Why you should care
Because there’s no limit to the imagination.
Everyone knows Italians are pasta addicts. Marco Polo imported spaghetti from faraway China, and we Italians made it our own, giving those wormy noodles a makeover and turning them into a national delicacy and point of pride. Just like the pope, who is beloved the world over but calls Italy home, you may find noodle dishes on menus and dinner tables from Australia to Zanzibar, but Italians and their pasta? Now, that’s amore.
And, like any good love affair, Italian’s fixation on pasta borders on the obsessive.
According to Italy’s pasta lobby, there are 300 different types of pasta.
Sure, some might be skeptical about a lobby group’s claims that so many pasta varieties exist. But there could actually be even more than 300 if the group factored in lasagna and other types of veal-stuffed pasta (i.e., certain shapes of tortellini, ravioli or medaglioni). Spaghetti is the most multifarious pasta and comes in dozens of forms. Before you book your next visit to Rome, here are a few names worth learning:
- The Eternal City boasts bucatini. The long, hollow noodles are a challenge to twirl and slurp, but divine when served with fresh-grated pepper and pecorino.
- There’s also the wide, flat fettuccine, tagliatelle and pappardelle — superb with porcini mushrooms and wild boar sauce — and the narrower linguine, which pairs well with scampi or clam sauce.
- The so-called short pasta include penne; butterfly-shaped farfalle; orecchiette, or “little ears”; tubular rigatoni or bombolotti; and maltagliati, or “badly cut,” named for the pasta’s irregular, random shapes, originally a kitchen mistake to use up dough scraps that later became a specialty.
These “badly cut” pasta are associated with the Emilia-Romagna region — which points to another feature of our national dish. “Each single town and village in Italy has its own pasta and invents new shapes,” says Rome-based chef Anna Maria Santi. Drive just 5 kilometers from one hamlet to the next and you’ll be treated to pasta-based dishes bearing their own territorial mark of distinction, recipes and cooking traditions. Variety is found not only in the shape of the noodle but also in the type of sauce used, adds Santi. A ragù pairs well with long or short pasta with a rough surface that can “capture” the sauce’s meaty bits, while silky spaghetti is perfect for fork-curling aglio, olio e peperoncino, the classic Roman dish consisting of fried garlic, olive oil and chili pepper sauce.
Strozzapreti, or “priest-chokers,” are twisted to resemble a hangman’s noose.
Regardless of sauce or shape, when it comes to actually eating pasta, there’s only one rule: It should be eaten al dente, meaning “to the tooth,” because the pasta should, if properly cooked, offer a slight resistance when bitten into — not too soft, not underdone. A plate of mushy spaghetti is nothing less than sacrilege, so ignore the cooking instructions printed on the package and remove the pasta from the boiling water two minutes earlier than recommended.
Across the centuries, Italian pasta-makers, not to mention housewives and tavern owners, have come up with the craziest of names to identify specific pasta types. That’s why in Tuscany, a land of anti-clericals prone to swearing, menus feature strozzapreti, or “priest-chokers,” which are twisted to resemble a hangman’s noose. The name recalls the gluttony of rich prelates in the Middle Ages whom the poor and starving wished might suffocate while gorging on kilos of pasta. Other, less gruesome names include the whisper-thin capelli d’angelo — literally “the hair of angels” — typically served in a delicate broth; mezzemaniche (“half-sleeves”); vermicelli (“little worms”); and gemelli (“twins”), made from two pieces of pasta twirled together.
The International Pasta Organization launched World Pasta Day, held each October, to celebrate our universal love of pasta, a staple and symbol of the Mediterranean diet. “Pasta is a key Italian asset not just because of its highly nutritional values but also because it has conquered international markets. It stands as the ideal food to combat world hunger,” says Paolo Barilla, IPO’s president. Barilla also happens to own, with his brothers, the world’s largest pasta company. “Barilla, the flavor of home,” intones a popular TV ad. No matter where you are, or whether you’re eating pasta shaped like corkscrews or tiny stars, in a soup, salad or baked, for Italians, there’s no other dish so reminiscent of home. Buon appetito!