beloved Iggys bread. Also we often have homemade pizza on Sunday evenings and if its a bad dough day NOTHING saves that pizza ...I can tell if a resto is going to be good just by the breadbasket they serve .. but then bread is my second favorite food group ( second only to potatoes) Maybe Irish I am ....And the good pasta thing is especially evident ( IMHO) with carbonara ...

    1. While I'd have to agree with you regarding the bread, I'd respectfully disagree with the notion that a great sauce cannot save a lousy pasta.. Granted, it certainly won't enhance it, and it will detract from the dish, but, unless it's cooked to the point of 'mush," if the sauce is spectacular, it can distract from a too al dente, too overcooked or otherwise, too "blah" pasta.
      I too have always wondered why good restaurants often serve awful bread and boring salads.

      12 Replies
      1. re: Tay

        Not to be argumentative, but you first said that you disagree with the notion that a great sauce cannot save a lousy pasta. Then you state that a great sauce can "distract" from a lousy pasta. So which is it, save or distract? ;)

        1. re: Chinon00

          Sorry to be unclear...
          I mean that a great sauce can sometimes 'distract' the diner from noticing just how poorly prepared the pasta may be."Note that I am saying 'distract' not 'detract.' ;-}

          1. re: Tay

            Tay, I must admit, I feel that pasta dishes are about the pasta. The sauce is just a condiment, but shouldn't distract you from the pasta. So no matter how good the sauce, if the pasta is no good, then there is nothing to do. I prefer a much lighter sauce to pasta ratio, more Italian in approach than North American. So if I am distracted by a great sauce, and forget I am eating bad pasta, then already there is a problem with the dish.

            Personal preference I am sure! But I do love a delicious simple pasta. You can eat good pasta with just olive oil, garlic, and grated parmesan! So simple, so yummy, so satisfying...

            1. re: moh

              I am more of a 'sauce person', so I think we just lean in different directions on this one. There have been times when I've been served over cooked pasta and, while not happy about it, I have been able to enjoy it IF the sauce was outstanding, be it red, white, garlic&oil, seafood, primavera, etc. Conversely, if both were substandard, I would not eat it at all. :-}

              1. re: Tay

                Very fair Tay! I have had very good sauces on bad pasta, and I could see how a preference for the sauce might save the day. Whereas the poor pasta person would eat the sauce up, but poke woefully at the pasta and think "if only the pasta was good, how wonderful this dish would have been..." I guess I am a glass-half-empty person on this issue!

                1. re: moh

                  Just a personal preference kind of thing. As I wrote to JFood, below, for me, it's akin to a great cheese being served on a blah cracker. If the cheese is outstanding, I just think of the cracker a a textural, not taste, component. Conversely, if the cheese is not great, I'm hoping for more from the cracker. If it's not there, I'll save the carbs and either eat the cheese on it's own, or I'll forgo both and look for something else in the dairy food group: (Like ice cream, lol!) :-}

              2. re: moh

                Moh, I'm also with you about pasta dishes being all about the pasta. Well, actually I kind of want it all -- great pasta and great sauce to complement it. But if I had to pick just one, I'd go for the pasta.

                1. re: Miss Needle

                  Miss Needle and moh, I find that so interesting. While I respect both of you and your preferences, I cannot imagine chosing the pasta over the sauce. It's probably just the way our families cooked. In our house, it was all about the sauces. The pasta was more a 'distribution vehicle' than anything else. Of course, we also didn't have the numerous pasta choices that are now available

                  1. re: Tay

                    Growing up in an Asian household, this may stem from years of eating overcooked pasta that my mom cooked. : )

                    1. re: Miss Needle

                      That's funny... My mom often managed to overcook the pasta as well. On some occasions, I recall my Father and my Grandparents "bread dunking" the sauce rather than eat her pasta..

                    2. re: Tay

                      Tay, I admit it is a bit odd, but I am a noodle freak! I love to eat noodles of all varieties! I also love to watch them being made. No problem! I suspect a lot of people are sauce people.

                      But Miss Needle is right. Isn't it amazing when both sauce and noodle are perfect...

