Sep 28, 2010

La pasta!

Popular pasta shapes and types

It’s a vast world beyond fettuccine. Eclectic starchy carbo-nutrient and key meal staple in the Italian diet–whether home made or store bought–offers a mammoth choice in terms of different variations, sizes, colors, textures and shapes.

Regarded as a whole, pasta can be divided into three broad categories: pasta di semola di grano duro, made from durum wheat flour, water, and salt. Dried hard wheat pasta is the one most commonly sold in grocery retail stores. Then there's pasta all’uovo, which is made by mixing eggs and regular flour; and homemade pasta.

Homemade pasta is generally made with cake flour (which has less gluten) and eggs. Therefore, since durum wheat flour is not being used, the cooking time of homemade pasta is critical; if you leave it in the water to boil for too long, it will become wallpaper glue.

Extruded pasta all'uovo is made in smaller (usually neighborhood) factories by artisans whose chief concern is quality. The golden yellow pasta all'uovo is made with all purpose flour and eggs of corn-fed free range chickens.

Another pasta commonly extruded at local artisan pasta makers is the casareccia kind, (homestyle) which employs durum wheat flour, water, and salt (no egg).

Pasta that’s extruded is essentially forced through a bronze die, and then cut to the proper length and dried. The bronze die leaves helpful microstriations on the pasta dough, and the good thing about the rough surface of organic home produced or artisanal extruded pasta is that sauce and dressings will literally cling to the grain. Extra ridges, ripples and grooves are often added by commercial manufacturers to their pasta products to create that very same sauce-capturing effect. Conversely, smooth Penne and Ziti, for example, are intended for richer, chunkier sauces that don’t necessarily need to stick to the pasta.

Italians divide la pasta semantically into two basic groups: "long" pasta and "short" pasta. The long category includes Spaghetti, Spaghettini, Capelli d’angelo (literally, angel hair), Linguine, Fettuccine, Tagliatelle, Bucatini etc., intending all those foot-long strand, ribbon or noodle-type pastas.

The short pasta class includes Penne, Rigatoni, Gnocchi, Farfalle, Fusilli, Tubetti and so on.

Some shapes, that don't qualify for either of the long or short categories, are large enough to be stuffed and baked, and others, like soft egg Ravioli or Agnolotti, Tortelli, Cappelletti and Tortellini, come already stuffed.

Regional pastas would deserve a chapter of their own. Allow me to mention however that some regional pasta types have become enormously famous worldwide, like for example Orecchiette from Puglia, buckwheat Pizzoccheri of the Dolomites, Liguria's Trofie and the copious production from the Gragnano realm (near Naples). Some of the more modern varieties of regional pasta, like Scialatielli, and Paccheri (both hailing from Campania) are also quite popular.

Pasta normally is white-yellow or bright golden (depending on egg quantity) but other colors exist. By adding tomato, pumpkin, beetroot or spinach (or in some daring cases, squid ink) in the dough, the rainbow of colors available is virtually endless.

In some very kitsch Italian grocery/souvenir stores you can even purchase sex-themed short pasta shapes for aphrodisiac Isabel Allende-style orgy dinners or for dinner guests with an extravagant sense of humor. The choices are boundless, multicolor selections and variety male/female packs. I once brought penises in zucchini & basil sauce at a girls' night company potluck dinner and never got invited back.

Soup pasta is another sub category of short pasta and it features Stelline, Corallo, Semini, Tempestina (a close bleb relative of tapioca), Farfalline, Anellini, Quadrucci, etc. These perform their best in chicken soups, vegetable broths and Minestrone. On a cold night, the next best antidepressant to chocolate, is a steaming bowl of clarified chicken stock with a fistful of any of these, loads of Parmigiano and a warm blanket.

"Italians have only two things on their mind. The other is spaghetti."
–– Catherine Deneuve (at the time when she was married to Marcello Mastroianni)

Pasta is the pinnacle of the Italian food pyramid and Mediterranean diet. The miriad varieties of pasta are therefore not surprising. Of the 650 plus existing pasta varieties, I have illustrated only the few pivotal examples of Italian home-style cuisine. Here they are:

Agnolotti, Ravioli – Pockets of pasta dough stuffed with ground meats and/or vegetables. Can be round, squared or crescent shape, and each in different sizes.

Bavette, Trenette, Linguine – flattened long strand pasta, whose section is a rather flat ellipse. They love pesto.

Bigoli – extruded tube-like pasta similar to bucatini. The implement used to make them (bigolaro) is a beautiful object that the bigolatore sits on while extruding.

Bucatini – hollow spaghetti-like strands, part of the spaghetti extended family, which are commonly used with moderately thick sauces. Amatriciana defines bucatini. And viceversa.

Cannelloni, Crespelle – large sheet, tube or rolled crêpe-shaped pasta usually stuffed with condiments, béchamel, meat and vegetables. Used primarily in baked pasta dishes. Often, but not always all’uovo, i.e. with eggs.

Capelli d'Angelo, Capellini – Angel hair describes the long, delicate, extremely thin noodles. Because they are so fine, capelli d’angelo must be served either in a very light sauce or in a simple broth.

