Pasta al dente

It comes as no surprise that when I asked a few of my closest what they loved about Italy, its food ranked high on the list; and nothing says Italian food like pasta.

Pasta has been a part of Italian cuisine and culture for centuries, but it was not brought back from China by Marco Polo – this is a myth. In fact, evidence suggests that it was most likely the early Etruscans who introduced pasta and the early Romans prepared it using a simple flour and water method (the dough they called lagane which, you guessed it, evolved into lasagne) that is still in use today.

Most of us would be familiar with spaghetti, ravioli and lasagne. But prepare to be amazed… There are roughly 350 different shapes and varieties of dried pasta in Italy. Shapes range from tubes, to bow ties, to unusual shapes like wagon wheels and ones that look like little tennis racquets and each serves a purpose as the carrier for a delicious sauce.  You’re still thinking about the ‘350’ aren’t you? How about we broaden your horizon then… Starting with ‘A’ and going all the way through to ‘Z’.

  • Agnolotti (ahn-yo-LOH-tee): a stuffed pasta that is typically a half-circle or circular in shape; most commonly stuffed with meat
  • Alfabeto (al-FA-bet-oh): the familiar ‘Alphabet’ pasta shape that is great in soups
  • Ancini de pepe (an-CHI-nee deh peh peh): apastinathat looks like little pepper corns
  • Anelletti (ahn-ell-EH-tee): pasta that looks like a giant letter ‘O’
  • Armoniche (arm-on-EE-keh): pasta that resembles a gladiator’s armour
  • Bigoli (bee-GOH-lee): a thick spaghetti made with whole wheat or buck wheat; most popular in the Veneto region
  • Bucatini (boo-kah-TEE-nee): like spaghetti in shape, except that it is hollow in the middle; the name means ‘little hole’
  • Campanelle (kam-pa-nel-LEH): a curled pasta that looks like a ‘little bell’
  • Cannelloni (kahn-nel-LOH-nee): large tubes that can be hand- or machine-made, smooth or rigid in texture, and usually filled with meat before being covered in a meat sauce and baked; increasing popularity for cheese and vegetable fillings
  • Cannolocchi (kahn-oh-LOH-kee): an unusually shaped pasta; a short tube with a wide grooved surface
  • Capricci (kah-PREE-chee): pasta that looks like a little accordian
  • Cavatappi (kah-vah-TAHP-pee): meaning ‘corkscrews’, this pasta resembles such a shape; they are hollow like macheroni, but twisted
  • Cavatelli (kah-vah-TEL-lee): short pieces of pasta with a rolled edge, so they look like hollow tubes
  • Conchiglie (khon-KEE-lee-eh): shaped like little seashells; a familiar pasta to many, even if the name is hard to pronounce
  • Corzetti (khor-ZEHT-tee): coin-shaped pasta usually stamped with an image on the pasta itself
  • Ditalini (dee-tah-LEE-nee): bite-sized tubular pasta; often found in Minestrone soup
  • Farfalle (far-FAHL-leh): another familiar shape – the bow tie; actual meaning is ‘butterflies’
  • Fettuccine (feht-too-CHI-neh): a traditional pasta, flat in shape
  • Fideo (fee-DEH-oh): little string-like pasta
  • Fiori (fee-OR-ee): meaning ‘flower’, this pasta is a unique flower shape
  • Fregola (freh-GOH-lah): found commonly in Sardinia and is formed to look like popcorn kernals; often toasted to intensify the nutty flavour
  • Fusilli (foo-SEEL-lee): similar to the cavatappi in shape, but they are flat pieces of pasta that have been twisted instead of round pieces; it means ‘little spindles’
  • Garganelli (ghar-gah-NEL-lee): folded and shaped into a tubular shell that resembles a tiny cannelloni
  • Gemelli (jeh-MEHL-lee): the word means ‘twins’ and the pasta looks like short pieces of pasta twisted together, but it is only one piece of pasta
  • Gnocchi (NYO-kee): thumb-sized pieces of thick pasta most commonly made from potatoes
  • Lasagne (lah-SAHN-yeh): flat pasta used to create layers
  • Lasagnetti (lah-sahn-YEH-tee): a miniature version of lasagne but not used as a layering pasta; has a ‘ruffled’ edge
  • Linguine (lin-GWEE-neh): a flat fettucine-like pasta; means ‘little tongues’
  • Lumaconi (loo-mah-KOH-nee): meaning ‘big snails’ this pasta resembles a snail’s shell; can be stuffed
  • Maccheroni (mah-KEH-roh-nee): a tubular pasta; great for robust sauces
  • Mafalda (mah-FAL-dah): an extra long pasta with edges ‘ruffled’ like lasagnetti and with a width similar to fettuccine
  • Mostaccioli (moh-STAH-chee-OH-lee): meaning ‘little moustache’ this pasta resembles penne; also the name of an Italian biscuit
  • Orecchiette (or-eh-KYEH-teh): small bowl-shaped pastas; the name means ‘little ears’
  • Paccheri (pah-KEH-ree): a jumbo-sized rigatoni without the ridges
  • Pantacce (pahn-TAH-cheh): bite-sized lasagne pasta shapes
  • Pappardelle (pahp-par-DEL-leh): big, fat, ribbon pasta; not as wide as lasagne, but significantly wider than fettuccine
  • Penne (peh-NEH): tubular-shaped, bite-sized pasta
  • Pennette (peh-NEH-teh): a smaller version of penne
  • Pici (PEE-chee): a specialty pasta from the Tuscan region; like thick spaghetti but hand-rolled so irregular in shape
  • Rachetti (rah-KEH-tee): believe it or not, this pasta is shaped like miniature tennis racquets; a fun shape for kids
  • Radiatore (rah-dee-ah-TOR-eh): no prizes for guessing this one means ‘radiator’ and this pasta is shaped just like mini radiators
  • Ravioli (rah-VEE-oh-lee): filled pasta that comes in many shapes and sizes
  • Raviolini (rah-VEE-oh-lee-nee): square or round, this filled pasta is just a smaller version of ravioli
  • Rigatoni (ree-gah-TOH-nee): a small tube-shaped pasta with a larger opening than penne and with straight-cut ends; meaning is based on the Italian word for ‘ridged’
  • Risi (REE-see): meaning ‘rice’ in Italian, this pasta is shaped and sized exactly like rice; perfect for soups
  • Rotelli (roh-TEL-lee): this pasta looks like a wagon wheel
  • Rotini (roh-TEE-nee): a rotating spiral pasta much like fusilli
  • Sagnarelli (sah-NYA-rel-lee): shaped like little sheets of paper and cut with a zig zag edge
  • Scialatelli (sha-la-TEL-lee): much like fettuccine except that this pasta is folded like a ribbon
  • Spaghetti (spah-GHE-tee): needs little explanation but this pasta is long, circular strands; dates back to the 13th century
  • Stringozzi (streen-GOHTS-zee): refers to the Italian word for ‘shoe laces’; much like a thick version of spaghetti
  • Strozzapreti (stroh-zah-PREH-tee): A colourfully-named pasta with the meaning ‘priest strangler’; the pasta is similar to cavatelli in that it is a flat piece of pasta that hs been hand-rolled on the edges to create something of a hollow tube
  • Tagliatelle (tah-lyah-TEL-eh): long ribbons of pasta similar to fettuccine
  • Tortellini (tor-tel-LEE-nee): a small stuffed pasta that shaped almost like a half-moon; it means ‘little cakes’
  • Trine (TREE-neh): meaning ‘lace’ in Italian this pasta looks exactly like the lacy edge of a skirt
  • Trofie (TROH-fee-eh): shaped similarly to strozzapreti except that rather than just rolled on its edge, the pasta is twisted so that the ends become pointy
  • Trottole (TROH-tol-eh): meaning ‘top’ this pasta looks like a spinning top that children play with on the floor; great for pasta salads
  • Vermicelli (vehr-mee-CHE-lee): a long pasta thinner than spaghetti; means ‘little worms’
  • Ziti (ZEE-tee): a tubular pasta with a straight cut at either end; the ‘longhi’ version of this pasta is similar to bucatini – hollow and long but the tube is much larger than bucatini

