Part of the long pasta canon, linguine and fettuccine are viable alternatives to the better-known spaghetti and tagliatelle respectively. While both form the base for some classic Italian-American dishes, they occupy a narrower niche in authentic Italian cuisine.
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Tongues and Ribbons
Linguine, which roughly translates as little tongues in Italian, could easily be mistaken for spaghetti, but its initial round shape is flattened to give an oval cross section. Narrower than fettuccine, linguine is most closely associated with Genoa and the Ligurian region of northern Italy, an area famous for its pesto-producing pine forests. Local menus also champion trenette, a thin, flat pasta that occupies the middle ground between linguine and fettucine, and which, like linguine, goes pleasantly with a simple pesto sauce.
Otherwise, linguine works best with an olive-oil- or tomato-based sauce where the liquid can coat the strands equally. In Italy, the popularity of linguine alle vongole, a clam-based dish, extends nationwide, and it is a regular on menus around Rome and Naples. The Italian version uses a white wine and clam sauce. In the U.S., the clams can be mixed into a tomato sauce, which is practically unheard of in Italy. Note too that authentic Italian cuisine rebels against sprinkling cheese on a seafood dish, so the Parmesan has to remain on standby.
Essentially, linguine can do anything spaghetti can do, with its extra thickness notionally allowing it to carry a thicker sauce. Linguine carbonara, for example, coats the strands in a creamy cheese and egg sauce flecked with bacon or pancetta. In truth, linguine, spaghetti and fettuccine can be used interchangeably.
Fettuccine is the Italian word for little ribbons, and resembles a flat pasta slightly narrower than tagliatelle. Unlike linguine, which is made from flour and water, fettuccine incorporates eggs into the dough and is usually cooked from fresh. In Italy, fettuccine is a go-to pasta in Tuscan cuisine, for rich tomato sauces or ragu, where the sauce lubricates the strands without drowning them. Because it is slightly thicker than linguine, fettuccine can also withstand a thick cream sauce.
Arguably the most famous fettuccine dish, fettuccine Alfredo, is an American adaptation of an impromptu recipe based on a Roman fettuccine al burro. According to legend, the creamy, buttery cheese sauce was popularized in America after Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks returned from a visit to Italy singing its praises. However, just like spaghetti Bolognese, the dish is relatively unknown in Italy.
The rationale for choosing long pasta such as linguine or fettuccine over shaped or ridged pasta such as farfalle is that the strands glide through a sauce, picking up just enough of a coating to satisfy. The concept is even more pronounced in Italy, where servings of sauce on pasta are much more sparing. Often pasta is served in Italy with the sauce almost as an afterthought. For sauces with large chunks of vegetable or meat, the nooks and crevices of shaped pasta are perceived as more effective as an accompaniment.
As chef Lidia Bastianich observes, however, the rules relax slightly with fresh pasta as it absorbs sauce better than dried pasta, so fresh fettuccine is more than a match for a heavy cream sauce.
As well as holding off on the cheese for fish dishes, authentic Italian cuisine has no provision for serving chicken with pasta, since the pasta should be a course in itself, not a side dish to meat. Where Italian cuisine does go for a meat sauce, expect a slow-cooked ragu with intense flavors instead.