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Italy Travel Guide

Do You Know Your Pasta Shapes?

Life is full of pasta-bilities!

Surprise, surprise! Spaghetti is the most popular pasta in Italy–at least according to a July 2021 poll by the Unione Italiana Food ranking the country’s top ten pasta shapes. Spaghetti nabbing the number one spot will hardly come as a shock; it’s undoubtedly the pasta shape most strongly associated with Italian cuisine. It tops the poll just ahead of the also internationally-beloved penne rigate and fusilli, followed by rigatoni, farfalle, linguine, lumachine, bucatini, mezze maniche, and lasagne. But that’s merely a drop in the pasta pot; over three hundred pasta shapes are found throughout Italy’s 21 regions that many pasta lovers overseas have likely never heard of.

Italians separate pasta into categories: long and short; ridged and smooth; stuffed and ribbon; egg-and-flour and water-and-flour; dry and fresh. How much variety can you get out of two basic ingredients anyway? Read on for a tiny (yet delicious) taste.

Related: Yummy, Sexy, Cruel: The Strange Food War Over Tortellini

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WHERE: Lombardy

The cold weather up in the Alpine Lombardy region calls for some hearty fare, like pizzoccheri. At first glance, these thick, flat buckwheat noodles, native to the village of Teglio in the Valtelline Valley, look like shorter, gray fettuccine. But unlike their customizable cousin, pizzoccheri have a distinctive nutty flavor and are almost always layered with potatoes, butter, cabbage, and gooey fontina cheese.

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WHERE: Aosta Valley

Trust us–this pasta is much easier to eat than to pronounce. Though chnéffléne is associated with Italy’s rugged Aosta Valley straddling the French and Swiss borders, these tiny egg-and-flour gnocchi bear more than a passing resemblance to German spaetzle and are believed to have been brought to the area by German settlers. Like spaetzle, chnéffléne is made by grating a block of dough directly into boiling pasta water; the chewy little gems are then enjoyed with robust ingredients like cheese sauces and speck or, in their purest form, with butter and browned onions.

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WHERE: Friuli-Venezia-Giulia

Would ravioli by any other name smell as sweet? Cjarsons–a type of stuffed dumpling hailing from mountainous Friuli-Venezia-Giulia–aren’t exactly the ravioli you know and love, but they’re no less tasty. These plump moon-shaped beauties are made from soft wheat or potato dough and filled with ingredients that run from savory to sweet, like herbs, spinach, raisins, cinnamon, and dark chocolate. How do you even begin to dress a sweet dumpling? Toss them with melted butter and a local type of smoked ricotta called scuete fumade.

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WHERE: Liguria

Long, thin, and flat, Liguria’s signature ribbon pasta is often confused and used interchangeably with the hugely popular linguine, but upon a closer look, you’ll see that trenette are just slightly thicker and just slightly wider. They’re different, okay? Like linguine, trenette pair beautifully with seafood, cheeses, and vegetables but the classic sauce for this toothsome pasta is basil pesto with green beans and potatoes.

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WHERE: Emilia Romagna

Welcome to Emilia Romagna, a region known for wide ribbon pasta like tagliatelle, but more so for its pasta ripiena (stuffed pasta), like lasagne, and its pasta in brodo (in broth). Why not try both pasta ripiena and pasta in brodo at once? Anolini–stuffed, ring-shaped pasta swimming in brodo in terza (savory broth made from capon, beef, and hen)–have origins dating back to the 12th century, when their elaborate preparation made them fare for the noble classes. Good news–even humble folk like us can enjoy anolini today, particularly during the winter holidays. Different versions of anolini crop up in Piacenza and Parma, filled with breadcrumbs and cheese or beef stew.

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WHERE: Tuscany

Overseas, Tuscany is famous for its cheeses and heady wines, but Italians know to also ask their waiters for pici, the region’s signature pasta (like bucatini, but make it without the hole–it’s still just as challenging to wind around your fork). Pici originated in the Tuscan province of Siena and works well in recipes for both seafood and meat but is typically served with ragù di nana (duck ragout) or all’aglione (thick tomato and garlic sauce). Depending on the town, the dough may be made with just flour and water, resulting in a softer texture that still, somehow, comes out al dente.

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Spaghetti Alla Chitarra

WHERE: Abruzzo

Abruzzo’s quintessential pasta, “guitar spaghetti,” gets its name from its unusual preparation method: the pasta sheets are cut on guitar strings. Okay, not a real guitar–the actual tool looks something like a weaver’s loom with metal strings on top, just right for slicing the pasta sheets into long strands with a rugged square cross-section. Spaghetti alla chitarra pairs beautifully with fish or meat sauces like porky, tomato-ey amatriciana sauce, born in the village of Amatrice. Spaghetti alla chitarra is also often served with pallottine–Abruzzese-style mini meatballs.

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WHERE: Campania

If you’re tired of those dainty Northern pastas, head farther south and sink your teeth into some paccheri. This smooth and giant tubular pasta shape is often served with chunky Neapolitan ragu or delightful fish sauces like alici e pecorino (sardines and pecorino cheese). The name “paccheri” derives from an Ancient Greek term for a (friendly!) open-handed slap, and because of its large size, only a handful can fill a plate. Paccheri is also known as the “pasta of the poor.”

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WHERE: Puglia

You’ve almost certainly seen these flour-and-water ear-shaped pasta bites before, but did you know that their name comes from their shape? Orecchiette (little ears) hail from the southern region of Puglia, in particular the province of Bari, where their roots stretch back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Their cup-like shape makes them wonderful for collecting sauces, but their most popular incarnation pairs them with cime di rape (bitter turnip greens).

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WHERE: Calabria

Also known as maccaruni i casa…a.k.a. firrazzul…a.k.a. maccarruni a firrettu. Whatever you call it, this pasta shape comes straight from Calabria–Italy’s spiciest region. Calabrian fileja are medium-length, flour-and-water pasta discs rolled around a rod into a graceful leaf shape, leaving a lovely well in the middle to collect all manner of decadent Calabrian goat or pork-based sauces. Swoosh them around with a glob of porky, spicy nduja–another Calabrian culinary staple–for a sinfully tasty treat.

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WHERE: Sardinia

Fregola is a small, pearl-shaped pasta type from the island of Sardinia with a nearly 1,000-year-old history. Upon closer examination, it might look like couscous; that’s no mistake–Sardinia has deep Arabic roots, and its signature pasta dish is merely another reminder. Like couscous, fregola hungrily soaks up sauces and is incredibly versatile–it’s wonderful warm or cold, with meat or seafood. It’s especially good made with the “risottata” technique, stewed “risotto-style” with water or broth, and served with shellfish or calamari.

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WHERE: Sicily

Dig into this long corkscrew pasta native to Trapani on the west coast of Sicily; each tasty spiral is formed by twisting pasta around a buso or metal knitting needle. It’s exceptional with ragouts and seafood, but in its city of origin, you’ll find it served with tangy Trapani-style pesto made with tomatoes, anchovies, almonds, garlic, and basil. Do you twirl it? Do you stab it? However you eat it, busiate is the Sicilian pasta you can’t refuse.