Pasta 101: A Primer on All Things Pasta
There are 4 big “P’s” in Italian cuisine: Pizza, Prosciutto, Parmesan, and of course Pasta. The tradition of pasta making is one that dates back hundreds of years, and has since evolved into various shapes, sizes, and purposes. As one of the world’s most loved foods, pasta has become a staple for not only those in Italy, but for everyone who enjoys Italian cuisine across the globe.
Although the types of pasta have become as diverse as the people who eat it, the foundations on how it is made have remained the same. Pasta is, first and foremost, shaped from dough. The time-consuming amalgamation of flour and liquid forms a canvas to create something beautiful. The flour gives it the substance, while vigorous and continuous kneading gives the pasta its texture through the development of gluten.
Pasta is also differentiated by the shape, which determines its purpose. It dictates the kind of sauce it gets paired with, whether it can be stuffed, and whether there is a symbolic meaning to it. For example, a Ligurian/Genoese pasta called “Corzetti” is stamped to resemble gold coins during the crusades of the medieval period. Another example is the Sardinian stretched pasta called “Su Filindeu,” which means “threads of God” in the local dialect. The extremely thin and fragile nature of the pasta meant it was only suitable to be eaten in soup, specifically a mutton broth with loads of locally made pecorino.
Lastly, the sauce is secondary, and in Italy is often referred to as a condiment. The paramount importance of the pasta course has never been, and never will be, the sauce. It is only present to elevate the star of the show.
Tube shaped pastas are one of the most recognizable shapes around the world. From Marea’s Garganelli with Tuna Ragu to Penne Marinara from the nearest kids menu, tubed pastas can be found everywhere. These pastas have all the components of a top-notch sauce holder. The tube down the middle and the ridges on the outside were designed to maximize the amount of sauce per bite. These pastas are fine tuned to creamy or cheese based sauces. In fact, one of the most popular versions of “Cacio e Pepe” is finished inside a hollowed-out wheel of Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese for a cheesy overdose of pleasure.
Examples: Garganelli, Penne, Rigatoni, Pipe Rigate, Tortiglioni
Ribbons are wide, varying in length, and among the most rustic of pasta shapes around Italy. These pastas tend to be on the thicker side to maintain texture and integrity when complemented with meatier and richer sauces such as a ragu, bolognese, or any other sauce based on braised meat and/or dairy.
Examples: Pappardelle, Tagliatelle, Mafalda, Fettucine
Rod shaped pastas are among the most accessible and well recognized. These pastas are complemented with all kinds of sauce, but are more suited for a lighter and simpler sauce, such as “Aglio e Olio,” (garlic and oil), or “Cacio e Pepe,” (cheese and pepper). Without ridges like tubed pastas, and without the width of ribbon pastas, rod shaped pastas tend to hold less sauce than other shapes.
Examples: Thick and Thin Spaghetti, Linguine, Taglierini, Maccheroni alla Chittara, Pici
Stuffed pastas are much loved among all pasta enthusiasts, but especially children. Often stuffed with cheese and meat based fillings, their rich and decadent nature requires a lighter sauce that doesn’t overpower the characteristics of the pasta itself. A light tomato sauce made from good quality tomato passata or simply topped with brown butter, sage, and cheese should suffice. One of the more luxurious versions of stuffed pasta is a Raviolo filled with spinach, ricotta, and an egg yolk, which creates its own sauce from the runny egg yolk when pierced. Italians commonly eat stuffed pastas on special occasions.
Examples: Ravioli, Raviolo, Tortellini, Cappelletti, Conchiglie, Manicotti, Agnolotti
Not the most fortunate of names, but among the most fortunate of creations. In fact, one of the main pastas in this group is called “Orecchiette”, or “Little Ears” in Italian. These little nubs of pasta exhibit cracks and crevices which are suitable for holding richer and more decadent sauces. Unlike other pastas, which stem from the shaping of a pasta sheet, or “Sfoglia,” these kinds of pasta are often formed into a stick and shaped with a knife, gnocchi board, or simply one’s thumb. Braised meat sauces such as ragus were destined to be with pastas of this shape. A common practice in Italy is to braise meat and separate it from the sauce. The pasta is tossed with the braising liquid and served as one course, and the meat is served as another.
Examples: Orecchiette, Cavatelli, Radiatori, Quadrefiori
There are hundreds of different kinds of pastas to explore with roots in every region of Italy. This guide barely scratches the surface of a multi-century old tradition that has since blossomed into an everyday food. The combination of shapes and sauces in Italian cuisine are endless in possibility with more and more being developed each generation. To some, these intricate, and sometimes flamboyant shapes may be an overkill. However, the shapes of the pastas have always served one purpose; to create the harmonious matrimony of sauce and pasta. It is this amazing phenomenon, that has ensured the survival and expansion of pasta culture around the world.