I have eaten in Mario Batali's restaurants perhaps a hundred times (and had at least very good meals 95 times), but I was extremely skeptical when I heard he was putting his name, complete with photo, on a line of General Mills frozen pasta dinners called Mario Batali's Regional Recipes, which will be sold initially at club stores like Sam's, BJ's, and Costco. So when we received some samples at Serious Eats world headquarters I volunteered to be the first guinea pig.

The first night, I took home the Orecchiette Pasta with Italian Sausage and Broccoli entrée. I followed the instructions to a T, putting the two hockey puck-shaped pouches of frozen tomato sauce skillet along with 3 tablespoons of water, heating them until they melted, and then adding the pasta mixture and cooking the whole thing another seven minutes.

The verdict: More than OK. On the verge of pretty damned good. It tasted like real food. The orecchiette didn't cook evenly, and I wished the pork sausage wasn't shaped like pellets, but it was a suprisingly tasty plate of pasta. The carrots and broccoli didn't get too mushy, and the tomato sauce had a nice little kick.

The next night, I took home the Gemelli Pasta and Meatballs. I followed a similar set of instructions and proudly served it to my wife. This dish blew us both away. The gemelli were properly al dente, the meatballs were tender and light, and the tomato sauce had a fresh, unprocessed taste.

Verdict: Even eating the gemelli and meatballs is no substitute for eating at one of Batali's restaurants. But at $11 for a box that serves five, it's a helluva lot cheaper. And those gemelli might just be better than anything you could eat at the Olive Garden.

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