Shape Up your Pasta Game
A pasta’s shape is the winding (sometimes tubular, sometimes in the form of a bowtie) path to the perfect dish at these local Italian eateries.
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Here’s the thing about Italian cooking: the best dishes are simple. Any mind-blowing results come from the incredibly nuanced attention given to each ingredient. A great Italian dish might only have four elements, but each must be treated with reverence.
What the French have in complexity and technique, Italians have in intuition and expression; which leads us to our point: pasta shape is critical to a sauce’s best expression.
There’s a reason the lexicon of pasta includes over 350 iterations of the form. From ridges and curls to twists, tubes, and pockets and to shapes that resemble butterflies (farfalle) or little ears (orecchiette), the whimsy and beauty of pasta makes life taste metaphorically sweeter. But, more than that, each pasta shape is form and function at its finest.
It’s all about the balanced bite. The chew matters. The way the pasta catches or absorbs the sauce matters. The flavor of the pasta itself matters. Tradition matters, too.
There’s, of course, debate all around — from region to region and household to household. (Italians have strong feelings about this matter, to say the least.) But there are general concepts that can help you get a foothold. It’s not always about crazy rules (though they abound). Most of it, frankly, is just a matter of common sense and instinct.
It stands to reason that ribbed pasta (or pasta rigate) may, more effectively, catch a looser sauce while smooth pasta (or pasta lisci) may pair better with a tighter sauce. So, let’s dig in.
Dried pasta (or pasta secca) is made from durum semolina and water. Dried pasta is most ubiquitous and typically has less flavor than fresh pasta, so the sauce you prepare can be even more robust.
Fresh pasta (or pasta fresca) is made from wheat flour and, often, egg. Egg-based pastas typically have a rougher surface (which aids coating) and a richer flavor in general. Delicate, thin, fresh pastas must not be overwhelmed by sauce. Brown butter is nice. Maybe with a shower of thinly-grated truffles and parmigiana.
Heavier fresh pastas, like pappardelle or lasagna sheets, pair great with meat-based sauces like a lamb ragu or woodsy mushrooms.
Filled pastas like ravioli, tortellini, and cappellacci (which means hats because, well, they look like…) are often egg-based and bought or made fresh. Let the flavor of the fillings lead here. Perhaps pair with a simple butter and sage. Or with very light, even fresh, cooked tomatoes. Tortellini is classic in brodo (or broth) and, in the north, light cream is traditional. (With emphasis on the light.)
Though anything can be made fresh, let’s move on to predominantly dried pastas. We’ll start with spaghetti, arguably the most famous shape of them all. Who doesn’t love to twirl that tangle of carbs into a perfect, bite-sized nest?
Long, thin pasta is best when it’s slicked with a silky, oil-based, or light cream sauce. Just don’t mess with perfection by adding big chunks of meat, veggies, or legumes. Keep it silky and you can’t go wrong.
Take the four classic pasta dishes of Rome: cacio pepe, carbonara, Amatriciana and alla Gricia. All of them utilize spaghetti (except Amatriciana, which traditionally uses bucatini, a spaghetti-like shape with a tubular hole running through the center). The silky sauces coat the strands to give you the perfect ratio in a mouthful.
Spaghetti and linguini work well with simple garlic and oil (aglio olio) and seafood-based dishes like linguini vongole. It doesn’t get more classic than spaghetti with marinara (a thinner textured, meatless red sauce). Even pesto clings well to the smooth surface.
A more traditional pesto pairing, though, is the harder-to-find, trofie: a thin, shorter pasta with an ever-so-slight twist. Trofie originated in Liguria, the birthplace of pesto, and its shape ensures the pesto to pasta ratio is buonissimo.
The farfalle shape originated in the Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia regions of the north. It pairs well with more delicate sauces; something light and fresh, like a pasta salad or primavera (spring vegetables). Farfalle also eats well with chunky ingredients like fresh cherry tomatoes.
Rigatoni and paccheri from Campania both have a hefty structure making them a great choice for baking. They also pair well with a hearty meat Ragu.
Orecchietti (Puglia) is nice with tiny bites. How thrilling to find a pea nestled perfectly inside the little ear. And then there’s the way the shape’s classic indentation catches pieces of sausage and broccoli rabe.
Tiny pastas, like ditalini and fregola (from Sardinia), are perfect for soup, minestrone, or in tabbouleh-style, chopped-salad side dishes.
Without a doubt, each pasta shape defines the experience of eating the accompanying ingredients in tailor-made ways. But there’s always room to play. The goal is to make each element on the plate sing its best song.
Sure, if none of this particularly matters to you, it’s easy enough to live life by just slopping any pasta and any sauce onto a plate and still calling it a meal. But then, some might argue, what would be the point of living at all?
Jena A. Butterfield is a lifestyle writer specializing in food, drink, travel, and interior design. Whether she’s traveling or not, she can usually be found washing down a hunk of cheese with a glass of Nebbiolo. A native of the land of Quahogs and chowdah, she lives with her husband and son in New York, where she is also a professional home organizer (www.nyboxbin.com).
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