Note: Remember that your own taste is the best standard to go by when cooking.
Types of pasta. There are two basic kinds of pasta: pasta 'asciutta' - 'asciutta' means 'dry' - which is found on grocery shelves, and 'fresh' pasta, or just pasta, which you make yourself, or find in the refrigerated section of your grocer.
Brands of pasta. Pasta, like many things in life, is a matter of personal taste and the subject of endless discussion. Most brands made with hard (Durham) wheat are fine - Buitoni, De Cecco, Val Verde and Barilla to name some dry pastas. Try the fresh pastas in your grocer's refrigerator section - fresh pasta has more taste and combines well with delicate sauces such as porcini mushrooms with cream or Jo Bettoja's fresh tomato with basil sauce.
Pasta shapes. At last count, there were more that 130 pasta shapes available somewhere in Italy. A subjective choice, although Italians tend to name their pasta dishes with the name of the pasta used: Fettuccine Alfredo, Bucatini a l'Amatriciana, linguine with clam sauce, pointing up the importance of using a particular shape of pasta with a particular sauce - chunky sauces with larger pasta sizes and shapes (bucatini goes well with the chunks of bacon in Amaticiana sauce, for instance) and more delicate shapes with more delicate sauces.
Many shapes described and illustrated
Portions. As a first course, 100 grams (1/4 pound) of pasta before cooking; as a main course, 250 grams (1/2 pound) of pasta before cooking.
Cooking pasta. Lots of water (6 quarts) in a large pot - leave space in case the water foams up while boiling. We like the big aluminum or stainless steel pots with strainers inside, when pasta is done you simply lift out the strainer with the pasta. Bring the water to a boil, add a tablespoon or two of salt and add the pasta when the water returns to the boil. Make sure that ALL of the pasta is submerged in the water. Stir immediately with a wooden spoon or fork to separate the pasta, then occasionally.
Cooking times vary. For fresh pasta a few minutes can be enough. For dry pasta 6 - 12 minutes, depending on the shape, your altitude, etc. After 5 minutes, taste a piece or strand - when cooked, it will be just a bit chewy - al dente, or 'to the tooth' - not crunchy, not completely soft. Let your own preference be your guide. Drain and serve. When draining the pasta, pour some of the hot water into the serving bowl to warm, leave some twenty seconds, pour out.
Rinse with cold water only if you intend to make a cold pasta salad.
Origin. Marco Polo probably did bring a version of pasta back from China, but even ancient Roman recipes have versions of pasta-like dishes.