The Sense Of An Italian For Pasta

On the whole, there are basically just two genres of pasta: egg pasta and non-egg pasta. Non-egg pasta is mostly made with durum wheat, egg pasta with traditional wheat (the previous sentences have long tails, in statistical terms). Problem (or delight) is, each genre can be declined in an infinite variety of ways.

The composition and taste of each genre are fixed and identical, although we Italians can bicker indefinitely as to how many eggs per kilo to use (answer: any integer between 5 and 12). One would then expect shape to be but a decoration issue. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

We do not taste pasta with our taste buds alone. Tenacity is also important —hence the obsession with size and cooking al dente— as is texture, hence the many different shapes.

If we were to concentrate on ingredients or taste alone, for instance, pasta al ragù would be essentially the same whether the pasta was  stelline (literally, small stars), spaghetti, or tagliatelle. To an italian palate, though, the first combination would be kid gunk, the second a hoax and only the third will be The Real Thing.

Why is it? Tenacity and texture:

  • stelline is a minute egg pasta normally used in soups or as kid food; whichever sauce you put on it the gunky, spoon-feeding result is anything but attractive to us
  • spaghetti have a blander taste (no egg) and are less porous than egg pasta, so the sauce tends to slip away as you fork up
  • tagliatelle are tasty (a good pairing with rich sauces) and porous, so the sauce will literally stick to the pasta.

We use to say that each variety of pasta has “its own” sauce. This is not to be taken literally, but it is a reasonable approximation. To make things more difficult, each “perfect match” will have at least one exception, to the extent that even among Italians some matches are more a matter of opinion or habit than anything else (for instance, all Italy eats spaghetti carbonara, but in Rome you will just as likely be served rigatoni).

How is the poor non-native to find his way in this maze to a proper Italian pasta-sauce combination? Here are a few thumb rules; use them wisely and you’ll be able to fake an Italian ascendant nine times out of ten:

  • use a recipe book written by an Italy-grown Italian
  • use the variety of pasta the recipe indicates, or another of a similar shape
  • ragu (so-called bolognese sauce) only goes with egg pasta, either long or short of stuffed, or with potato gnocchi
  • there is no such thing as “spaghetti bolognese”, see above
  • for fish sauces prefer thinner long pastas, either egg or non-egg (“spaghettini”, “linguine”)
  • thicker long pastas are ideal for thick meat sauces
  • sauces with diced vegetables, peas or chick peas are a perfect match for large short pastas where the bits can sneak into: “lumaconi”, “maniche”, etc.; the same could be said for meat sauces, only we don’t do it
  • for simple sauces (“aglio e olio”, “pomodoro e basilico”, etc.) or when in doubt, use thick spaghetti
  • stuffed pastas are a world apart, do as the recipe says.

Buon appetito!

29 comments

  1. This is so interesting to me. I love pasta but as an American I’m not sure we have learned the subtleties of each shape and it’s sauce companion. Thank you.
    Karen

    • Hi Karen, some combinations (like tortiglioni carbonara above) are unusual for me too. Also, the added difficulty for foreigners is our relentless tendency to find exceptions. To rules, but also to other exceptions…
      So study the topic a little, but most of all enjoy: knowing rules and then deliberately finding exceptions while letting taste take the lead is the best option.
      Thanks!
      W

  2. well, my friend Elena just left…she’s living in LA…But i must say she did appreciate the sense of an italian for FOOD…also for our PASTA…I’ve spent with her the most joyful days…
    +i’ve noticed your blog long time ago…happy to have you around:)
    Buon pranzo, Luana, Cori/Roma

    • looks like I’ll have to update the post 🙂
      At 40 yolks per kilo, some wine is needed to keep cholestherol low… And in your territoty there’s ample choice!
      thanks,
      W

  3. Thanks for this really interesting post! I’m from Scotland where spaghetti bolognese is so common-place that it’s almost deemed a traditional British dish. I like to serve my bolognese (or should I say ragu?) with penne but I wonder if that’s deemed blasphemous by native Italians?

    • hi Lindy, thank you. Once in Edinburgh I saw a sign reading: “Original American Pizza”, and in a sense I would agree, what Americans call pizza has nothing to do with ours 🙂
      Coming to your question: we say “ragu”; and of it there are as many variations as there are households. The Ragu Bolognese is very famous, but Naples also has a very long tradition.

      Despite what all interested parties very vocally claim, I would say no one holds the title of “original ragu”.

      I, too, like ragu with short pasta when I’m out of tagliatelle. Penne or rigatoni are my favourites, no blasphemy here; it’s also a combination easily found when kids are at the table –they usually find rolling pasta on a fork a daunting task, and no one wants a frustrated kid at the table.

      You may also want to try a short pass in the hot oven after mixing with some bechamel sauce and topping with parmesan shavings.

      Oh, by the way, long live street food!
      Best,
      W

      • I’m glad to hear you agree that penne works pretty well with ragu. To be honest I like it that way because that’s the way my mum always served it when I was growing up for exactly the reasons you stated – spaghetti is just too much effort when you’re a kid, never mind the mess! And I’ll definitely be trying your suggesting of combining it with bechamel and parmesan – sounds delicious. Thanks for following my blog, I look forward to reading more about your adventures in Italy!

        Linda

  4. there’s no spaghetti bolognese?! I didn’t know this even after having visited Italy!!
    (not that I tried to order that there).

    I wish I’d come across your blog before my Italian sojourn.

    • hi Sanjana,
      technically speaking, there *is* spaghetti bolognese: you find them on tourist menus everywhere. And that’s the catch: it’s a dish invented for, named for and expressly targeted at tourists. No non-tourist restaurant would list it. That’s our whole point: they are not a genuine expression of Italy, like somebody bringing back a made-in-Vietnam Stetson as a New York souvenir.

      At any rate, now you have our blog your next trip to Italy will surely be more enjoyable (and stay tuned, because we’ll present our own little tours soon enough) 😉
      Thanks,
      W

      • oh, I had quite the authentic italian experience while there! 😀
        i didn’t eat any spaghetti bolognese, but we searched out good places to go to and ate at authentic, non-touristy places. I was quite pleased! 🙂

      • I’d also like to say that I recently went to an Italian restaurant in Dubai, and was a little surprised that spaghetti bolognese was NOT on the menu! NOW I know why! I guess you learn something new every day! 🙂

  5. Walter, excellent post. I’m going to be very wary the next time I go to the North End of Boston and see “spaghetti bolognese” on the menu!

  6. Pasta and coffee – two trivial things (no rotten tomatoes, please, coffee can be for some people just plain…coffee) – turned into a real art by Italians. Dozens of types, each with its specific way to be made and enjoyed! I used to be quite picky about the aroma of the coffee, or so I though, before a trip to Italy. After that I thought I’d better find a real coffee house with a real barista. Making my morning coffee is now a complete ritual! As about pasta…

    • hi Mika Do, yes we make a lot of fuss around anything food down here. Surely, compared to the variety we offer, the Starbuckes and pasta makers of the world pale… (Actually, I quite like percolated coffee; I just don’t think of it as coffee, rather a drink of sorts).
      Thank you,
      W

  7. Like your post too! I have learnt some combinations of pasta and sauce by living with my husband (who is Italian) and now some choices of pasta are obvious…but I’m not so strict and sometimes I tend to mix this what I have as I’m not Italian:) What I like to do and what I can recommend to others is to follow the italian culinary websites, like my all time favourite giallozafferano.

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