BUTTE — On a food trip to Italy in early March, sponsored by the Italian Trade Agency, a group of us American food journalists were treated to dinner at the Michelin three star restaurant Da Vittorio, in Brusaporto, Italy, not too far from the bustling metropolis of Milan. The seven-course menu featured two dishes that included the cheese Grana Padano, a sort of sister cheese, or cousin, to the more widely known, Parmigiano Reggiano.

Both cheeses are classified as “Denominazione di Origine Protetta,” protected designation of origin, or D.O.P. Both cheeses, made in the Po Valley, possess a grainy consistency and are aged for lengthy periods. So what’s the difference between the two? Grana Padano is produced from skimmed milk, whereas Reggiano Parmigiano is made from a combination of skimmed and full fat milk.

There are other differences too, including the length of time the cheeses are aged. We tasted Grana Padano aged for 14, 17, and 24 months, and each had a distinctive flavor. The 14-month cheese was mild and had an almost creamy texture, the 17-month old cheese felt grainy on the tongue and had a slight sharpness, and the 24-month old cheese, the papa of the group, was decidedly sharp and quite grainy.

The 14-month-old cheese, we learned later, was featured in a tomato sauce served at our dinner with a pasta called “paccheri” (pronounced PAH-care-ee), a large gauge tubular pasta about 1 inch wide and almost 2 inches long. I was not familiar with it, and I was surprised to see it served with a lot of tomato sauce. Typically Italian pasta dishes are napped with just enough sauce to coat the pasta.

When I bit into the paccheri I thought it underdone and too firm to the bite. I expressed my feeling at the table, and an Italian food critic told me the pasta was cooked just right so that it would contrast with the sauce. “But,” I protested, “To me the pasta is underdone.” Trying again to set me straight, he said: “Firm pasta needs lots of sauce, and paccheri is always served this way.” I had lived in Naples, Italy, for a year and had eaten many forms of pasta in many different restaurants. I thought I knew what al dente meant, and so while the food critic had presented his opinion quite forcefully, I didn’t quite buy it.

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Comparison of paccheri with rigatoni. The paccheri is almost twice as wide as the rigatoni.

Al dente means firm to the tooth. So no matter what type of pasta you’re eating, it should always present some resistance when you bite into it. It’s all about contrast. Risotto is served the same way, al dente.

I decided to buy a box of paccheri at Peck, a venerable deli in Milan, and cook it at home with a facsimile of the tomato sauce that dressed the pasta at Da Vittorio. That sauce was finished with an enrichment of Grana Padano and butter, giving it a silky smoothness.

It took almost 20 minutes for the paccheri to reach an al dente that was firmer than I would have liked, so I disobeyed the Italian food critic and cooked the pasta for an additional 15 seconds. After draining and saucing the pasta I took a bite. The chew was perfect: just a tad more than al dente, but the extra sauce brought everything together. “Mmmm,” I sighed. I felt as though I’d won some sort of pasta war.

Paccheri with Tomato Sauce and Cheese

and Butter Enrichment

Makes 4 servings

My friend, Julia della Croce, who was on the trip to Milan, has graciously allowed me to use her excellent tomato sauce recipe. For the paccheri, I pass the sauce through a food mill, but for any other pasta, you can omit this step and serve the sauce slightly chunky.

Julia’s Fruity Tomato Sauce

One can (28 ounces), peeled plum tomatoes in juice (D.O.P San Marzanos are preferred.)

4 tablespoons high quality extra virgin olive oil, or more, to taste

2 large cloves garlic, crushed

1 small red or yellow onion, minced

1 medium celery stalk, including leaves, minced

1 small carrot minced

2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Small handful of chopped fresh basil

Scant ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black or white pepper

1. Drain the tomatoes in a colander, reserving their juice; remove any residual tomato skin, chop the tomatoes, and set them aside.

2. In a medium to large saucepan over medium-low heat, warm 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Stir in the garlic, onion, celery, carrot and parsley, and sauté until the vegetables are completely soft, about 12 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir until it’s coppery-colored, about 3 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and their juice, cover partially, and simmer over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 45 minutes. Stir in the basil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and cool a few minutes.

3. Pass the sauce through a food mill with fine holes set over a mixing bowl—do not use a food processor or blender because they’ll break up the tomato seeds. Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil if using the sauce that day.

Ahead-of-time note: The sauce can be made 4 to 5 days in advance of use and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator, or it can be frozen for up to 3 months. Whether storing it in the refrigerator or freezer, leave out the last 1 tablespoon olive oil. Stir it into the sauce after reheating.

Prepare the butter and cheese enrichment and cook the pasta.

Cheese and Butter Enrichment

3 tablespoons softened butter

¼ cup packed finely grated Grana Padano or Parmigiana Reggiano

For the butter and cheese enrichment, mash together the softened butter and finely grated cheese to make a paste.

The Pasta

14 ounces paccheri or rigatoni, plus a few extra pieces for testing

Bring about 4 quarts of water to the boil in a large pot and add 1 tablespoon salt. Drop in the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until pasta is al dente. For this dish the paccheri or rigatoni should be cooked until the pasta still feels slightly firm to the bite, but not raw. Paccheri may take 17 to 20 minutes to reach this stage, rigatoni about 5 to 6 minutes less. Be sure to test the pasta frequently during the last third of cooking. Reserve ½ cup pasta water and drain pasta in a colander. Transfer pasta to a large heated bowl.

Just before serving, reheat the tomato sauce over medium heat and bring to the simmer, stirring often. Add the cheese and butter paste and stir until melted and incorporated. Adjust consistency of pasta sauce — it should only be slightly thick — with small additions of reserved pasta water. Taste carefully and adjust seasoning if needed.

4. To serve, pour on the tomato sauce and fold into the pasta gently using two large wooden spoons or rubber spatulas. Divide among 4 heated serving bowls making sure to use all the tomato sauce. Serve at once and pass extra cheese at the table, if desired.

James Beard-winning cookbook author Greg Patent is a food journalist for Lee Enterprises, radio co-host with Jon Jackson on Montana Public Radio’s “The Food Guys,” and blogger at www.thebakingwizard.com.

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