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All the Pasta-bilities

Because of its versatility, there’s a pasta dish for everyone out there from ziti to spaghetti and from lasagna to linguine. Do you need more reasons to love pasta?

Tiffany Duncan
September 28, 2019

As we head into October and the fall season, that means it’s time to start getting excited about comfort foods again — all the rich, creamy, cheesy dishes that just sounded too heavy in the hotter months of the year. For most of us, that means dishes made with pasta, pasta, and more pasta.

But with over 350 different pasta types and about four times that many different names, how does one make sense of it all? We are here to help you.

Why are there so many different types, anyway?

The first fundamental to grasp about the pasta world is that the way most Americans view and consume pasta is vastly different from the way it is and has been viewed in Italy for centuries. In America, pasta is likely just the dried, cheap package of noodles that gets thrown in the basket for a quick weeknight meal. But in Italy, pasta is seen with almost religious reverence, as the preparation and consuming of it is synonymous with family and tradition.

Many commercially familiar dried pastas (pasta secca) originated from their fresh counterparts (pasta fresca) in various regions from around Italy, dependent upon the variances and customs of the area. For example, ziti — which looks a bit like penne pasta, but with the ends cut off in a straight line rather than diagonally —  comes from the word “zitelle,” that means “single woman,” or “spouse.” In some parts of Italy, it is often served as the first course at a bridal banquet. It also derives its shape from a time when there weren’t pots big enough to fit long ribbons of pasta in, thus accounting for their “broken” or “cut” shape. In southern regions of Italy, the breaking of this pasta is still done today as a traditional family ritual.

In Italy, pasta is “slow food,” something to be labored over surrounded by family, laughing and talking and gossiping together in the kitchen. It is also important to note that in Italy, the noodles are the real focus rather than the sauce. Pasta is seen as an art form like anything else, and families take great pride in their recipes and pasta shaping abilities. Once you start to view pasta in this way, one can begin to understand how molding and shaping pasta in different shapes and sizes is no different than a painter setting himself apart by painting in a particular style, or a poet utilizing a unique meter to achieve a melodic cadence.

Another reason that accounts for the many different kinds of pasta is that some noodle shapes hold chunkier, heartier sauces better, whereas others are more suited to a thinner sauce. For example, a simple noodle like fettuccine or angel hair is good for showing off a high-quality olive oil or wine sauce, while something chunkier like cavatappi has nooks, ridges, and crannies to court a hearty meat sauce well.

When was pasta introduced in America?
The introduction of pasta to America is often credited to Thomas Jefferson. During his travels in France, he encountered a dish called “macaroni,” which had been the generic inventory word that Sardinian shipping agents used for all kinds of dried pasta that was shipped throughout Europe. (Incidentally, this is also the same “macaroni” that is tied up in the meaning of the ditty “Yankee Doodle.” Google it sometime; it’s pretty interesting.) Jefferson was so taken with the dish that he had boatloads of it dispatched back to America, and ordered many pounds of it annually after that.

Becoming a pasta apprentice
Just in case you are having some Eat Pray Love fever dream of quitting your day job to rush off to Italy and become a pasta apprentice in some quaint Italian village … not so fast. You’ll have to get in line.

Author Bill Buford, who spent a lot of time working in elite New York City restaurants, recounts in his memoir Heat that it’s not as easy as one might think to show up and be a pasta “slave” in Italy.

He writes, “Slavery is so much the rage that you now need permission to be one: there are slave regulations, slave visas, a protocol, and a slave stamp you get in your passport that you get only by applying to the Italian immigration authorities, supported by a written ‘contract’ with a restaurant that includes a pledge not to pay you for the work it has already agreed to make you do.”

Popular pasta dish origins  
Pasta Puttanesca: This dish might sound fancy, but roughly translated, “puttanesca” actually means “lady of the night,” or “prostitute.” Popular lore holds that it’s so fast and easy to make that it could easily be prepared between — ahem — clients. But food historians say that this is unlikely and that the real reason behind the name is probably that the smell of this dish is so pungent and tempting that it is likened to the scent of a “lady of the night.” (Now you have a fun little dinner anecdote the next time you see it on the menu somewhere.)

Tortellini: Given their small, delicate round shape, it perhaps isn’t surprising to learn that an alternative name for these little guys is “ombelico,” meaning “belly button.” One legend holds that an innkeeper provided lodging to Venus, the goddess of love. This voyeuristic innkeeper peeked at her through the keyhole to her room and was so struck by what he saw that he immediately rushed to the kitchen to create pasta in the shape of her perfect naval.  

Another urban legend from the 17th century says that tortellini’s suggestive shape came from a cook who used the naval of a Bolognese woman to mold the pasta in. Whatever the truth is, this pasta holds an extraordinary place in the heart of many Italian families, as it takes a full day in the kitchen elbow to elbow with each other to roll out, shape, stuff, and cook.

Traditionally, this dish was prepared and eaten in Bologna and other regions of Northern Italy only at Christmas and other major holidays. This was because in times of hardship, the ingredients used to make the stuffing — like pork, chicken, and prosciutto — were costly and hard to come by. Many old-world tortellini recipes also call for mortadella, which is a fatty-pork mousse stuffed into a casing (this is also where we get Americanized “bologna” from).