Cappelletti, Tortellini – Cappelletti is Italian for "priests' caps," while Tortellini were inspired by a sexy belly button. Whatever their name, these are small, twisted or crescent-shaped stuffed pasta filled with a cheese and prosciutto mixture. And they are to die for with Ragù alla Bolognese, with heavy cream & prosciutto, or–like tradition requires–mostly swimming in broth.

Cavatelli, Conchiglie, Pipe, Lumache – short, narrow, ripple-edged and seashell/snail shaped.

Ditali, Tubetti – thimble, stout tube-shaped soup pasta. Ideal for Pasta e Patate soup.

Eliche – round pinwheel shaped pasta, literally "propellers". Kids worship them.

Farfalle – bowtie shaped pasta. Due to their particular bunched up shape, they take forever to cook, about 16 minutes.

Fettuccine – long ribbon pasta, usually egg-based. Lovely and chewy, I love fettuccine...

Fusilli – corkscrew twists, "short" type pasta, excellent with a sautéed zucchini & pesto sauce.

Garganelli – rolled up, thin tube section pasta from Emilia Romagna. Divine when paired with a sausage, black pepper and cream sauce.

Gnocchi – hand made potato pillows. The rubbery commercial kind, I don’t like.

Gnocchi di Semolino – flat hockey puck-sized tapioca and cornmeal dumplings. Delish.

Lasagne – rectangular shaped sheets of pasta. Layered with ragù and grated Parmigiano, or pesto and béchamel then baked in the oven for 10 minutes and you’ll be moaning with pleasure.

Maccheroni – medium tubular "short" type pasta. A neverending love affair.

Malloreddus – Sardinian cavatelli-like pasta. Again the best are handmade.

Maltagliati – unevenly mix-matched broken shapes of assorted pasta.

Mafalde – ripple edged, large ribbon pasta named after Princess Mafalda of Savoy, which work quite well with rich sauces, like a braised wine and beef sauce.

Mezze Maniche – (literally, half sleeves) are stubby, fairly broad tubes that work quite well with chunky ragù, and mixed ortolana vegetable sauce (a simplified ratatouille). I own several necklaces made by my son with these.

Orecchiette – rough, ear shaped round shells, the size of a fingernail. The only truly viable ones are the homemade ones from Bari, but the store-bought kind, boasting the Puglia quality control stamp are OK too...

Paglia e Fieno – green and yellow colored fettuccine (the color is obtained with spinach and extra eggs added respectively to the dough).

Pansotti – meatless triangular shaped ravioli from Liguria. Stuffings include ricotta & spinach, mixed greens and shine when dressed in a creamy walnut sauce. Mmm...

Pappardelle – wide ribbon Fettuccine-type pasta. These broader strips are generally used for chunky sauces, like wild boar or hare ragùs. Most pappardelle are made with egg.

Penne – sharp edged tube section "short" pasta. Everybody loves penne.

Perciatelli – another (Neapolitan) name for bucatini.

Pici – Tuscan version of Venetian bigoli, again the best are home made. The most delicious I ever had were dressed in a rich boar sauce, served at a delightful restaurant in Siena called Gallo Nero.

Pizzoccheri – 3" long buckwheat tagliatelle. In Valtellina, home of Pizzoccheri, they are commonly boiled along with Swiss chard (Savoy cabbage) and cubed potatoes. This mixture is then drained and layered with chunks of local Casera cheese and grated Parmigiano, and then dressed with garlic and sage previously sautéed in browned butter.

Rigatoni, Sedani, Tortiglioni – large tube section "short" pasta, always ribbed. I make my spectacular Pasta alla Norma with these.

Spaghetti, Spaghetti alla chitarra, Spaghettini – long strand noodle-type pasta. The rulers of the pasta roost. The name of this blog is tightly connected to spaghetti...

Strozzapreti, Strangozzi – literally 'Priest Chokers,' are a hand-made cross between gnocchi, malloreddus and cavatelli.

Tagliatelle, Taglierini, Tonnarelli – thinner ribbon pasta than pappardelle, but thicker than fettuccine. These are obtained by flattening homemade pasta dough to a thin layer, then rolling like a giant burrito and consequently cutting it into curly tagliatelle ribbons.

Tortelli – Same shape as tortellini and cappelletti (see above), but in this case filled with either erbette (spinach or Swiss chard), potatoes, pumpkin; and most usually dressed in a simple browned butter and sage drizzle, or–only in the pumpkin tortelli case–pancetta fat drippings.

Trofie – hand rolled, chewy and slender squiggles. Usually boiled along with potato chunks and string beans and then tossed in with Ligurian pesto sauce. More mmm...

Vermicelli – thinner spaghetti, they cook in 5 minutes.

Ziti – long pipe-shaped pasta, broken by hand before cooking and usually topped with Ragù alla Genovese.

Each pasta shape has an ideal dressing. That much should be considered when choosing one particular type of pasta over another.

Go make some, hurry. I know you want it.

Image credits: - rachel eats - algont@wikimedia commons - - - valeria verini -


  1. All right- I'll make some. But you have given me too many choices.

  2. no wonder i like tortellini...smiles. my food education continues..

