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Authentic Southern Italian Cuisine
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Why Does Pasta Have So Many Shapes?

April 21, 2012 Carlino's Restaurant no comments
"Chefs have gotten wildly creative with shaped pastas"
“Chefs have gotten wildly creative with shaped pastas”

Have you ever wondered why you eat spaghetti and meatballs instead of, say, anellini and meatballs? Do you have a taste for butterflies, shells or little ears? What does the fanciful name capellini d’angelo mean?

The many names and shapes of pasta are far more than just decoration; Italian chefs have spent hundreds of years experimenting and perfecting the perfect marriage of pasta shapes and sauce textures. The little ridges, twists and whorls on some pasta shapes help thinner sauces cling to the greater surface area of the pasta so that every bite has a fuller flavor. Long, thin shapes like spaghetti are perfect for thicker sauces that coat the smooth pasta evenly, balancing the pasta’s flavor without overwhelming it.

Pasta falls into one of a few broad categories: rods, ribbons, tubes and decorative designs. Stuffed pastas have their own bestiary of shapes, but they’re essentially sheets handled in different ways. Pressed together around a filling, they become ravioli; tied in round twists, stuffed pasta becomes tortellini.

You’ll recognize rod-shaped pastas easily; they’re the familiar spaghetti, spaghettini, vermicelli and cappellini d’angelo – Italian for “angel hair,” if you were wondering. The different diameters of rod-shaped pastas correspond to increasingly thick sauces; thick spaghetti takes a thick Bolognese or a hearty meat sauce, while delicate angel hair pasta works well with a light tomato sauce. These round pastas often bathe in tomato-based sauces because they create the best balance with a tomato sauce’s tangy flavor.

Ribbon pastas include fettuccine, linguini, tagliatelle, pappardelle and even lasagna. Sheet-like lasagna is really just a very wide fettuccine ribbon with ruffled edges; like its slimmer relatives, it’s most often used in creamy or cheese-based dishes. As with rod-shaped pastas, the thicker the noodle, the thicker the sauce; that’s why sheets of lasagna hold up to multiple layers of meat, cheese or vegetables so well. Fettuccine Alfredo’s rich texture is a perfect match for its broad pasta; narrower linguini, which is Italian for “little tongues,” lap up a buttery clam sauce with garlic.

Turning pasta into tubes allows it to cook more quickly and increases the surface area to hold more delicious sauce. Macaroni, rigatoni, penne and ziti vary in size and in a few details, but they share a tube shape that lets sauce coat them inside and out. The elbow bends in macaroni help sauces stay in the tube; that’s why they’re the ideal partner for a cheese sauce in familiar mac and cheese. Ridged pastas like rigatoni and penne help a thinner sauce hang on until the morsel reaches your mouth. The diagonal cuts of penne pasta extend that surface area even more, which is why it’s a common partner with vodka sauces.

Chefs have gotten wildly creative with shaped pastas, and the names of these fanciful shapes are just as intriguing as the designs. Farfalle are the bowtie-shaped pasta pieces that go well with fairly thick sauces; their name means “butterflies” in Italian. Orecchiete, a small dish-shaped pasta that holds a thick, chunky sauce well, have an even more unusual name: “little ears.” The spiral shapes of rotini and fusilli let cream-based sauces flow into every curl, loading each piece with maximum flavor; they’re a good partner for mild, but thick cream sauces.

When you enjoy your next plate of pasta, think about how the sauce works with the shape. You’ll appreciate the amount of work that went into making every bite delicious.

Carlo, Wali and all your friends at Carlino’s

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