                      1. re: moh

                        moh... "A noodle freak".. How cute is that? lol!.
                        Yes in a perfect world, we get to have world peace, save the polar bears AND get the perfect ratio of great pasta and delicious sauces...
                        Until then... Sigh!

          2. When jfood started thinking of his response he thought that a sauce could NOT save a lousy pasta, and then when he read the rest of the OP (bread part) he started having almost a minimum standard that needed to be adhered to, and then reading the couple of posts here he came to the following position after the clever use of words by Tay, Thank you. 'distract' not 'detract.'

            Jfood can eat and relish in eating Hazan's Bolgnese on great homemade pasta or overcooked bad boxed pasta, he could eat Katz's pastrami and some heavenly rye bread or lousy white bread, and great pizza toppings on almost variety of crust.

            So has the topping "saved" the pasta? nope. Does it save the dish and more importantly the enjoyment of the dish? As Tay stated, it distracts from the dish, and in a way detracts from the overall quality (DAH), but if jfood has the option of a great sauce on lousy pasta, great pastrami on lousy bread and great pizza toppings on lousy crust versus the opposite, he'll take that trade every day.

            11 Replies
            1. re: jfood

              You have such a 'common sensical' way of putting things. Even when I choose another window, I always enjoy and appreciate the view from yours. I think for me, when it comes to the whole, "Can this dish be saved?"sauce/ pasta,scenario, the deal breaker is more textural than anything else. While I love a pasta that has it's own flavor, if it doesn't, I can still enjoy the dish if I can think of it as a vehicle to convey an outstanding sauce. Much like a blah cracker carr be an empty canvas used to display the artistry of a delicious cheese. I'm not sure if there is any agreed upon specific defination of 'lousey' pasta. As stated above,for me it would be textural/degree of doneness more than anything else. On a personal taste level,a great sauce can save a non descript bowl of well cooked pasta with nothing going for it except the correct degree of doneness (Is 'doneness' even a word?).
              On the other hand, tasty pasta, no matter how perfectly cooked, doesn't stand a chance against a poorly prepared, too salty/spicy/oily/creamy/ whatever else, sauce.
              On the other side of the napkin: For me, unless it's been transformed into something else entirely, bad (bread basket) bread cannot be saved, no matter what, butter/oil/roasted garlic/caponata(sp?)/or other topping, is served. There is just no excuse for a restaurant to serve miserable bread/rolls

              1. re: Tay

                jfood doesn't get this whole bread basket as a leading indicator thing. yes he LOVES great bread, just look at what he ate over the last 24 hours, thank you farmers market, but if his favorites restaurants put a couple of slices of Wonder Bread in a basket with rock hard butter, and then serves him the best foie gras and braised beef, the Wonder Bread is a distant memory.

                And to the converse serve jfood some great artisan bread with homemade salted butter and then serve lousy food, jfood has a major :-(((

                1. re: jfood

                  I hear you. Only being able to speak from my own experiences, I've been served great bread/rolls in bad/mediocre restaurants, (Some local Diners and one chain restaurant come to mind) but never bad bread/rolls in good/great restaurants.
                  As for the whole, Wonder Bread/rock hard butter Vs great foie gras and braised beef... Well, that ain't happening.. As least not in any scenario I can imagine. :-}

                  1. re: jfood

                    And, believe it or not, properly toasted Wonder bread is surprisingly good for toast points on which to serve foie gras.

                    For me, a great pasta dish is a successful marriage of sauce and pasta and either component can ruin the dish. I don't like too much sauce - I want a balance - just the right amount of sauce with each bite.

                    1. re: MMRuth

                      After all these years of eating grain breads, for me, Wonder bread has a texture that's too 'styrofoamy." Even toasted..
                      I agree about the balance of pasta/sauce being the ideal mix.. Of course, that too is a matter of personal taste. We're just kicking around the OP 's musing as to whether or not a great sauce can save a lousy pasta.. Most seem to think the answer is "No". For me it would be what defines 'lousy' pasta.. :-}

                      1. re: MMRuth


                        take the crusts off the wonder bread and push them into muffin tins. Fill with gruyere, diced tomato and basila and bake the wonder "cups". A great chef in San Francisco gave that recipe to jfood 20 years ago and they always are the first apps eaten.

