Size and shape matters. Italians learn this fundamental rule with pasta. Long, short, rounded or sharp, each shape and each size has a specific purpose. Here some tips to learn how to pick the best pasta for your next recipe.
Some friends of mine have passed me an article on the BBC from Dany Mitzman titled “The day I ordered a pizza that doesn’t exist”. In the article, she shares the funny story of the day she tried to personalise her pizza toppings while ordering a pizza in Italy. This journalist was shocked when, in the attempt of asking for mozzarella on top of pizza Marinara (a typical Italian pizza that does not include mozzarella), all his Italian friends freaked out and told her to forget about it and not to ruin that dish. Mitzman was quite confused as, from her perspective, a pizza is a pizza and you can top it with whatever you want, mixing the ingredients you want. “Why can’t I add mozzarella to my pizza?”. The simple answer came from his friends: because Pizza Marinara with mozzarella DOES NOT EXIST.
It took 4 centuries to Italians to come up with the best combination of ingredients in order to deliver the most delicious pizzas. This is why each pizza has a specific name and a fixed, defined, non-negotiable set of toppings. Who am I to change that list?
As for pizza, the same rule applies to PASTA. My friend Kevin, married to an Italian, keeps challenging me with: “pasta is pasta, there is no need to have it in different shapes”. We have endless conversations on this topic, but there is no way he would try to accept the reasons why he is wrong. At the same time he admitted multiple times he would never say this to his mother in law (100% Italian) cause he would hardly survive an argument with her on such topic! “Why Arrabbiata sauce goes with penne while Amatriciana sauce goes with bucatini?”. You may be wondering the same, so I though the moment has come to explain to all the non-italians in the world the simple reason behind the shape and size of pasta. So, hopefully, Miss Mitzman from the BBC won’t have to go through another embarrassing “day when I ordered the pasta that doesn’t exist”.
Are you one of those that think: “spaghetti and tagliatelle can be used for the same dish cause they are both pasta and the shape doesn’t matter”? So why don’t you use a fork to eat your soup? Metal is metal and fork or spoon should be the same….the shape doesn’t matter, right? The shape DOES matter in the same way it matters for cutlery. There are over 200 types of pasta and I even found a list with the most common ones (check here). – Flat pasta like tagliatelle don’t really work with sticky sauces like 4 formaggi (4 cheeses): the flat sides would too easily stick together like two pages with glue in the middle. That’s why the coarse textures of a saucy ragout or Bolognese sauce are ideal for tagliatelle. Coarser pasta like rigatoni or farfalle (butterflies) are great with 4 formaggi sauce.
– Concave pasta as conchiglie (shells) are perfect for juicy sauces as they capture the sauce with their shape. Using them with a dry sauce or when we don’t have much sauce available is not a good idea as the pasta would result poorly and unequally seasoned.
– Rounded pasta like gnocchi should work nicely with sticky sauces as they are not flat; though they are very soft and mushy soft (as they are made with potatoes). So gnocchi are still used for a sticky 4 formaggi dish but they shouldn’t be too soft or you would end up eating an undefined blob that taste like cheese and potato mash.
– Cylindrical pasta like rigatoni or penne are the most versatile as the shape makes them hardly stick together (unless you overcook them, but in that case you simply deserve a night in jail to repent this sinful action), the sauce easily spreads and even when the sauce is too much it gets trapped within the cylinder, adding juiciness. My favourite recipe with penne comes from my region, Umbria, and here you can find my mom’ recipe for penne alla Norcina. – Long and cylindrical pasta like spaghetti are perfect for sauces that have bits that can be tangled: prawns, vegetables, mussels, chopped tomatoes…everything gets trapped when you roll the spaghetti around a fork so that you can enjoy a mouthful of pasta with all the ingredients from the sauce trapped in it (I am drooling while writing this, literally).
