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Agnolotti to Ziti: A Pasta Eater's Guide

Updated on March 20, 2011

A World Of Shapes: A universe Of Tastes!

Pasta is an ancient food, and although tradition holds that the 13th century explorer Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy, the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum show that Italians were enjoying pasta 1,200 years prior to that. There are so many shapes and sizes that it is easy to become totally confused, and the uninitiated will say "it all tastes the same so who cares?" Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only are there enormous differences in taste, quality and consistency from brand to brand (try the Italian DeCecco or the Canadian Primo to really taste outstanding pasta), but each shape has its own particular characteristics which are brought out by proper cooking (Al Dente only please, and dropped into rapidly rolling boiling water as salty as the Mediterranean!)

Some of the traditional names for pastas are completely bizarre. Some refer to the shapes but others are incomprehensible as the reasons for the names have been lost in the mists of time:

Strozzapreti: Stranglers Of The Priests

Maltagliati: Badly Cut

Creste Di Gallo: Rooster's Crest

Ditali: Thimble

Orecchiette: Little Ears

Occhi Di Pernice: Eyes of Turtledoves

Malloreddus: Badly Earned (in Sardinian)

Eliche: Propellers

Agnolotti: Baby Goats

Sedanini: Celery Sticks

Radiatori: Radiators

Fedelini: Little Loyal Ones

Mostaccioli: Small Moustaches

Vermicelli: Little Worms

Bavette: Baby's Bibs

Ziti has an interesting name as well. It means bridegrooms. In the modern usage that can't really be a compliment, but keep in mind that the original ziti were up to 18 inches long! Mamma mia!

Also, there is technically no such thing as Lasagna. The flat layered pasta is a Sagna, and the article is La. Therefore La Sagna (The Sagna) has come to be known as Lasagna! I'm certain that Garfield The Cat doesn't care as it tastes just as good by any name!

Here is a quick guide to some of the major types of pastas:

Alphabets - Little pasta in the shape of letters and numbers which are a perennial kids' favorite (just watch what they'll spell) and usually served in soups or a light tomato sauce.

Angel Hair, Capellini ("Fine Hairs") - These thin and fine strands of pasta are designed for light broth soups but can handle a very delicate sauce if necessary. Traditionalists will blanche at the thought of Capellini in anything but a clarified consomme, however.

Bow Ties, Farfalle ("Butterflies") - This is yet another shape that hardly any self-respecting Italian would ever drown in a sauce. They are primarily to be enjoyed in light broth soups, but are good in pasta salads as well, especially for kids.

Egg Noodles (From "Nudel," German for egg paste) - Egg noodles come in various sizes. The largest and thickest ones are great for Stroganoff or other heavy, cheesy sauces that will be baked. The thin ones are best for Salse Rosate (rose-colored sauces) which are usually tomato-based and then have cream added at the last minute. The medium ones are the most versatile as they can be used for almost anything, and that again is why Italians don't use many of them. There is a dish for every pasta and a pasta for every dish!

Fettuccine ("Small Ribbons") - Although I dare even the greatest pasta gourmand to tell the difference between these and tagliatelle (larger) or linguine (smaller) there are some pastas that just find their soulmates in particular ingredients and fettucine are high on the list. Fettucine cry out for Alfredo sauce where they will bathe in the cheese, butter, heavy cream and Parmigiano Reggiano. Your cardiologist won't appreciate it, but you will!

Macaroni ("Elbows") - The little elbows which have become synonymous with bland Kraft Dinners and Church Dinner Pasta Salads. Macaroni are not just for flavourless commercialization as they are superb in soups and minestronis. Although Macaroni is an anglicization of the Italian "Maccheroni" which is a rather generic term for almost all pastas, in English "Macaroni" has come to be known as these little elbows or "gomiti." An interesting fact is that during the late 18th century, a well-dressed, well-off Briton who would take on American mannerisms would be called a "Macaroni!" "Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni!"

Manicotti ("Small Sleeves") - It's difficult to know where Manicotti leave off and Cannelloni begin, but they are both used in a similar manner. Stuffed with a mixture of beef, cheese and/or vegetables, covered in a tomato or bechamel sauce and popped in the oven.

Orzo ("Barley") - This small, rice-shaped pasta is similar in appearance to couscous or bulgar but is composed of conventional pasta dough. Don't do anything to Orzo but serve it in soup, as if it is served with sauce or worse yet, baked, it can turn into glue.

Penne ("Quills") - Although many pastas can come with or without ribs, the conventional Penne and Penne Rigate are the best known. The ribs (rigate) hold medium to heavier sauces, while the smooth Penne are more suited to light sauces. Slightly increase the size of your Penne and you'll have Ziti! Increase the size of your Penne Rigate and you'll have Rigatoni!

Radiatore ("Radiators") - This is one of the newest shapes allegedly invented by an industrial designer in the '60s, but it has been traced back to pre-WWII years. Radiatori look like old radiator heating fixtures and work on the same principle, to maximize the surface area in a given space, in the pasta's case, to hold as much sauce as possible.

Rotini ("Spirals" or "Twists") - These twisted-up little spirals hold onto the heaviest sauces. Rotini are great in cold pasta salads or coated with Parmigiano Reggiano or Mozzarella to be baked under the broiler/salamander.

Shells ("Conchiglie") - Kids love shells, and they do have a place in cold pasta salads. However, if you're going to serve them hot, I recommend to steer away from the conventional presentation with tomato or cheese sauces. Shells are best when mixed with legumes in Pasta E Piselli (Pasta and Peas), or the famous Tuscan Pasta E Fagioli (Pasta and Beans) conventionally known in the dialectical as Pasta Fazool: "When you look at the moon, looks like Pasta Fazool, that's amore!" There are also Jumbo Shells which are the expert shapes for heavy sauces. They'll scoop up so much Bolognese sauce that you'll think you're eating a Sloppy Joe. Most Italians won't bake Conchiglie, but Anglicized Italian cuisine has made a staple out of stuffing these huge shells like Manicotti and slathering them with cheese in the oven.

Spaghetti ("A Length of Cord") - Spaghetti are everybody's favorite shape, and no matter what remote corner of the world you visit, you'll find spaghetti holding court to some sauce or another. I've even enjoyed spaghetti with tofu in Japan! Make spaghetti thinner and you have vermicelli. Even thinner and you have capellini.

Wagon Wheels, Ruote ("Wheels") - Wagon Wheels are great for kids, and to be totally disregarded for adults. They are a gimmick pasta and generally unsuited to anything but a sleepover dinner.

I won't even go into the enclosed pocket pastas like luscious Tortellini and scrumptious Ravioli, as that could be a subject for a whole other blog! Buon Appetito!

These wonderful illustrations are courtesy of Victoria at


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    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 7 years ago from Washington

      Really neat! I love all the different kinds of pasta.

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 10 years ago from Toronto

      I'm glad you enjoyed it, MaryD! Pasta Rules! Eat on! :)

    • MaryD profile image

      MaryD 10 years ago

      Fun info thanks. Love the charts too! We love pasta in our house!