  3. Yes I want it NOW..
    The buckwheat pizzocheri is interesting...can it be made at home ??

  4. Claudia,
    close your eyes and point your finger to the screen!

    he he he! Glad you enjoy. Smiles.

    ha! Mission accomplished, then.

    easy! Pizzoccheri for 6: mix 12 fistfuls of buckwheat flour and 4 fistfuls of all-purpose flour. Add 1 tsp of salt and knead with cold water to obtain a satiny, firm dough. Don’t over-knead as this pasta tends to harden when over managed.
    Flatten with a rolling pin into a thin layer (about 3 mm, approximately 1/8”), and cut in the shape of fat fettuccine strands, resulting in 1 cm wide and 5 cm long ribbons.
    Recipe to be posted soon, with more details and dressing!


  5. This is the pasta post I always meant to do but was too lazy to do. I'll just link my readers to your post. Ai! Fatto!


  6. PS I hate pizzocheri and even more if you make the traditional butter-soaked dish of them. YMMV

  7. Judith,
    thank you for linking to this post!! And grazie for the complimenti. I will come visit pronto (bearing all but pizzoccheri with me, I promise)

  8. Sending a sweet hello from Frog Hollow Farm! So, after reading your post I changed the pasta I was going to use with my roasted vegetables and moved over to a 'mezzi rigatoni' (that's what it says on the bag anyway - purchased at the Italian grocer at Chelsea Market in Manhattan). I would love if you could send that recipe for the Trofie mentioned in your post if you have it, it's making me hungry - and it's only 6:30 am here! Ciao, bella!

  9. What a beautiful and useful post! I followed Judith's link here, and I, too, will be sending my readers here. Lovely. Thank you!

  10. A fabulous post , we Love pasta, no matter what shape or size. I just keep reading lots of blogs to get great recipes to go with all.

  11. So many varieties of pasta, I remember being amazed at the sheer amount of choice when I first visited Italy many years ago. By the way I have at last set up a badge page and have added both of yours.

  12. lots of pasta but I can't ever find my favourite in Italy- maybe an English invention. Spinach and Ricotta tortellini but the pasta spinach as well, so all green and each tortellini a good size. I used to eat them with
    tin tomatoes and sweet corn and call them spinach ears when I was a teenager.... please forgive me.

  13. FHFG~
    I mention how to boil trofie for pesto. Would you like me to send you more precise instructions, or the recipe to make trofie from scratch?


    Thank you! I'm happy you enjoyed this post, and please extend my dinner invitation to all your friends! ;)


    I can't get enough of pasta myself... so good. Hapy blogging!


    Thank you cara! You're so sweet.


    OK, we need to talk. Green tortellini? Dressed with corn? Vabbé, I forgive you, but only because you were a child! ;)

    I received an e-mail from a Emilia Romagna food expert with a few notes re tortelli/tortellini. I will post the corrections shortly.

    Baci a tutti!

  14. another amazing post, ele. i love reading the history you provide about these glorious pasta shapes and their names, esp strangozzi/priest choker!

    and lovelovelove the catherine deneuve true.

  15. another amazing post, ele. i love reading the history you provide about these glorious pasta shapes and their names, esp strangozzi/priest choker!

    and lovelovelove the catherine deneuve true.

  16. You never got invited back? Eh, you don't need such unfunny friends. I laughed just reading about your phallic pasta!

  17. Amanda~
    Thank you, you're too kind!
    Did this post inspire you to go make some? And re Deneuve... can you imagine being married to Mastroianni?! Lucky girl


    Ha ha, I knew you'd appreciate! Those narrow minded cows didn't deserve my humor (nor my tasty phallic pasta)

  18. Thank you Elionora...

    We make something like this here in India too , to be cooked in a soup.
    Waiting for your detailed recipe.

  19. Hi Eleonora, I went back to the section of your post about trofie and see that yes, you pretty much did give the recipe. We make pasta with potatoes and brocolli - a dish that my husband's Sicilian mother made often while he was growing up. Thanks also for stopping by my Vermont post - what a surprise to hear that you are originally from Bennington!! Ciao, bella!

  20. Sangeeta~
    Did you read my previous comment reply to you? It contains the detailed recipe for pizzoccheri like you requested!


    Did you read my orecchiette post (sauce involves broccoli!) It's linked in the initial paragraph of this post.

    Ciao a tutti

  21. What a great post. Thank you for taking the time to put this together.

  22. Ma quanto bella (e buona) e' la nostra pasta?!!

  23. Theresa~
    It was fun, and I always learn something new!

    Non ci sono paragoni, Francesca! La nostra pasta batte tutto il resto, sia in bellezza, sapore, nutrimento che storia!

  24. You sold me! My next project to make my own pasta!

  25. QPC~
    Excellent. It might become a great habit! And when you make it, your guests and family will feel even more loved and cared for.

  26. Bel post e complimenti per il blog!
    Su tortellini, cappelletti, lasagne e compagnia mi permetto di segnalare il mio blog nato da poco: