A Short Guide to Italian Pasta

Being an Italian and living abroad, when I first went shopping for groceries in a supermarket outside my home country the first thing that I noticed was the huge difference in size between the Italian pasta shelf and the local one. There was no shelf dedicated exclusively to pasta – a thing that I had always taken – very naively, I must admit – for granted. So, when in Rome do as the Romans, and more than once I had to drop the idea (usually with no big regrets) of a spaghetti aglio e olio in favour of a more local dish of Jiaozi or Folienkartoffeln because I could just find fusilli.

Generally speaking there are four main categories of pasta. If we consider size, there is short pasta and long pasta; if we consider dough, there is egg pasta and normal pasta. That is why Italian supermarkets have entire pasta-only aisles, where you can walk metres before finding the exact variety you are looking for. For example, you have to dive in pennette, mezze penne and pennoni before finding the penne you want to use with your “arrabbiata” sauce. And remember that all shapes come in two types: smooth and rifled – which doubles your efforts.

Leaving aside for the moment the distinction between egg and normal pasta, we will now focus on the different size varieties. The fact basically is that in Italy size matters so much (no joke intended) that the general word “pasta” is not used so often. In fact, most of the times one would make specific reference to a particular type of pasta. For example, you usually hear “orecchiette alle cime di rapa” or “bucatini all´amatriciana”.

Honestly it is hard to say which rule regulates the matching of variety and sauce. The only tip I can give you – in case you want to go Italian for today´s dinner – is stick to tradition and do as our grandmothers would do. You may find some useful hints by giving a look at the recipes below:

Orecchiette alle cime di rapa
Pappardelle al ragù di cervo
Bucatini all´amatriciana

And last, a proof of the Italian people fussiness in matter of size (the video is in Italian, but it can be summed up to “ladies arguing about which spaghetti size is good for fish sauces and which one for meat sauce”).


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