Pasta is a simple and wonderful foodstuff. It’s up there with pizza, gelato, and tiramisu as one of the great culinary inventions to come out of Italy.
Some believe that Marco Polo brought it back from the Far East, and some even say it’s of Greek or Arabic origin – and there’s probably some truth there – but whether or not it was truly invented there, pasta’s home is Italy. In fact, it’s so close to the heart of Jamie’s mentor, the legendary Gennaro Contaldo, that he believes pasta to have a place in everybody’s diet.
A basic pasta dough is one of the ultimate low-fuss-high-reward recipes, and the shape it takes after this makes all the difference to how it’s served. With a twist, roll and tuck, or judicious dimple or twiddle, a wholly different kind of dish will emerge. Who would have thought?
The Italians, that’s who – and here are a few of their masterpieces.
There’s a reason spaghetti is so widely loved: the satisfaction of chewing on a beautiful bundle of noodles, twirled carefully around your fork, is a thing of beauty. Spaghetti is usually served with loose, sweet tomato sauces; no sauce at all, in the case of the famous Roman spaghetti Cacio e Pepe (literally cheese and pepper); or the very light but punchy flavoured broth you get with a good spaghetti vongole.
Penne are tubular, and cut on an angle to resemble the nib of an old feather quill. Ridges help thicker tomato or vegetable sauces cling to the pasta, ensuring the right ratio with every piece – whether it’s a classic carbonara with a gorgeous veggie twist, or an indulgent affair made with butternut squash and pancetta.
Conchiglie and Orecchiette
These little guys are shaped like shells and ears, respectively, and their cup-like forms help to hold heavier, predominantly vegetable-based sauces made with raw tomato, or broccoli and anchovy down in the deep south of Italy. The sauce packs in the cups nicely, which also means that these shapes are perfect for a pasta bake.
Imagine a bigger, fatter spaghetti that’s hollow right through the centre, and you’ve got bucatini: a traditional favourite for thick, ragu-style sauces. The hole means that the gravy from a meaty sauce will make its way into the noodles – Italian genius!
Spirali and fusilli
These pastas are curly like corkscrews. If you really want to differentiate between them, fusilli is a little tighter, but there’s not much in it. They’re great for the same thing: coarse sauces (especially those with chunks of meat) that can get trapped in the screw threads. Gennaro’s recipe for four-cheese pasta bake with hunks of ham is also a great way to use spirali.
These are shaped like butterflies with crinkly edges. The “wings” hold sauces wonderfully, and they’re also perfect for cold pasta salads. Best of all, kids love them.
Macaroni are tiny tubes. They don’t need to hold sauces because they’re often found swimming in minestrone, or in a cheese sauce ready to be baked. Macaroni is small, modest and unfancy, but has become one of the world’s favourite pastas thanks to the simple mac ‘n’ cheese (a dish which can become a showstopper with a simple twist or two).
Like penne, rigatoni are tubes with ridges on the outside, but they’re bigger and cut square rather than at an angle. They’re great with chunky veg sauces, and are often used for baking in gratins down in the south.
Lasagne, whether traditional, meat-free, or made with beautiful crispy duck, must be one of the world’s favourite dishes. The traditional way to make is not with dried pasta sheets, as has become commonplace, but with delicate sheets of fresh egg pasta, which I urge everybody to try at least once. However, you can buy fresh pasta sheets everywhere these days, and their uses go further than just lasagne: they can be rolled into cannelloni, or cut into gorgeously silky pappardelle with a wiggly roller or pizza cutter.
Cannelloni is in the same pasta family to lasagne, and is usually paired with the same ingredients. The only difference is that with cannelloni, the sheets are rolled around the filling, rather than layered up with it. This looks very different upon serving, and makes for a real difference in texture. Cannelloni is nowadays available dried and already in tubular form, which means filling simply has to be stuffed in and baked.
Ravioli is a delight; a small sheet piece of pasta, folded over a dollop of stuffing and pinched together to form a delicate parcel. The stuffing could be meat, veg, fish or cheese – anything goes. Sauces vary from light herb butters to proper heavy ragus. Filling and sauce are designed to compliment each other, with just a tender sheet of egg pasta keeping them separate until the last minute, when you lift the little envelope to your mouth and blend it all together.
Pappardelle are wide ribbons of egg pasta, normally reserved for heavy, gamey ragus, and made things like wild mushrooms, wild rabbit or wild boar. Lovely chunky bits from the sauce get trapped between the flat noodles and it almost eats like a lasagne. Jamie’s Southend-stylee pappardelle uses sausage meat, aromatic herbs, and plenty of Parmesan for a rich and stunningly satisfying dish.
Tagliatelle is to fresh egg pasta what spaghetti is to dried. It’s the big favourite in Northern Italy, and although in the UK we eat Bolognese sauce with “spag”, Italians traditionally eat it with a lovely fresh tagliatelle, making for a slightly more elegant dish than we’re used to. It’s also often served with the cheesy, buttery sauces Italians that from the north love so much, and especially with fresh basil pesto in Liguria. Tagliatelle has a soft and unchallenging texture and, when served simply with fresh asparagus, tomato, and basil, is perfect kids.
Tagliarini is tagliatelle’s little sister. The fine and delicate egg noodles require minimal cooking time, but deliver a wonderful melt in the mouth silkiness when eaten. Usually this pasta brought out for very special occasions, and is paired with delicate fresh fish in the summer or delicious white truffles in winter. Gennaro, in his Pasta Book, pairs colourful peppers and beautiful parma ham with tagliarini for an explosively colourful dish.
You can see Gennaro show you how to make a few of these pasta shapes at home on Food Tube below.
What’s your favourite kind of pasta, and what do you pair it with?