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Our Ultimate Guide To Pasta

By Jo Green

Pasta is the ultimate comfort food. Along with pizza, gelato, and tiramisu, it is undoubtedly one of the greatest culinary inventions to come out of Italy, where it is generally eaten at least once a day; for many Italians a meal would feel incomplete without it.

Some believe that Marco Polo brought it back from the Far East, and some even say it’s of Greek or Arabic origin – but whether or not it was truly invented there, pasta’s home is indisputably Italy where there are over 600 different pasta shapes on the market and new inventions every day.

Pasta can be egg-based or made with water, and sauces vary greatly region to region. In southern Italy, flavours are stronger, with lots of garlic and chilli; by the sea, sauces are fish-based; and in northern Italy sauces tend to be more delicate and creamy. The north is also famous for filled pastas, like ravioli and tortellini, and bakes such as lasagne and cannelloni.

Italians feel strongly about certain pasta shapes being paired with certain sauces. Generally long pasta such as spaghetti or linguine tend to go with quick-cook, light sauces such as a simple tomato or fish sauce, and short shapes such as penne or farfelle marry well with heavier, more robust sauces.

Here is our guide to the different pasta shapes:

Penne are tubular, and cut on an angle to resemble the nib of an old feather quill. Ridges help thicker tomato or vegetable sauces cling to the pasta, ensuring the right ratio with every piece – whether it’s a classic carbonara or an indulgent affair made with tomatoes and pancetta.

Spaghetti is usually served with loose, sweet tomato sauces or with no sauce at all, in the case of the famous Roman spaghetti cacio e peppe (literally cheese and pepper) or simple spaghetti served with olive oil, garlic and chillies (olio, aglio, peperoncino.

Linguine is very like spaghetti, but its flattened shape makes it lie a little more luxuriously on the plate. The extra surface area also helps it hang onto light sauces made with cream or seafood.

Conchiglie are shaped like shells and their cup-like forms help to hold heavier, predominantly vegetable-based sauces made with raw tomato or broccoli and anchovy down in the deep south of Italy. The sauce packs in the cups nicely, which also makes these shapes perfect for a pasta bake.

Fusilli are curly like corkscrews and are great for coarse sauces (especially those with chunks of meat) that can get trapped in the screw threads. Fusilli are also great for a cheese pasta bake.

Farfalle are shaped like butterflies with crinkly edges. The ‘wings’ hold sauces wonderfully, and they’re also perfect for cold pasta salads. Best of all, kids love them.

Macaroni are tiny tubes. They don’t need to hold sauces because they’re often found swimming in minestrone or in a cheese sauce ready to be baked. Macaroni is small, modest and unfancy, but has become one of the world’s favourite pastas thanks to the simple mac’n’cheese.

Lasagne, whether traditional or meat-free, must be one of the world’s favourite dishes. The traditional way to make it is not with dried pasta sheets, but with delicate sheets of fresh egg pasta.

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