“Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to Italy from China. During the days of the Roman Empire, wheat was imported into Italy from Egypt and the northwestern African coast (then called the province of Africa), by the later days of the empire, Sicily had become the granary of the Mediterranean world. Wheat cultivation transformed the green and wooded island into the starker landscape and climate we know today. Most authorities now feel that pasta came into being in Sicily; it was a way of preserving the milled wheat by mixing it with water and drying it in the sun. Fresh egg pasta is documented in central and northern Italy from at least the Middle Ages. Factory-made pasta came into being in the early nineteenth century and dried pasta started it’s triumphant march northward during the following century. The journey is being completed in our day, as pasta becomes a staple elsewhere in the world, across the Alps and the oceans.” Giuliano Bugialli – recipient of Italy’s prestgious Caterina di Medici award for his outstanding contribution to Italian cuisine.
Pasta, the heart of the Italian diet is so much more than just spaghetti. From the Sicilian anellini, small rings used in soups, to ziti, thick tubes baked in casseroles, there is an ostensibly endless collection of dried pasta shapes and sizes to choose from, which can make the selection a little daunting. This post will help you to have a better understanding of the principals for choosing the type of pasta and matching it with a sauce that is complementary, enhancing the overall flavor of the dish. Once you know the pairing guidelines, you can easily deviate from recipes, choosing a suitable substitute when needed.
When I was growing up, we called all pasta “maccherone”, which is a Sicilian term, meaning to crush the grains to make pasta. If you were to go into your pantry this very moment, I’m guessing that you have between 3-5 different types of maccherone. Sitting on the shelf is probably a long pasta (spaghetti), a wide pasta (lasagna), a short tubular pasta (penne), a short non-tubular pasta (fusilli) and pasta for soups (ditallini).
Let’s start with the Long Pasta, also called strands, you know these as spaghetti, linguini, capellini, also referred to as angel hair (image), vermicelli etc. The strands, whether they are flat like linguini or round like capellini, thick or thin, will absorb the sauce fundamentally in the same way and can be used interchangeably.
Wide pasta, sometimes referred to as sheet, is flat from 1/2-inch to several inches wide, and is primarily used in baked dishes, such as cannelloni, manicotti and lasagna (image).
Short Tubular Pasta, such as penne, rigatoni (image) and cavallo ranging from 2-3 inches long, can be either smooth or ridged. Interestingly, some tubular pastas, as well as the strands, use to come in much longer lengths (ziti and spaghetti were longer, once upon a time), leaving it up to the cook to break into the size she wanted. For shelf marketing purposes, the box size has been standardized so much of the tubular and long pasta we see on the store shelves today are of the same size and length. The remaining differences are only the thickness of the pasta and whether it is rounded or flattened.
The other Short Pasta (non-tubular), are of the shaped variety, for example, farfalle (butterfly), fusilli (image), cocciolette (small shell-shaped) and can be used in the same fashion as the short tubular pasta.
Recognize this ring shape? It’s the pasta used in Chef Boyardee’s Spaghetti O’s. This last category holds the various Pastine (small pasta), used for soups. I almost always have on hand, ditalini, orzo, orecchiette, acini di pepe and anellini (image), especially during the cooler months of the year when I make more than a few pots of soup.
Sauce pairings are a matter of habit and customs and vary greatly from region to region, town to town, village to village. Some recipes have withstood the test of time and Italian culinary traditions, resulting in the perfect pairings of Linguini and Clams, Rigatoni with Italian sausage, Fettuccini Alfredo, Orecchiette and Broccoli Rabe, to name just a few.
As a rule, the thinner and more delicate the pasta, the lighter the sauce. Capellini, for example, pairs well with clams, bucatini, the thickest of the strands, is best with a hearty bolonese (meat sauce) or sardines. Sturdy shapes such as rigatoni, are well suited to robust and rustic sauces, those with beans, vegetables or meats. Then there are those sauces that are universal and are happy with just about any type of pasta, aglio e olio (garlic and oil) and simple butter and cheese sauces fall into that category and as no surprise the quintessential simple tomato sauce.
When uniting pasta with sauce, whatever the size and shape, you need them to do more than simply get along. You want the two to become friends, best friends, the kind of friends that bring out the absolute best in each other. You want the couple to form a blissful delectable marriage … of Pasta and Sauce.
You may also enjoy Cooking Pasta the Italian Way.