Pasta shapes: Playing with your food, Italian style

by Terry B on May 18, 2014

Getting playful with dinner can be as simple as trying some new pasta shapes.

Pasta alla Caprese

Growing up, I knew three kinds of pasta (and nobody I knew called it pasta): spaghetti, elbow macaroni and shells. The Italians, though, are quite inventive when it comes to their defining national food. Besides their numerous long pastas—spaghetti, capellini, fettuccine and linguine, to name a few—they have created a vast assortment of shaped pastas, both playful and practical. Here are a handful to explore.

campanelle pasta, little bells

Campanelle. In Italian, it means little bells. As with many shaped pastas, campanelle does a stellar job of capturing bits of sauce—capers, slivers of onion, bits of tomato—so you get flavor in every bite. With its frilled, petal-like edges, it adds an elegant look to dishes like the Pasta alla Caprese shown above. Campanelle is available in many supermarkets.

Il Pastaio di Gragnano

Vesuvio. Finding these graceful, oddly named swirls (yes, they’re named for the volcano) was the inspiration for this post. We came across the bronze-extruded, air-dried pasta at Eataly.

Trader Joe's fusilli pasta

Fusilli. The name means twisted spaghetti. I think of it as a more relaxed, less chewy version of rotini. You can find it at Trader Joe’s, among other places.

Garofalo radiatore pasta

Radiatore. Some pasta shapes are ancient. This one was created in the 1960s by an industrial designer and resembles a radiator. It works well with thick sauces and is widely available.

Pisani & Pasta trofie pasta

Trofie. These elegant, handmade, tapered little twists of pasta come from Liguria, the northwest coast of Italy. They are traditionally served with pesto there. Trofie is not that easy to find—we got ours at Eataly.

ziti pasta

Ziti. This tubular pasta has thinner walls than its ridged relative, penne. For me, that makes it less chewy and less likely to take over the mouth feel of a dish. It’s a key ingredient in one of our go-to weeknight dinners, Ziti with Fennel and Sausage. You can find it in some supermarkets.

calamaro pasta, ditalini pasta

Calamaro and Ditalini. Besides playing with shape, Italian pasta makers explore scale to great advantage. The calamaro, on the left, is named for squid. And its large rings, an inch or so in diameter, resemble uncooked rings of squid. Marion uses this oversized pasta for a delicious rustic ragú with ground beef, chunks of pork, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, mushrooms and paprika.

Diminutive ditalini works nicely in dishes where it is paired with beans. The scale is perfect, as you can see in this Broccoli Rabe with Pasta. Ditalini is available in many supermarkets. We found the calamaro at Eataly.

Play with your food. Spend a little more time in the pasta aisle—or look through some food magazines or explore online. You’re sure to find an invitation to play.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Dani H May 18, 2014 at 4:56 am

I’m ashamed to admit I was only familiar with ziti out of all of these. I have to be in the mood for pasta which doesn’t happen that often. Kind of like ice cream ~ maybe two or three times a year.

Thanks for the information, Terry!

altadenahiker May 18, 2014 at 11:29 am

“And nobody I knew called it pasta.” So true. Everything was under the spaghetti umbrella. (My favorite is Orecchiette, just because it means “little ears.”)

Dr. M May 19, 2014 at 6:23 am

We use campanelle a lot because it grabs flavor so well. It works great in carbonara. My husband’s favorite is pappardelle. My new fave is Vesuvio! What beautiful lines it has, does it hold that shape when cooked?

We love using different shaped pasta for different dishes to experiment. Have you ever heard of capricci? Talk about holding flavor! It is some serious pasta, check it out.

Terry B May 19, 2014 at 11:46 am

Dani, we’ve eaten pasta at least once a week for years. And before that, it was rice. We would go through 25-pound bags in no time.

Yes, Altadenahiker, orecchiette is another fun one—and its cuplike shape loves scooping up sauce.

Dr. M, we got the Vesuvio so recently that we haven’t cooked with it yet. But in photos I’ve seen of cooked dishes, it holds up nicely. And I’ve never cooked with capricci, but I can see how all its little twists and cavities would be a magnet for sauces.

[email protected] Riffs May 20, 2014 at 11:31 am

Vesuvio, Radiatore, and Calamaro are new to me. The others I’ve either cooked with or had in restaurants. I use Ditalini all the time in soups. And ziti (or penne) is a staple in our house. The rest I should use more often (and definitely need to use calamaro — what a cool shape!).

Katie Zeller May 22, 2014 at 1:20 pm

I love pasta and would happily eat it twice a week. We get quite a good variety of shapes here. The hubs only ‘likes’ spaghetti’ though – or linguine, fettuccine… any long pasta

Terry B May 22, 2014 at 1:33 pm

John, ditalini is wonderful in soups—I forgot to mention that. Nice little bits of noodle goodness without the slurp factor of longer nooles.

Katie, try introducing the hubs to radiatore. We had some the other night with a simple red sauce and it was wonderful, all the little crevices filling up with sauce. The mouth feel was great too.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: