Cut and Dried
To be Italian is to measure a lifetime in bowls of pasta. Italian babies fill their cheeks with buttered pastina; toddlers slide rigatoni onto forks and nibble them in tiny bites. Italians learn to twirl spaghetti as children but take years to master doing so neatly; by adolescence, they know the wisdom of raising a napkin to the chest during a spaghetti course, regardless of their expertise.
We owe the hundreds of shapes of pasta to this phenomenon -- that in much of Italy, pasta is eaten daily. Every shape feels different in the mouth, and interacts with sauces differently. It is a food that's hard to tire of, and indeed, one that many Italians couldn't imagine going too long without.
Fresh, Dried, and a Variety of Shapes
There is a common misconception in America that fresh, homemade pasta is better or of higher quality than dried. In Italy, a respect for both runs deep, with fresh pasta serving one purpose and dried another. Dried pasta, made from durum wheat, or semolina, is the more versatile of the two, pairing well with almost anything; it carries the refined richness of many butter-based sauces as well as the assertive flavors of olive-oil-based ones. (Fresh pasta, made from eggs and white flour, has a subtler taste that can be easily overwhelmed.) Some sauces demand a specific pasta shape -- an unctuous carbonara must be slurped on spaghetti, while a spicy, "angry" arrabbiata would seem somehow less irate if dressing anything other than pointy penne. Beyond the classics, the rule of thumb is that, in both texture and flavor, light sauces go with delicate shapes, and robust with sturdy ones, but the art of pairing a pasta with a sauce goes further: A cook has to rely on her inner paesana. Close your eyes and think about it, using your appetite as a muse. Don't the beans in a fagioli soup just beg to nestle in the beckoning curves of little shells or to burrow inside curling pipette? A meat ragu that has simmered for hours could barely ask for more than to coat ridged egg garganelli, which catch so much flavor in their cavities and grooves. Making Mom's tomato sauce? Why, you could hardly go wrong with any shape.
The Art of Perfectly Cooked Pasta
To understand what the fuss is really all about, you must think like an Italian. Pasta, while it's cooking, cannot be forgotten. It must remain on your proverbial front burner from the moment it hits the water to the moment it hits the sauce. Keeping the noodles moving is key, with frequent stirring and boiling water. Fill the pot with a lot of water -- at least four quarts per pound -- and bring to a rolling boil. Generously salt it, at least one tablespoon for every pound of pasta, but don't add oil; this would hinder the absorption of sauce later on. Add all the pasta at once, and give it a stir to prevent sticking; cover to return to a boil as quickly as possible (keep an eye on it so it doesn't boil over). Then remove the lid, and stir once more. Shortly thereafter, begin tasting it.
There are strange myths about how to know when pasta is done; some involve throwing it, or examining it under a bright light. Disregard all of them. Fish out a strand to taste a few minutes before the box says it will be done. Delicate pastas, such as angel hair (capelli d'angelo), can cook in less than a minute; thicker ones can take more than 10. Better yet, adopt the Italian-grandmother method: Dip a few samples in the sauce and give them to your favorite person to taste (you'll also get a second opinion on whether the sauce needs salt). There are many degrees of al dente, that perfect doneness at which pasta is cooked through yet still pleasantly chewy; a family's preferred level of al dente is imprinted on the Italian child's palate at a young age. But one technique isn't subjective: The pasta should be drained just before it's done, since it will continue to cook in the sauce. Unless making a baked pasta, do not rinse -- the starch on the noodles helps sauce adhere to them. Instead, toss pasta immediately with the warm sauce, until every piece is evenly coated. And then waste no time. Sit down and eat it while it's hot and the curls of steam that rise from it make you happy to be alive.
Most commercial dried pasta is made from durum wheat, a hard flour that gives pasta a golden color. A few contain eggs and white flour in place of durum wheat; these mimic the delicate texture and flavor of homemade noodles, and should be treated as such. For the widest array of shapes, shop in specialty Italian stores. Keep in mind that for specific shapes, names vary; the ones listed here are some of the most well known. In its earliest days, durum-wheat pasta was street food. Walking through eighteenth-century Naples, one would encounter stalls with jungles of strands draped over dowels to dry. A customer would order a bowl of pasta, then eat with his fingers, lifting strands over his head and lowering them into his mouth. This pasta was most often SPAGHETTI (11), which means "little strings." To make it, dough is extruded -- pushed through a pierced die. This is the most common method used for commercial pasta, but there are exceptions. Flat pastas, such as FETTUCCINE (2) and LINGUINE (3), are sometimes rolled out and cut into strips. MACCHERONI and SPAGHETTI ALLA CHITARRA (4) are made on the instrument called a "guitar," for which they are named. A guitar is a wooden plank with metal strings suspended above it; dough is rolled out on the strings, then cut strands fall onto the wood beneath. Some long shapes are hollow, made by dies with pins in the centers. Such is the case of PERCIATELLI (10), which translates roughly as "little holed things," and long ZITI (9). Many long shapes, such as TAGLIATELLE (7), thin PICI (6), and broad PAPPARDELLE (8), are available in "nidi": dried, portion-size nest shapes. Some pastas are "ricce," or curly, including MAFALDINE (14) (which was named for Mafalda, a Savoy princess) and LASAGNE (13). Other kinds are:
Tagliolini (1), Trenette (5), Pici (6), Ziti lunghi (9), and Capelli d'angelo (12).
Among the wealth of short shapes are CROXETTE (18), an Italian wedding pasta, which were traditionally imprinted with family crests. Commercial croxette bear cultural images, such as grapes and sheaves of wheat. Cut ZITI (26) and PENNE (22) come in "lisce" (smooth) and "rigate" (ridged) styles. Like spaghetti, tubular shapes are usually extruded; GARGANELLI (28) are an exception. For these, squares of egg pasta are rolled against a comb to form a ridged tube. Soup pasta is often referred to as pastina, "little pasta." The smallest shapes, SEMI D'ORZO (38) and STELLINE (39), are used in broth for babies; larger ones, including TUBETTI (37) and CONCHIGLIETTE (shells) (36), are best for hearty soups. For thick sauces, the chunky shapes of CAMPANELLE (gigli) (32), FARFALLE (31), and LANTERNE (33) are ideal. The literal translation of STROZZAPRETI (19) is "priest stranglers" -- a tongue-in-cheek remnant of a time when restaurant owners resented priests' eating for free. The "little ear" of ORECCHIETTE (35) is traditionally formed by pushing a thumb into each piece. Some other common shapes are: Gnocchetti (15), Trofie (16), Cavatelli (17), Croxette (18), Chiocciole (20), Pipette (21), Pennoni (23), Trenne (24), Rigatoni (25), Rombi (27), Conchiglioni (29), Radiatore (30), and Fusilli (34).