We all know about the debates concerning the origins of pasta, many of them presenting clashing positions. Some support the thesis that it was imported from China by Marco Polo, while others say pasta was known in Italy much earlier than that, as it was already consumed by the Greeks and the Romans.
Nevermind its origins, one can say: Italian chefs and housewives have cooked it so much, invented so many variations and used such a plethora of ingredients with it, that pasta became the quintessential piatto forte (speciality) of the country. We are known to have, literally, created a type of pasta for every sauce on the face of earth.
If pasta is seen by many foreign people as a mere category of food, Italians consider it a ritual and a dish that must be cooked carefully and with great attention, according to the ingredients selected (see how to cook pasta the Italian way).
If for neophytes any pasta will do, this is certainly not the same for Italians, because each type of pasta, or better size category, requires a sauce which perfectly combines with it. It is not by chance that, for instance, carbonara is associated, even in the very name of the recipe, to spaghetti, or that amatriciana sauce goes always with bucatini. This happens because centuries of cooking have taught people what goes better with what.
The choice of the shape and size of pasta is not linked to a reason of aesthetics, but rather to the matter of finding the ingredients that mostly bind with that particular type of pasta and exalt its taste. Here are some details you could find useful, if you want to discover more about a proper Italian perspective on the topic.
Matching pasta and sauce: a type of pasta for every sauce
Paste lisce: smooth pasta. This type is usually associated to compact sauces created with cream, melted cheese or eggs such as carbonara. The heaviness of the sauce ingredients makes it easy for it to stick nicely to the pasta. Pasta like mezze penne, penne or sigarette are often cooked with those ingredients.
Paste rigate: furrowed pasta. The roughness of the surface makes the pasta hold the most slippery sauces. Ragú, amatriciana, and more 'granular' sauces are perfect with pasta like penne rigate, rigatoni or tortiglioni as minced or chopped ingredients can be caught by the pasta easily. The amatriciana sauce is usually linked to the bucatini, a slightly thicker type of spaghetti, with a hole in the middle.
Pasta lunga: long pasta such as spaghetti, bucatini or linguine are perfect with tomato sauce, small- sized fish or clams and shellfish and pesto (although pesto should go with fettuccine, which are flat and slightly larger. Avoid spaghetti with pesto, please! Linguine are, on the other hand, ok) or soft cheese sauce. However, if you are cooking long-sized egg pasta, ragú di carne and sauces with mushrooms or bechamel would fit perfectly.
Pasta piatta: flat pasta like lasagne is the right type for creamy sauces, cheese sauces or purée of vegetables with parmigiano or cheese.
Pasta piccola: small-sized pasta such as farfalline, ditaloni, conchigliette or pastina are combined with soups making them the ideal pasta to eat in winter or when it is usually cold.
Pasta with a concave shape, and twisted pasta function almost like a container. Think of gnocchetti sardi, orecchiette or fusilli, which are perfect for sauces with sliced ingredients, vegetables or pulses, because they trap them making it easier to get both pasta and sauce together.
The main rules are the following:
- the thickest is the pasta, and the larger its size, the more sophisticated the sauces or their ingredients should be
- stuffed pasta should not be cooked with highly elaborate sauces, in order to enjoy the filling
- pasta fresca is usually eaten on Sundays or for special meals, and is not for everyday use
This is the way we generally see it in Italy, but it is not a strict rule everyone should follow. You can perfectly eat the type of pasta you prefer with the sauce you like, as pasta is a very versatile ingredient, a factor that certainly accounts for much of its success. It is true, though, that for us in Italy, there is truly a type of pasta for every sauce, as it is more natural to mix some categories of pasta with specific ingredients as they are well-established in the cooking tradition. You should let your creativity run anyway and experiment with shapes, textures and sauces: who knows, you may end up creating a new masterpiece of Italian cuisine!
By Anna De Filippo