It took me years, but I have finally tracked down the perfect pasta pan.
Many reading this will misunderstand what I'm talking about. I'm not referring to the pot in which the pasta itself is boiled. Yes, the vessel you choose for cooking noodles matters: You need a something just big enough to contain the pasta—but not by much—to maximize the starchiness of your pasta water for making better sauces.* But many different pots and pans can work for that.
That's right, contrary to popular belief, you do not want to boil your pasta in a massive pot of ample water.
The pan I'm talking about is the one in which you finish the pasta. That is, by far, the most important pan in your pasta arsenal. And not having the right one has long been a pain in my pasta-making ass. Let's back up.
Years ago I cooked in an Italian restaurant in New York City where I worked the pasta station. We finished all the pastas in aluminum pans large and deep enough to contain several servings of pasta and sauce with enough room to spare for aggressive stirring and tossing—a process called "la mantecatura," the critical finishing step in which a pasta, its sauce, and some of the starchy pasta water are mounted with fat in the form of butter, oil, and/or cheese and emulsified to form a silky, glossy glaze. (This sort of pan is also great for finishing risotto in a similar way.)
Everything about the shape, size, and material of the pan matters. The width and depth, as mentioned, make aggressive and rapid stirring and tossing possible with a much lower risk of accidentally sloshing it all onto your stovetop. And the aluminum build makes the pan both lightweight, for easier tossing, and incredibly responsive thanks to aluminum's excellent heat conduction. Need to bring the pasta and sauce up to a rapid boil? Aluminum will do it in a snap. Need to drop the heat before the sauce breaks? Aluminum's got your back again. (Though, it should be noted that aluminum pans do not work on induction burners.)
This pan exists in Italy, where it's often sold as "una padella per mantecare" (a pan for...well, there's no good direct translation for mantecare in English, so let's just call it a pan for finishing pasta, keeping in mind that the "finishing" we're doing is la mantecatura). And you can sometimes find the pan in Italian restaurant kitchens in the US, but that's about it. I've never seen one in any stateside cookware store or online.
The Perfect Pan for Saucing Pasta
Fast forward to a couple months ago, when I was video chatting with Sasha, who grew up in Rome and is even more of a pasta aficionado than me, which is saying a lot. We were bemoaning the lack of Italian-style pans per mantecare here, commiserating over our crappy makeshifts like a three-quart saucier (too deep and too small for any more than one or two servings), a large skillet (too damned shallow and a guaranteed mess), or an enameled Dutch oven (a monster of heat retention that makes stopping the cooking on a dime near impossible). "If only...," we agreed.
Afterwards, I felt restless. Surely I could find a supplier somewhere. And so I started digging. First I checked Italian cookware companies, but none sold these pans outside of Italy. One of them, though, listed the specs for its aluminum pasta padella at about 28 centimeters wide by 10 centimeters deep. Poking around a bit more, I matched those numbers almost exactly to an aluminum pan made by Winco, a US-based commercial cookware company. It is the spitting image of an Italian padella per mantecare.
Winco doesn't sell this pan as a pasta pan, but instead under the banal banner of a "stir-fry" pan. Hot damn, here was the ultimate pasta pan and the manufacturer didn't even know it! I ordered one (let it be noted, this pan is very affordable), and have been using it for weeks and my pasta game has improved dramatically. My cacio e pepe, made the traditional way with nothing more than cheese, pepper, and pasta water, is now foolproof, all thanks to the pan's capacity and excellent heat conduction. If you've had trouble with that pasta sauce before, this pan will get you one step closer to perfecting it.
There's only one detail that's worth noting: This is not a pan for making long-simmered sauces, particularly not acidic ones like tomato sauce, since aluminum can react with acids. It is instead very specifically a pan for finishing pasta in its sauce. Quick or pre-made tomato sauces will be fine in it for short periods (just to make sure, I simmered a tomato sauce in mine for 45 minutes and had no ill effects, but I wouldn't make a habit of that), and you can build all sorts of quick sauces in the pan with no trouble, including aglio e olio, carbonara, amatriciana, cacio e pepe, and more.
Anyone who makes pasta with any frequency should own this pan, there's nothing quite like it. And while I haven't bothered to find out, I'm sure it's good for other cooking tasks. Like... stir fries?