Unless you grew up in an Italian family or in an Italian neighborhood, you may not realize that there are probably more types of pasta than you even knew existed. The exact numbers aren't always easy to nail down, but it's safe to say there are hundreds of types of noodles with thousands of different local or regional names.
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There are lots of ways to distinguish between the different types of pasta. Some pasta is smooth, while some is ribbed, for example. Commercial dry pastas, made from just hard wheat and water, are extruded from massive machines. Fresh pastas can be made at home with eggs and regular flour. The most useful distinction of all, though, is in their shapes and sizes.
1) Long, Slender Noodles
One type of pasta that's immediately recognizable consists of long, slender strands. This includes the familiar spaghetti noodles and a number of similar shapes. There are actually two different types of spaghetti, dry spaghetti that's extruded through a die by a large press and the homemade spaghetti noodle that's cut by pressing it through a stringed device called a "guitar," which makes it spaghetti alla chitarra. This type of noodle works well with basic tomato sauces, with or without small add-ins like clams.
Various other noodles in the same family can be thicker or thinner. Examples include:
- Capelli d'angeli
2) Long, Hollow Noodles
Spaghetti-type noodles are versatile and relatively quick to cook, but they're not especially hearty because their relatively thin strands don't have a lot of "chew" to them. One obvious way to make these long, thin noodles chewier and more robust is to change their shape.
Spaghetti noodles are just strings of pasta — that's the literal meaning of spaghetti — so they don't have a lot of surface area. Making them into hollow, straw-like tubes instead increases the amount of pasta per noodle, making them heartier, and the change in shape means a lot more surface area to hold sauce. You can eat these with simple tomato sauces, like spaghetti, but they also work well with creamy or cheesy sauces.
Examples of these hollow noodles include:
- Ziti (there are short ziti as well)
3) Long, Flat Noodles
Another common, versatile family of long noodles is made up of flat shapes, from relatively narrow strands to broad ribbons. They're often made at home from fresh pasta, because these shapes are relatively easy to cut from a full sheet — sfoglia — of freshly rolled dough. You'll find commercially produced dry versions of most of these shapes as well, because even in Italian homes, there won't always be time to make fresh pasta for a weeknight meal. The homemade versions are often described as fresh — fresca — or "made with eggs" — all'uovo — to distinguish between those and the commercial variety.
These work with sauces that cling, such as pesto, or creamy, cheesy sauces, but the broader varieties are often paired with sophisticated ingredients like mushrooms, game and truffles. Examples include:
4) Spiral-Shaped or Twisted Noodles
If you search the internet for a chart of types of pasta with pictures, you'll notice that a really, really large number of them are spiral shaped or twisted in some way. There's a perfectly practical purpose for this: All of those twists and turns create pockets and ridges where the sauce can gather and where pieces of vegetables, herbs or meat can be trapped with them. If your sauce is full of chunky fresh tomatoes, for example, or crisp pieces of pancetta, some kind of spiral-shaped noodle would be ideal. These shapes help make sure you get all of those tasty ingredients in each bite.
Spiral noodles come in long — lunghi — and short — corti — versions, so you can pick and choose. Examples include:
- Fusilli lunghi bucati
- Fusilli napoletani
5) Types of Noodles for Stuffing and Baking
A lot of the larger types of noodles are stuffed or layered and then prepared in the oven, or al forno. Again, these are often made at home because they're easy to cut from a sheet of pasta. Lasagna is the easiest of all, because if you're working with fresh pasta, you can simply cut the sfoglia to fit your pan. Each layer of the pasta would then consist of just one large noodle. Tube-shaped pasta can be made by folding squares or rectangles of fresh dough or manufactured commercially in ready-made tube shapes. If you're making a stuffed pasta rather than a layered lasagna, keep your sauce simple, so it complements the filling rather than distracting from it.
- Conchiglioni (jumbo shells)
6) Filled Pastas
Filled pastas make up a large and especially well-loved family of noodle dishes. The fillings can be almost anything that's available at the time, from simple meats and cheeses to extravagant lobster, to seasonal favorites like squash or pumpkin in the fall. The shapes vary as well, from square to round to half-moon shaped and even belly button-ish rounds. You'll also see them in varying sizes, identified by their suffix:
Ravioli are normal-sized, while raviolone are huge, and raviolini are small. They're traditionally made at home by hand, though commercially they're turned out in quantity by machines. As with larger stuffed pastas, you should keep your sauce simple so the focus stays on the filling.
Examples of filled pastas include:
7) Short Tube Shapes
These are some of the best-known and most widely used of all the pastas, and there are a great many of them. Elbow macaroni is one of the most-loved, but it has plenty of cousins to keep it company in your pantry. Many of them come in a smooth version — lisce — to be used with sauces that cling, and a ribbed version — rigate — to hold chunkier, drippier sauces in much the same way as do spiral pastas. The best-known versions are machine-made, but most have a comparable handmade shape. Penne are a common machine-made shape, for example, while garganelli are small squares of pasta dough rolled diagonally into a similar shape.
Choose your sauce according to whether the pasta is smooth or textured. Examples of short tube shapes and tube-like handmade shapes include:
8) Bite-Sized Flat or Scalloped Shapes
Garganelli and other tube-like shapes show that flat pastas don't have to be long or wide to be useful. A whole family of these flat pastas, most of them traditionally made at home from egg dough, come in bite-sized shapes instead. Typically, they're pinched, folded or curled in some way to help them hold onto sauces, or they're cut with scalloped edges that give the sauce a place to linger.
These are fun for kids to make, so a batch of fresh pasta can be a great rainy-day craft. Choose your sauce by the shape: Relatively smooth and simple shapes need a sauce that clings by itself, while scooped and folded shapes can stand up to a chunkier sauce.
Examples of this style include:
- Farfalle (bow ties)
- Conchiglie (shells)
9) Special and Unusual Shapes
A number of small shapes are custom-created to hold a lot of sauce. There are two basic approaches to this style of pasta: One made with lots of open spaces, like honeycomb shaped pasta; and the other with extra-deep ridges or grooves. Both types work much the same way as spiral pasta. By creating lots of pockets to trap and hold the sauce and its chunky add-ins, they'll work with even the heartiest of toppings. As a bonus, the open-spaces type can be molded into any number of fanciful shapes, from letters and numbers to characters from your favorite movies or TV shows.
Examples of these especially funky pasta shapes include:
10) Spoon-Friendly Shapes for Soups
Not all types of noodles are intended to be served in a sauce. Some are served in brodo — in a broth — to add substance to a soup or to become a simple soup in their own right. One pasta that's commonly served this way is tortellini, but there's a whole family of very small pasta shapes designed especially for eating in broth. Some are solid and might resemble grains, while others can be tiny tubes or rings or more fanciful shapes.
A clear chicken broth is the most common choice for these, but you could also use vegetable, beef or seafood broth if you like. You wouldn't ordinarily pair these shapes with a sauce, but a thin and soupy tomato sauce would work just fine. In fact, a lot of kid-friendly canned pastas fit that description.
Examples of these noodles include:
- Acini di pepe