– Even the hole matters: long cylindrical pasta like spaghetti, but with a narrow hole in the middle, are called bucatini. And yes, the hole matters! The juices from the sauce are sucked inside the cavity and the result is a wonderfully succulent pasta, even if you eat the bucatini one by one. The perfect match: bucatini all’amatriciana (from the town Amatrice, not far from Rome) – a simple but outstanding tomato and pancetta sauce.
– And finally, when we talk about shape, we should consider any ornamentation…that adds texture! I remember when I was a kid and my mom would wrongly buy pasta liscia (“smooth”). For some types of pasta you may have the rigate version (with righe, “stripes”, the canals that make the pasta rugged) and the liscie version (with a smooth and homogeneous surface). I remember if the penne were liscie, my mom would not even consider cooking them for us and they would become the meal for the dog for the week. Pasta liscia doesn’t absorb any sauce, the sauce doesn’t stick on such smooth surface and when you eat it, the pasta liscia slides in your mouth like slimy snails. So…why does pasta liscia exist? I apologise, but this is a mystery I haven’t been able to solve yet. I have the suspect though it could be some American abomination.
– It is mandatory (I think it should be written somewhere in the Italian Constitution) not to mix different types of pasta! This has two reasons behind: the first is that each pasta has a different cooking time, so mixing them could easily overcook some and undercook some others. Even if the cooking time is the same, don’t forget that each shape and texture of pasta gives your tongue and mouth a different feeling when you are eating them. For this reason you want to keep your dish simple and not give your mouth a hundred different sensations, as it would feel like you are eating a messy dish. Furthermore conchiglie would capture all the sauce, the spaghetti next to them would not be dressed enough…and the overall result would be an irreparable catastrophe!
Oh yes, size really matters, as you should well know. And yes, we are still talking about pasta, though this rule applies pretty much to EVERYTHING.
– Diameter. Let’s consider spaghetti and spaghettini; they only differ in the diameter. “That’s almost the same” you would say. Though try to prepare a sauce with cream with these two types of pasta: with spaghettini, the combination of the small diameter and the sticky cream contribute to a more amalgamated dish, if this is the texture you were looking for. If, on the contrary, you want a more heterogeneous texture, then the spaghetti should be your choice.
– Size affects cooking time: pastas with similar shape but different diameter have different cooking time. Spaghettini for example are thinner than spaghetti, so they cook in less time. Also, they overcook faster in case you let them in a hot pan with the sauce for too long. If your dish requires to stir the pasta with the sauce for quite a while to allow a better amalgamation, then spaghettini won’t work. When you cook carbonara (check here for an original, vegetarian pasta alla carbonara recipe) you have to stir for quite a while the pasta with the raw egg in order for the egg to slowly thicken and cook: if you do it with spaghettini, they would overcook quickly and the also the egg would act as glue while thickening. You would have a sticky bird next on your plate: not pleasant!
– In Italy we call pastina the little pasta (usually smaller than 1cm): semolino, farfalline,…all this –ino at the end of the name means “tiny”. They can hardly be eaten with a fork and the spoon is the easiest option. For this reason, pastina is used in soups and minestrone recipes, but never as pasta with a tomato sauce. Pasta should be eaten with a fork, should be big enough to need some chewing and it should not look as a bowl of rice but dressed like pasta.
– And because now you should have realised how important is size, you should NEVER, NEVER, NEVER CUT YOUR PASTA like spaghetti. Why would you cut spaghetti? If they are long, there is a reason for that: a long and thin shape that amalgamates the sauce and tangles the larger bits. If you cut spaghetti in front of an Italian he would probably first look at you and you and say rudely “what the hell are you doing?” and I wouldn’t be surprised if he would then rhythmically turn his head left to right with a depressed face (the Italian body language that means: “what a disgrace!”). If you are planning to travel to Italy or if you are going to eat pasta with an Italian, please keep in mind that size and shape matters and that if it has that shape there is a reason for it. It’s better to learn these basic life-rules with pasta than in other ways….especially when it’s about chopping it!