The Shapes of Pasta

I’ve known people in my life who will only eat two types of pasta – spaghetti and elbow macaroni. Everything else was considered too exotic for their taste. What they are missing out on is a whole spectrum of pasta shapes and sizes, each bringing their own purpose to the world. Some work better in casseroles, others with heavy sauces, and still others with nothing more than a light coating of oil and some garlic. What I’m trying to say here is that pasta is versatile.

Types of pasta are often based on nothing more than how they are prepared. Let’s start with the basic

Sheet Pasta: Think lasagna noodles as the great-grandfather of the Mediterranean noodle world. It is from sheet pasta that all other pasta comes. This would include ravioli, which is essentially a dumpling made from a square sheet of pasta. If you don’t want to make dumplings, you could simply pinch 1-inch squares of sheet pasta to get farfalle.

Speaking of lasagna, here’s a bit of trivia: The wavy edges found on some commercial noodles is more popular in America than it is in Italy, at least so I’ve read.

And if you have a bunch of mismatched pieces of sheet pasta around, that’s called maltagliati.

Strip Pasta: So you’re sitting there with your sheet pasta, but you’re getting tired of lasagna. What to do? How about slicing the sheet pasta into strips? Sometimes the strips can be thick, like pappardelle, to really thin, such as with the taglionlini all’Uovo.

Rolled Pasta: Okay, so maybe cutting pasta ain’t your thing. Perhaps rolling it will provide a different sort of pasta. Sometimes you can roll pasta into a big tube, such as with cannelloni, or roll the pasta up very tightly, such as with strozapreti. If you’re feeling very fancy, you can twist strip pasta to get troifette.

Extruded Pasta: Maybe the world of flat pasta does nothing for you. You could always put pasta dough into an extruder. Think of an extruder as sort of a Play-doh Fun Factory for pasta dough. The easiest shape you could make is by forcing dough through a small hole, getting a simple “rod” of sorts, 8-inches long. This is better known to the rest of us as spaghetti. Using a smaller hole will get you spaghettini. Or you instead of using a round hole, you could use a straight line, getting a bavette, which seems sort of redundant, when you could simply cut a piece of sheet pasta to get the same result.

If long strands of extruded pasta isn’t to your liking, you could always cut the strands into 1-inch pieces. Using this method with a circle instead of a hole will get you your pasta cylinders which we so love. This includes the gomiti rigati, which we Americans call elbow macaroni. Using a wider circle will result in penne pasta, technically called penne rigate. Using an even wider circle will give you rigatoni, which happens to be my favorite noodle.

Change the die plate from a circle to one the produces a corkscrew result will give you fusilli.

Grated Pasta: Or you can simply take a grater to your ball of pasta dough and get different shapes. Finer holes in your grater will result in midolline, larger holes will give you orzo, with different names for the results for everything in between these two sizes. These types of pasta work very well in soups.

As you can see, there’s all sorts of pasta out there. I’ve mentioned seventeen, yet there are dozens, if not hundreds more. I’ve barely covered the amount of shapes out there, choosing instead to focus on how they are made.

But the most important lesson I can convey to you about pasta is this – they are a delivery system for other flavors. While pasta can be, and should be, delicious in its own right, it works best when it works with a partner. I’ll touch upon that in a later post.