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Plating Pasta

Pasta moves and flows. This lively nature makes it fun to eat but tricky to present. Italian chefs have become skilled in the art of plating pasta so it looks as good as it tastes. You too can be a pasta maestra or maestro by following some of their methods.

Seasonal Looks

In "Perfectly Cooked Pasta", we learned that al dente pasta is not undercooked and brittle—nor should pasta be overdone and mushy. So, along with its delightful texture, pasta cooked al dente holds its form. Rigatoni tubes don't collapse into flabby strips and rotini doesn't unwind in shreds. 

Simply Elegant

Art museums display masterpieces on bare white walls. Italian chefs typically serve pasta on white porcelain plates with wide rims. Just as patterned wallpaper would detract from a Da Vinci, ornate china can divert attention from the vibrancy of pasta and sauce.

The ideal pasta plate is designed with function in mind.

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  • A wide, flat bottom keeps the food warm.
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  • Shallow sides keep the unruly noodles in their place for a neater appearance. Plus, the sides support stacking the pasta, creating visual appeal.
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  • The rim sets off the colors and shapes of the food in the center.

Master the Warm-Up

Check that your pasta plates are heatproof by referring to the manufacturer's care manual or the stamp on the back of them. Be sure to handle warmed plates with oven mitts.
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  • If using your oven to warm them, preheat it to 200°F. Place plates inside while cooking the pasta.
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  • Use the plate-warming cycle of the dishwasher.
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  • For just a few plates, ladle some of the hot pasta cooking water into each bowl just prior to draining the pasta. (Remember to pour out the water before plating the pasta.)

Plating Dried Pasta

Boxed strands and short shapes should be tossed with enough heated sauce to coat, moisten and flavor each piece. Follow the indicated amounts for the recipe you're preparing.
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  • Using a pasta fork or spaghetti tongs grab onto the pasta without crushing it, then transfer it to the warmed plates. Spoon one or two generous tablespoons of sauce over it.
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  • Choose a garnish that's relative to the ingredients in the sauce, like a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, gratings of fresh lemon zest or sprinkle of minced parsley.

Plating Stuffed Fresh Pastas

Ravioli, tortellini, cappelletti and other stuffed pastas require gentle handling to avoid tearing the plump bundles. Using a skimmer or slotted spoon, lift them from the boiling water and then rest the skimmer over a towel for a moment to soak up excess water.
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  • Small ravioli or tortellini may be tossed gently in a warmed serving bowl with enough sauce to moisten and flavor before plating.
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  • Oversized stuffed pastas can be plated dramatically atop pools of sauce on rectangular, triangular or oval serving plates (because the bundles hold their shapes well, they don't need to be plated on traditional pasta plates). Drizzle just enough sauce over your pasta to embellish it.

Baked Pastas

  • Baked pasta dishes are appealing when serving large groups because they can be prepared ahead of time and cooked unattended. Plus, the browned cheese crown on dishes like Lasagna with Creamy Pink Sauce looks terrific and is always a crowd-pleaser.
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  • With a serrated knife, pre-cut portions of baked pasta dishes so the top remains intact you serve. Carefully lift each piece from the bottom with a flat spatula or large serving spoon. Set it on the plate, crust side up, to display the beauty of the dish.

The Final Touch

You've taken care to cook your pasta al dente so the nooks and crannies of each piece capture the well-seasoned sauce. You've mounded the pasta onto warmed plates to keep the dish hot to the last bite. All that's left to do is pass a bowl of grated Parmesan around the table. There's no finer complement to a beautiful plate of pasta!