What would you do if there were 350 different ways to make a hamburger or 350 Oreo cookie flavors? Could you cope with 350 flavors of ice cream?

These mind-boggling options would make choosing a nightmare. Yet, by reliable counts, there are about 350 shapes of pasta. What are they all for?  How do you choose?  Why all this diversity?

Pasta is a weeknight dinner staple but can also be a high expression of the chef’s art.  Kids grow up on mac and cheese while grownups can delight in fresh porcini and truffle ravioli.  Simple or sophisticated, pasta is popular. 

But why so many?

Shapes include: long – spaghetti and its many variations; short – penne, elbows and the like; and small shapes for soup – orzo, wheels and others that can be slurped from a spoon. Flat sheets of pasta can be stuffed as ravioli, tortellini or cannelloni as well as layered in lasagna.  

Pasta shape and sauce consistency are inextricably linked. In general, light sauces are preferred for delicate shapes and robust sauces for sturdier styles.  There are, of course, exceptions to cloud the waters.

sous chef George Campoverde, Owner Gianni Rizzi and chef Chris Malagise

Owner of the Via Sforza trattoria in Westport, Gianni Rizzi hails from the hill town of Gravina in Puglia.  He gave me some insight into pasta traditions, suggesting that the diversity of pasta shapes add variety in a culture where pasta is eaten almost every day.  In his region, long thin shapes pair well with lighter sauces like fish, mussels and clams. Thick meaty ragus, on the other hand, fill the hollows of rigatoni, orecchiette and fusilli.  Cream sauces go best with thin, wide shapes like fettuccine and pappardelle.  

Typical matchups in his hometown would be orecchiette (little ears) with broccoli rabe or a slow-cooked meat and tomato ragu for a family Sunday dinner.   Long tagliolini are served with vegetables in broth.  Cavetelli (like small cowrie shells) are served in soup or a very loose sauce.  “Portions are smaller,” Rizzi shared, “usually about three ounces.”  Baked lasagna is for a special occasion.

Pasta is the simple combination of semolina flour (made from durum wheat) and water (and sometimes egg). Like all simple recipes, the quality of the ingredients and technique determine the results. 

Fresh pasta, with a more open texture than dried, readily absorbs sauces and flavors. Its slightly coarse texture can be described as rough as a cat’s tongue.  At Via Sforza, most of the pastas on the menu are fresh – made in house. 

If you don’t want to make pasta from scratch (and I don’t blame you) Rizzi suggests some imported brands: DeCecco, Riscossa and Divella. The pasta brand does make a difference. My granddaughter Moira once rejected a batch of her favorite mac and cheese because I had used a different elbow. Shapes with ridges on the surface help the sauce to cling. 

Buying pasta opens up a wider world of shape too. In Pasta the Italian Way – Sauces and Shapes, Oretta Zanini de Vita and Maureen Fant encourage trying, “whimsically named and imaginatively fashioned shapes.”  Over generations, the variety has sprung from the economic necessity and everyday inspiration of Italian housewives.  

Their book includes a comprehensive review of pasta recipes with recommendations of shapes that pair well with the sauces. The five page glossary of pasta shapes ranges from agnolotti (small stuffed pasta) to ziti (short tubular shape).

Pasta shapes have regional origins. Farfalle (bow ties or butterflies) hail from Lombardy in the north. Bucatini (thick spaghetti with a hole in the center is a Roman favorite.  Orecchiette (little ears) are hand-shaped cups from Puglia in the boot of Italy.

It’s not likely you’ll find all 350 shapes. But there’s a world of variety to be explored.  Try some campanelle (bell flowers), strozzapreti (priest chokers) or cavatappi (corkscrews) to add adventure and intrigue to familiar recipes.  

 Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.