"There is a pasta shape and recipe for each day of the year and more! In Italy there are over 600 different pasta shapes on the market and new inventions every day, so there is always something new to discover and taste. Italians feel strongly about certain pasta shapes being paired with certain sauces (something I think is only really understood in Italy).” - Gennaro Contaldo, Italian chef and restauranteur.
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-millimeter’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.
Upon closer analysis, there is indeed some method to the madness after all. The basic logic being: Every shape of pasta holds the sauce in a different way. An oily, creamy, thin sauce sticks better to long pasta, whereas a short pasta shape like a tube or a shell is more suited to a sauce where the bits of meat or vegetables can nestle within.
As stated above, this is Italy, and there will invariably be exceptions to every rule. If in doubt, just corner the nearest Italian above the age of 60 and ask for directions; they will be happy to help and share their priceless foodie knowledge with you.
Pasta types and their predispositons
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 a 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, cheesey, 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.
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. My 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!
Cook pasta in a very large pan of boiling water. Give the pasta lots of room to move about and expand. A small pan means the pasta will invariably stick together due to the starch compound.
When to salt? Similar to the Brits and their debate on whether the milk should go in before or after the tea, many Italians differ on whether the water should be salted from the start when it’s cold or at boiling point when it’s time to add the pasta. Scientific logic leans towards the latter. If you salt from the offset, it will sink to the bottom of the pan, form a layer and stay there (possibly slowing down the heating process and eventually causing corrosion to the base of the pan), whereas if you salt when the water’s boiling, the salt moves freely about the pan spreading itself evenly everywhere.
Italians laugh at other nations who add olive oil to the pasta while it’s cooking. “Che spreco!” - What a waste! It won’t prevent the pasta from sticking together and will just end up down the drain.
Mamma mia, don’t overcook the pasta! This is a cardinal sin and turns it into an indigestible slop. Drain it when it’s “al dente”, i.e. still has a little bite to it. Then add the sauce and continue cooking for a few minutes until the pasta has absorbed most of the sauce. Remember, if the sauce is hot, the pasta will continue cooking even when it’s been plated, so always drain earlier rather than later.
When draining the pasta, make sure you save a cup of the pasta water that’s full of salty, starchy goodness. Then, when you add the pasta to the sauce, splash in a little of the water especially if it looks too dry. The starch in the water will help the sauce cling to the pasta and bring out a silkiness to the sauce.
Do not drain your pasta under cold water once cooked. Again, it’s a question of science: it’s precisely the starch in the water that helps the sauce adhere to the pasta. Rinsing pasta will cool it and prevent the absorption of your sauce. The only time you should ever rinse pasta is when making a cold dish like a summer pasta salad. Capisci?
“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti” - Sophia Loren.