Stop! Don't reach for that spaghetti ...

In my last post I spent a lot of time talking about pasta sauces, but what about the pasta itself?  Binder or medium?  Or something else?

We learned from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), that “meat sauce in Bologna is never served over spaghetti,” and that “[t]here is no more perfect union in all gastronomy than the marriage of Bolognese ragù with homemade Bolognese tagliatelle. … Ragù is delicious with tortellini, and irreproachable with such boxed, dry pasta as rigatoniconchiglie, or fusilli.”  However, for many reaching for the spaghetti is simply automatic, especially when skiing or snowboarding.  Fortunately, today you can find dried tagliatelle in many grocery stores; Costco carries it as well.  Thus, today it would be unseemly to serve Bolognese over spaghetti; Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt, perhaps even Martha Stewart, would simply not approve. 

There is a virtually infinite variety of pasta shapes, anellini (rings), bucatini, also known as perciatelli (thick, hollow strands), route di carro (cartwheels), calamarata (calamari shape), campanella (bells), cannelloni (long tubes), capellini (thinnest spaghetti), also known as angel hair, casarecce (narrow, twisted, rolled tube), cavatappi (corkscrews), cavatelli (small hot dog buns), conchiglie (shells), ditalini (thumbles), farfalle (bowties), fettuccine (Roman ribbons), fideo (short broken spaghettini), fusilli (corkscrews), garganelli (macaroni), gemelli(double helix), lasagna (wide), linguine (flat, long “little tongues”), maccheroncini (short, narrow tubes), malfalda (ribbons), manicotti (large ribbed tubes), maltagliati (irregular), orecchiette (little ears), orzo (large grains), pansotti (triangular), pappardelle (widest and flattest), pastina (the smallest pasta), penne (quills), pizzoccheri (buckwheat), radiatore (radiators), ravioli (pockets), rigatoni (broad, short tubes), spaghetti, sometimes known as vermicellispaghettini (thin spaghetti), strozzapreti (a rolled towel), tagliatelle (like fettuccine but from Emilia-Romagna), tonnarelli (square), tortellini (little hats or bellybuttons), trenne (hollow and ridged), tripolini (bow-shaped), ziti (narrow, short tubes), to name some of the more common ones.  Are you tired of pasta shapes already? 

No, Safeway does not have all of these kinds of pasta on its shelves, but it does have numbers of them from multiple brands.  

Why so many shapes?  Two questions, do they taste any different and do they cook differently?  The answer is the shapes are designed to capture and hold different sauces, thin or thick, light or heavy, tomato-based or cream-based.

While Italy is certainly the epicenter of the pasta universe, pasta did not originate there.  The oldest noodles ever found were unearthed in China in a bowl buried under 10 feet of dirt.  They were made from two types of grain grown in China for more than 7,000 years!

According to the International Pasta Organization (yes, there actually is such an organization) there are 600 official pasta shapes produced throughout the world - and about four times that many names for them!  (And you thought my list was exhausting!).  This is due to the fact that some types may have different names in different languages, or even in the same language: in Italy, for example, names vary according to the region or area.  In addition, pasta manufacturers and cooks may come up with new shapes or give new names to old shapes…the possibilities thus become endless! …

Pasta shapes are specifically designed to hold the sauce in the best way possible.  Many regions of Italy have created their own pasta shapes: for example, bigoli (thick, noodle-like spaghetti) are from Veneto; strozzapreti (meaning, ‘priest strangler’) are from Emilia-Romagna; trofie (perfect with pesto) are from Liguria, and orecchiette (or, ‘little ears’) are from Puglia.

There is today an entire artisan field devoted to designing new pasta shapes.  Walk through some markets and any specialty grocery and you will find a blazing array of novel pasta shapes.

The general rule is the bigger the pasta, the heartier and heavier a sauce can be.  Likewise, the smaller the pasta, the lighter the sauce should be.  Tubular pastas or any shape with a lot of crevices grab onto bits of meat or tomato or anything else with texture.  Smooth pastas preferred smooth sauces such as cream based, pureed or simply olive oil.

In her cookbook Hazan has a five-page chart matching pasta with suggested sauces (pp. 236-240).

“Chef Evan Funke of Los Angeles’ Felix Trattoria is an evangelist — not the stand-on-a-soapbox, preachy kind, but more a soft-spoken (albeit profanity laced) proselytizer who lets his cooking do all the talking.  And what it’s talking about is pasta, which Funke lives, breathes, and makes like the art form it is.  “I've never been one to dabble,” the Bologna-trained master says.  “I'm either one hundred percent in or one hundred percent out.  And pasta making is like that to me.” …

The path that I'm on today — which is seeking out pasta makers in Italy who are still practicing handmade pasta, and also seeking out rare, obscure and close to extinction pasta shapes and sitting with those people who are still practicing.  I’m doing this so that I can become a tuning fork for the tradition, a custodian for the continuance of the history, because, as you know, there are fewer and fewer people interested in making pasta by hand.

So, I'm kind of offering myself up as this godson of pasta to these Nonna to allow me to continue the passage of technical and practical knowledge, and also the historical value and the anthropology behind the shapes.  It’s not just the shapes, it's not just the know-how — it’s the history, the people, and the origin story that is the most important thing to me.  So, that's my passion.  That's my life's work.”

Paul Feinstein, “Los Angeles: Q&A with Felix’s Chef Evan Funke, the ‘Godson of Pasta.’” (La Cucina Italiana, October 18, 2019)

Funke is “nearly as enthusiastic about cooking dried pasta (as long as it’s very good dried pasta – made in Italy, of course) as he is the fresh stuff.”  One of three dried pasta brands Funke can dig is Garofolo, made in Gragnano, Italy, since 1789; it is available at your local Costco.

Funke’s Commandments for Cooking Pasta

1.  Don’t oversalt the water.  “When cooking pasta, the water should taste like aggressively seasoned soup, not like sea water.”

2.  Sauce is the condiment, not the star.  “Be at the service of your pasta and don’t over sauce it.  It’s about the pasta, not the sauce.  Wolfgang Puck once told me properly sauced pasta should sound like wet sex.”

3.  Don’t buy shitty ingredients. 

There you have it, a culinary tour through the pasta aisle at your ski area grocery and probably more than you ever wanted to know about pasta.  Please feel free to still grab that spaghetti for your Bolognese (a green run), but you do have many more options (lots of blue, black and double black runs), such as tagliatelle or rigatoni, conchiglie, or fusilli.   With the multitude of sauces and the innumerable pasta shapes, be adventuresome (go for the black diamond).  Your taste buds and your companions will thank you.