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In Italy, "Pasta" Can Mean Hundreds of Different Things

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It's amazing what can be done with some flour, some water (and sometimes egg, too), and your own hands—just look to fresh, homemade pasta, one of Italy's oldest culinary traditions, for proof.

Orecchiette. Photo by Emiko Davies

The sheer variety of pasta is mind-boggling. According to Italian newspaper La Stampa, over 300 types of Italian pasta exist (most of which are dried pastas). But long before industrialization made pasta asciutta (dried pasta) an essential, everyday pantry staple, hard-working and well-versed hands had been pushing, pulling, rolling, and shaping dough for centuries to create the favorite pasta shapes you still see across regional Italian tables today.

Gillian Riley, in the Oxford Guide to Italian Food, writes, “Both the shapes and their names are evidence of Italian gastronomic inventiveness and fantasy, transforming basic materials into things of beauty, delicious and worthy of respect.” That same pasta dough—flour, water, maybe an egg—not only looks and feels different as it passes through different regions, but it transforms also into different vehicles for different sauces.

Making ravioli.
Making ravioli. Photo by Emiko Davies

As you work your way from northern Italy to southern Italy, you'll see that the tradition of fresh pasta changes in an interesting way. In the north, the pasta dough is enriched and made elastic with the addition of eggs, and is most often filled—take ravioli (like these beet and poppyseed moon-shaped ravioli from Veneto's north), Emilia-Romagna's tortellini and cappellacci, and Piedmont's agnolotti, for example.

Ligurian corzetti, from the northwest of the country, are beautiful rounds of pasta dough embossed with designs and patterns. Making them is more like working on a craft project than cooking. The embossing is what helps hold sauces, like the thick, hand-pounded pastes, like pesto or walnut sauce, traditional to Liguria.

In the central part of Italy, the pasta loses its filling and the egg and takes on a new form, known as pasta forata, or "holed"—think rigatoni and penne. In the south, meanwhile, the essential, preferred pasta dough ingredients are durum wheat and water; they make a strong, sturdy pasta dough that can be shaped into orecchiette or cavatelli in Puglia, or twirled around knitting needles like Sicilian busiate. These robust pasta shapes are fairly thick and leave you feeling satiated and happily full with relatively little else.

Embossed corzetti pasta.
Embossed corzetti pasta. Photo by Emiko Davies

Miniature pasta shapes are good for soups, while thicker and sturdier pastas are good for holding robust sauces. Spirals of fusilli are good at holding all kinds of sauces, and thinner more delicate pasta like angel hair or linguine are best with something very simple—butter, cheese, and herbs, for example, or some vongole and their juices.

Siena's pici, which are thick, rustic, hand-rolled noodles made of a dough of flour and water, are the sturdy type, born in the Tuscan countryside. Hand-rolled and stretched into noodles significantly thicker than spaghetti, the resulting pasta dish has a wonderfully chewy bite. They could not be more simple or basic (rolling noodles is something even my toddler can do), but this does not downplay how absolutely satisfying a plate of pici tossed with a robust sauce of duck ragu or with breadcrumbs, garlic, and anchovies (which cling to each strand) is.

In Abruzzo, the favorite noodle is a square-cut, homemade spaghetti alla chitarra ("guitar spaghetti"), named for the guitar-like stringed tool that the noodles are cut on. These too are thick and with a bite, ideal for rich and hearty sauces like the local chunky lamb ragu.

Pici with breadcrumbs.
Pici with breadcrumbs. Photo by Emiko Davies

In the very south, Puglia has its orecchiette, or "little ears": plump pieces of dough artfully maneuvered into little concave discs, thinner in the middle, thicker on the edges, rough on the inside—pockets for holding chunkier accompaniments, such as wilted, garlicky greens, or fresh ricotta and chunks of tomato and zucchini. (Have you ever seen orecchiette being made on the streets of Bari? It's mesmerizing).

Have you ever made pasta by hand? What are your favorite fresh, regional pastas? And what do you serve them with? Tell us in the comments below.

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Pasta, Food History