“Life is a mixture of pasta and magic”, said Italy’s most revered film director Federico Fellini, known the world over for his film La Dolce Vita (meaning, the “sweet life”) Those who love Italy, also pine for the aesthetic pleasures of la dolce vita, including fast cars, fashion and pasta. But in America, there are only a few types of pasta we commonly eat.
The Italian word for pasta literally means paste. This water, flour and sometimes egg paste mixture, when rolled out, is responsible for hundreds of types of pasta shapes and dishes with over 800 years of documented history. But what comes to mind when you think of Italian pasta? Spaghetti, lasagna, fusilli, ravioli, fettuccine, for sure, but there are several hundred types of pasta that span this culinarily-obsessed country of 21 regions. One could spend their whole life trying to understand the magnitude of Italian pasta.
There is a pasta myth that needs to be addressed before even attempting to climb Italy’s pasta mountains. Many say that pasta came from China thanks to Marco Polo during the 13th century. However, this theory is unclear and unproven, as some texts show that pasta was already gaining popularity in Italy at this time, and there seems to be more evidence of the Arabs being responsible for pasta showing up. According to food historian Danielle Oteri, “The Marco Polo myth was invented in the 1930s as a marketing gimmick in Minneapolis. There are records of pasta in Sicily going back to 800, during which Sicily was controlled by North African Muslims, they developed drying and manufacturing processes for pasta. By the 1100s, pasta made in Sicily and Sardinia was being exported by the maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa. Marco Polo does describe eating pasta in China, but his use of the word “pasta” clearly indicates he was comparing the Chinese noodle he encountered with something familiar from home.”
Regardless of origin, Italians have perfected pasta’s aesthetic forms in hundreds of variations, providing the perfect vehicle for sauce in various shapes. Here is a list of 10 pastas we bet you’ve never heard of.
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A specialty of the Valtellina zone located in the Northern Italian region of Lombardy, pizzoccheri are a true peasant dish from the mountains. These are buckwheat-based flat cuts of noodles that are most commonly prepared with cheese, butter and potatoes. Try this casserole recipe.
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Strettine derives from the Italian word for “stretta”, meaning tight, narrow or shrunk, and “strettine” can be thought of as “narrow and shrunken” versions of tagliatelle. These are a fresh egg pasta diffused throughout Italy and are prepared in several ways, ranging from tomato-based sauces, meat ragus’, “alla romagnola” with prosciutto, truffles, etc. Try this Blue Apron recipe with cauliflower and shrimp.
Hailing from Elice, located in a lesser-sung region of Italy, Abruzzo, Mugnaia are flattened pieces of fresh pasta typically served in meat sauces. The dough is made with just a pinch of egg, rolled out into long, rounded strings, cut into medium length pieces then squashed lightly flat by hand. Abruzzo is geographically considered Central Italy, but historically Southern, as it was apart of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies.
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Also a specialty of Bologna, Gramigna seems like a cross between a macaroni and bucatini as there are hollow center to this pasta shape, found often colored green thanks to spinach. Gramigna is traditionally prepared in a sausage sauce, like this recipe.
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Technically not a conventional flour-based pasta, Passattelli are made by making a paste of breadcrumbs, eggs and parmesan and then passing through (as the root of the name signifies) a sort of potato ricer contraption to form thick round and short pieces. Passattelli are traditional to Bologna and served in broth like this recipe.
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If you plan on visiting the Southern Italian Amalfi Coast, you will encounter their native pasta Scialatielli on menus and throughout its region of Campania for that matter. A fresh pasta, whose name derives from the words for enjoyment (sciala) and skillet (tiella), are an irregular shaped short strip pieces of pasta with a thickness just higher than that of tagliatelle. Traditionally they are prepared with shellfish but you can find many variations of condiment, such as Neapolitan pork ragu. Try this healthier version with zucchini or go traditional with clams.
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An ancient, peasant pasta from the Central region of Umbria, strozzapreti are a flour & water pasta made by hand which resemble flat shoelace strands of pasta in a loosely curled and twisted form. This pasta’s name is rather strong, meaning “priest stranglers” with several legends to match, from priests withholding access to eggs to a nod to when Umbria was under Pontifical rule and incited public dissidence. Go strong with roasted tomato flavors in this recipe.
Resembling long slices of ribbon-like lasagna sheets, Manfredi are original to Campania and is a dried, water and flour pasta. They are commonly served in a ricotta, meat &/or tomato based sauce.
Think of culugiones as the ravioli of Sardinia, a most gorgeous and diverse island region off Italy’s west coast. These Sardinian pockets are filled with potato, casu de fitta (a Sardinian cheese) hand stitched closed and commonly served in a tomato-based sauce topped with sheep’s milk pecorino. Try this brown butter recipe.
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Similar to Israeli couscous, also refered to as “fregula”, are dried and toasted “crumbles” of pasta, made of strictly water and flour. This pasta is extremely ancient in Sardinia and were documented as a traded product well over 1000 years ago! Fregola is thought to have been a result of the cultural exchange with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians who settled prior to eventual Roman domination of the island. Fregole are typically prepared with seafood or serve as a base for minestrone-type soups. Make the most of the toasted flavors with this soup recipe.
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