Italians are known for their delicious cuisine and distinctive sense of humor—especially, their gift with quirky and vivid phrase. These two endearing qualities combine when it comes to the names and shapes of pasta—which have been delighting and confusing everyone else for centuries.
Few know that pasta comes in dozens of varieties of shapes with descriptive names and how they are meant to be paired with certain types of sauces. Below is a quick-and-glutinous guide to some of your favorites.
The name ravioli is thought to be derived from rapa, the Italian word for “turnip” so the names for these famous little stuffed pastas means “little turnips” (though no one really knows why).
Tortellini translates to “little pies,” which makes a lot of sense seeing how they’re stuffed, but they also go by the less-popular moniker “ombelichi”—a clear nod to their navel-like shape. These pasta are often filled with cheese and/or meat and vegetables so they’re great in soups or in a lighter sauce based on butter or oil to allow the flavors of the filling to shine.
The larger ribbon-like pasta like pappardelle (from the Italian verb pappare, which means “to gobble up”) are meant to hold meaty sauces like beloved bolognese or perhaps a short rib ragu.
Meanwhile, the smaller varieties such as linguine (“little tongues”) and fettuccine (“little ribbons”) do better in cream sauces like Alfredo or the classic treatment, con vongole, of clams, white wine, butter, garlic and parsley.
Spaghetti actually means “little twine.” Cappellini is known in English as “angel hair” and these are a couple of the shapes most-often employed by American home cooks. They are meant to be served in light sauces like classic fresh tomato or oil-based sauces like pesto so that each strand is evenly coated with the flavors of the sauce.
Short tubes of pasta are found in a wide variety of dishes, from casseroles like baked ziti (“bridegrooms”) to summer-perfect cold salads of penne (“pens”, probably due to their fountain pen tip-like ends) and beyond. Their general tube-like shape is perfect for entrapping gooey mozzarella, bits of meat or chopped vegetables. Plus, if they come rigate, meaning they are “ribbed” to capture even more sauce.
Here’s where it can get especially confusing, as there are subtle differences between many of these shapes; for example, fusilli—”riffles”—and rotini—”little twists”—appear nearly identical. Except upon closer inspection, you’ll see the former is made by twisting flat pasta while the latter are twists of three-dimensional, round pasta.
Twists are the most versatile shapes, as their different structures lend them a more toothsome quality that can stand up to substantial sauces like those with meat but are also perfect for herb- and oil-based lighter versions.