Unless family fate has blessed you with an Italian grandmother, you have every right to be confused about the myriad of pasta shapes, types and variations, and which sauce goes best with which. Not only are there hundreds of different pasta forms, some with just the slightest nano-millimetre’s difference (as in linguine, bavette and trenette), but move from one region or pasta producer to another and your ‘spaghetti alla chitarra’ might suddenly be called ‘tonnarelli’.
As with Italian politics, football and grammar, it’s best not to ask. Just go with it and accept the fact that if Nonna has been making Bolognese (ragù) sauce with tagliatelle for nearly a century, do not attempt to mess with the formula.
Method to the madness
The hundreds of pasta shapes can be roughly whittled down to 2 main categories: long or short. Within those main types come many subcategories: flat, tube, sheet, smooth, ridged, thick, thin and tiny. (Re. fresh vs. dried pasta – this impacts the way it’s made and its cooking time more than anything else). Once you’ve decided what sauce you’d like to make, ask yourself if it would best suit long or short pasta, then fine-tune the options based on whether your sauce is homogenous or contains interesting lumpy features, and lastly figure out if a hollow, ridged or smooth format would better host the sauce.
Pasta types and their predispositions
Long, skinny pasta: e.g. spaghetti, spaghettoni, linguine, bucatini
Creamy, thin, oil-based sauces that include anything from the basic smooth pesto to the most traditional sugo al pomodoro. Many summer favourites are found here like spaghetti alle vongole (clams/cockles) and other seafood recipes involving crustaceans, molluscs and sardines – especially popular in the southern regions of Italy like Sicily. The traditional pack of spaghetti tends to be a store cupboard staple and is perfect for those quickly thrown-together recipes like the ever-dependable garlic, oil and chilli.
Long ribbon pasta: e.g. tagliolini, tagliatelle, fettuccine, pappardelle
Famously used for the most luxuriant and full-bodied pasta recipes: wild porcini mushrooms in cream, bacon & hare sauce and the original minced meat ‘ragù commonly known as Bolognese to name but a few. The key here is rich, silky, sensual and very often full-on meaty. The most filling of all pasta dishes, also due to the fact that ribbon pasta is often freshly made and hence contains quite a few eggs.
Twisted shapes: e.g. fusilli, strozzapreti, casarecce, farfalle
Generally considered the biggest crowd-pleasers of the bunch, these twisted shapes can suit a cold pasta salad as well as anything tomato or cream-based. Recipes include the whole gamut of possibilities: meat, fish, veg and cheese, but generally speaking, the sauces are smooth and contain medium-sized chunks of accompanying delights that fit easily onto the fork as you stab into the dish.
Tube shapes: e.g. penne, rigatoni, macaroni, paccheri
Best suited to hearty meat, cheese or vegetable sauces of medium consistency that can snuggle into the tubular shape. Also good for baked pasta recipes (‘pasta al forno’), where their thick shape can withstand being pre-cooked in boiling water and then further cooking in the oven without losing their bite.
Shell shapes: e.g. conchiglie, lumache, orecchiette, gnocchetti sardi
Similar to the tube logic, these suit all types of sauces with creamy, cheesy, veggie or meaty ingredients. Here, the juicy nuggets can be minced or chopped into a small, suitable size that can be caught within the shell-like form, be it a piece of tender broccoli or a cube of regional tasty sausage.
Sheet pasta: e.g. lasagne
The international institution of Italian cuisine that now comes with many variations on the layered sheet theme like salmon, veggie and multi cheeses. Many traditionalists despair at the modernization of certain standard dishes considered untouchable, but certain forms of evolution are beyond anyone’s control, even Nonna’s. Our favourite take on the lasagne concept comes from Liguria where a sheet of ultra-thin freshly-made lasagne is laid out flat on a plate and simply slathered with the best pesto from the region. Simplicity at its best!
Mini shapes: e.g. stelline, canestrini, ditalini, risoni
The easiest category with little ambiguity. Perfect for soups, minestrone and stews, also very popular with toddlers as they transition to solids and younger eaters in general.
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Courtesy: EHL Insights