And this is only scratching the surface!

Traditional Italians also believe that certain types of pasta should be matched with a certain sauce, based on the sauce’s consistency and the pasta’s ability to hold it (and perhaps this is the time to know the difference between sugo and ragu). Sauces made with fresh tomato sauce, with a small amount of oil, go best with delicate pastas like spaghetti. Thicker tomato-based sauces or those with lots of oil are best teamed with flat pasta, such as fettuccine or linguine. Tube-shaped pasta like penne or the shell-shaped types like conchiglie are great for sauces with a full flavour, such as chunky meat sauces or dairy-based sauces. The thickest tubular pastas (e.g. cannelloni) are great for baked dishes.

Italians love their pasta, eating roughly 30kg of pasta per person per year. When Australians dine out, Italian food is in the top 5 cuisines of choice and both Australian men and women consume approximately 63 percent each in pasta each year. So the next time you have a hunger for some pasta, step outside of the familiar and scan the supermarket shelves for a pasta of a different shape or variety… Better still, make your own.

Here’s a basic, eggless pasta recipe:

You’ll need: 335g of semolina flour, 3g of salt, 120ml of warm water

Mix the flour and the salt in a large bowl and add the warm water, stirring to make a stiff dough (increase the water if the dough seems dry). Pat the dough into a ball and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for 10 to 15 minutes. Cover and let it rest for 20 minutes. Working with roughly a quarter of the dough at a time (keeping the rest covered to prevent drying), roll it out using a rolling pin or a pasta machine until you reach your desired thickness (I recommend about 1/16 of an inch). Cut the pasta using a knife or the machine into your desired shape. It’s then ready to cook.

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘al dente’, meaning ‘to the bite’. It is a means of describing pasta that has been cooked to be firm, but not hard; the desired texture of pasta. Homemade pasta takes less time to reach al dente status than supermarket bought pastas, so you will be looking at around 3 to 5 minutes in a pot of salted, boiling water if using the recipe above.

Boun appetito!


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