Not All Pastas Are Created Equal
Anybody who has ever wandered down the pasta aisle at the grocery store has probably come away bewildered by the variety of shapes on display. And what you'll find in the average supermarket is but a tiny fraction of all the wonderful examples of the pasta makers art. A conservative estimate finds between 350 and 400 different pasta shapes on the market, the majority of which, of course, can be found in Italy. So, why are there so many shapes? Did somebody get bored in the kitchen or what? While imagination does play a role in the creation of pasta shapes – tortellini are said to resemble the navel of Venus and orecchiette are supposed to look like little ears – there is actually a real reason behind the various configurations. It has to do with the one of the primary purposes of pasta: serving as a vehicle for sauce.
Don't get me wrong. As any good Italian will tell you, pasta is meant to be the star of the dish and the sauce is merely a condiment. That said, some pastas work better with some condiments than others. The way the sauce clings or adheres to the pasta can make or break a dish. That's one reason you NEVER (was I emphatic enough there?) put oil on your drained pasta or in the cooking water. Unless, of course, you really want your sauce to slide right off the noodle. The way a pasta is shaped contributes to its surface area, which, in turn, determines how it will interact with the sauce. Some pastas are smooth and some have texture or ridges (called rigati). Some are long thin strands, some are long flat ribbons, some are short hollow tubes, while others have fanciful configurations like shells, bow ties, corkscrews and, yes, even little ears.
There are nearly as many sauces and preparations as there are pastas. The hands down winner of the pasta sauce popularity contest is the traditional southern Italian tomato-based sauce. The essential salsa di pomodoro is the basic platform from which many other sauces are made. Although delicious when served “plain,” adding spices, herbs, vegetables or meats like ground beef, pork sausage, pancetta, or guanciale creates a range of possibilities from marinara, arribiatta, amatriciana, puttanesca and many more. A hearty, meaty bolognese begins with tomato sauce. Often, tomato sauce is combined with meatballs for what Americans believe to be a quintessentially Italian dish, except that it only exists on Italian-American tables.
Then there are the oil-based sauces. Usually consisting of nothing more than olive oil or butter and a variety of herbs and spices, these light sauces are as simple as they are delicious. Pasta aglio e olio, or pasta with garlic and oil, comes to mind.
While tomatoes and olive oil reign in the southern parts of Italy, creamy and/or cheesy sauces are more representative of northern regions. Although rice, gnocchi, and polenta are common in the north, there are still plenty of rich, creamy pasta dishes to be found.
Whether prepared with tomato-based sauces or rich creamy sauces, baked pasta, or pasta al forno, is the ultimate comfort food. Macaroni and cheese and baked ziti are just two of dozens of examples.
Finally, pasta is used to bulk up soups and it is a staple in many salads, as well.
The general rules of thumb for pairing pasta with sauce advise that thinner, lighter sauces are best paired with long pastas like spaghetti, linguine, bucatini, fettuccine, tagliatelle, pappardelle, and capellini. Capellini, or “angel hair,” is very delicate and works best with the lightest sauces, while thicker pasta shapes, like bucatini and fettuccine, work well with heavier sauces.
Chunky, meaty sauces and thick, creamy or cheesy sauces pair best with short, tubular pasta shapes. Penne, ziti, cavatelli, conchiglie, gemelli, fusilli, radiatore, farfalle, rigatoni, and, of course, chifferi are but a few of dozens of choices. You'll recognize chifferi by its common name, “elbow” macaroni.
Pastas that are ideal for soups include ditalini, orzo, pastina, stelline, anelli, and acini di pepe. These are all tiny pasta shapes, but larger shapes, like farfalle, can also work well in soups.
People throw almost anything into pasta salads, but the shapes that work best include rotini, fusilli, farfalle, oricchiette, rotelle, penne, and good old “elbows.”
There are no hard and fast rules here. The pasta police will not batter down your kitchen door if you are caught using shells instead of elbows in your macaroni and cheese. With four hundred varieties from which to choose, there's a lot of room for experimentation. These are merely guidelines based on generations of experience. Your mileage may vary. So, impazzire! (Go crazy!)
And buon appetito!