The origins of pasta are murky to historians, but the legend that Marco Polo brought noodles to Italy from China in the 13th century is still carried on by some. If Italians did not invent pasta, they certainly perfected it. They brought their culinary traditions to the United States, and today, eating simply and inexpensively -- pasta and sauce -- is one of the great benefits of Italian food. A couple of rules should guide your pasta consumption: Eat smooth sauces with long noodles and chunky sauces with short pasta, and the sauce should never overpower the pasta.
Olive oil behaves as a chameleon in food unless it comes from the higher echelons of olive oil quality. A top-tiered olive oil is extra virgin and first pressed. The flavor is lightly olive-like and pairs well with most sauce ingredients and wines. The standard olive oil labeled simply "olive oil" is a mixture of extra virgin and lower quality olive oil, and the flavor is neutral. Select extra virgin olive oil for preparing sauces.
Wines used in cooking should have a medium body and a subtle flavor. American or Australian blended red wines blend well with sauces. A white cooking wine that provides a crisp and inconspicuous flavor is sauvignon blanc. A dry vermouth can substitute for a white cooking wine. A couple of storage techniques prolong the shelf-life of cooking wine -- it typically lasts only two to three days after opening. Pour the wine in ice-cube trays and freeze and store in freezer bags, or if you cook with wine frequently, purchase boxed wine that lasts for longer periods of time.
Simple white wine-based pasta sauce options include a clam sauce served with linguine. To prepare the sauce, combine garlic, white wine, olive oil, parsley and steamed littleneck clams and toss with linguine. The clams occasionally do not open after steaming, so you may have to open them manually. Another white wine-based sauce includes pancetta, an Italian-style bacon, mushrooms, garlic, sliced onions, white wine and olive oil. Toss the sauce with penne or ziti.
An Italian favorite that includes red wine and olive oil is rigatoni with tomatoes and sausage. Combine cooked ground spicy Italian sausage, red wine, chopped canned whole plum tomatoes, olive oil and garlic and toss with rigatoni. Another simple, healthy red-wine-based sauce is Puttanesca. The sauce includes capers, sliced olives, anchovies, red wine, olive oil, red pepper and sliced canned plum tomatoes; toss the sauce with spaghetti.
The grated cheese added to simple pasta dishes should blend and accentuate the flavors in the sauce. Avoid pungent Gorgonzola and Taleggio, and instead finely grate Parmesan or Pecorino Romano. You can also slice the cheese into fine decorative curls and top the pasta after plating the dishes.