                        1. re: jfood

                          No fair! You could fill a sneaker with those delicious ingredients and it would taste amazing. It's like bacon. You can add bacon to pretty much anything and it will immediately cause it to be scrumptious.

                          1. re: Tay


                            Jfood thinks you've hit on something. He willadd a little chopped bacon to this. That's a great idea, but he will pass on the sneaker, though. :-))

                            1. re: jfood

                              Scarecrow , I love you best of all... :-}

                        2. re: MMRuth

                          MMRuth, I once would have disagreed with you about wonder bread... until I ate a softshell crab sandwich at the Ferry Plaza in San Francisco. Grilled, whole softshell crab, mayo and seasonings, with 'plastic' bread. And it was a revelation. Because it was so all about the crab, any bread with personality would have ruined it. The wonderbread was there to be soft in opposition to the crunchy crab, and give me something to hold on to. And that's the closest I've ever come to respecting wonderbread.

                          But to go back on topic - I'd go with pasta over sauce (Assuming one has to choose!). I think that's why I prefer lighter olive oil based sauces over tomato, cream or other saucy sauces - you can taste the pasta better.

                          1. re: Gooseberry

                            Although, as a child in Germany at a U.S. Army school, but without access to the PX, I envied Wonder Bread, Welch's grape jelly and Skippy peanut butter sandwiches, I've not eaten much Wonder bread since then. However, my husband, who, at least in his earlier years, had a much more developed palate than mine, swears by Wonder bread for toast points. I like brioche as well.

                  2. First to define the term "lousy pasta" it is to me one that we are all familiar with; relatively flavorless, overcooked pasta with therefore no significant body. And it thus contributes nothing to a "pasta" dish.
                    Being comfortable with the idea of reducing the bread in a sandwich, pasta in a pasta dish, and crust in a pizza to merely a means to convey meat, sauces and toppings to one's mouth misses the point of each doesn’t it? I’m not telling anyone that it can’t taste good or be enjoyable but openly neglecting the foundation, the platform of each dish just seems odd to me (and uniquely American). There are certainly exceptions namely the Delicatessen sandwich where the bread is rendered virtually inconsequential by design due to the large volume of meat used.
                    To address the reverse scenario I agree that well prepared bread or pasta can’t save poor meats or sauces either. You need both. But the foundation (to me anyway) should never be ignored in these dishes.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Chinon00

                      When referring to the pasta as a foundation, I'd have to I agree with you. I was just thinking worst case scenarios. You're right: It may well be a cultural thing. I would eat a blah pasta brightened by a great sauce. I would not eat a blah or even a good/well textured pasta with a flavorless sauce. For your palate, pasta is it's own end. For mine, it's what gets the sauce to my mouth while providing substance to the meal. Very interesting thread, Thank you :-}

                    2. Don't pair good and bad. Both have to be good for the dish to be good.

                      Pasta is bad: cook another batch or eat something else and save the sauce.
                      Sauce is bad: save it for yourself later and make an oil, garlic, and shaved parm sauce.
                      In restaurant, either case: send it back or don't go back

                      Bread is bad: eat something else and save the sandwich ingredients for another day.
                      Ingredients are bad: enjoy the good bread with a soup.
                      Bad ingredients in purchased sandwhich: don't go there again.
                      Bad bread in bread dish: out of luck.

                      Pizza comes out of the oven and sauce or crust is bad: out of luck.
                      In restaruant: send it back or don't go back.
                      Take out or delivery: out of luck, don't go there or call there again.

                      Of course, I pretty much make sandwiches, pasta dishes, and pizza at home rather than ordering when eating out. The rare times I order these dishes, it is because I know that the both components of the pairings will be good.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Exactly my feeling, Sam! Remove the "offending" ingredient from the equation and preserve the good parts.
                        Personally, I can't stand overcooked pasta. Since most restaurants seem to serve borderline or full-on overcooked pasta, I find I rarely order it out. Or if I do, say with some kind of seafood sauce, I find I eat the sauce only. Good for my calorie/carb intake but slightly disappointing nonetheless :-).

                        In Italy, however, I feel safe ordering pasta because it seems to usually be cooked perfectly.