For travelers that spend any time in Italy, two things are practically guaranteed: you will eat pasta, and it will not be what you expect. There will not be a large platter of spaghetti and meatballs served for your dinner. In fact, pasta will most likely not be your entrée at all; it is usually served as the primo, or second course: after the antipasti but before the secondi of meat, fish, or poultry. It will be a smaller portion and served with much less sauce than you’ll expect, especially if you’re American. The kind of pasta you’ll encounter will vary widely depending on the region, and by shape, and by texture. To take some of the guesswork out of eating pasta in Italy, here is an introductory guide to some of the most popular pastas and where you might find them.
A ravioli-like pocket of pasta, agnolotti is usually shaped like a half-moon or a square, folded over roasted meat. The typical sauce is a melted butter and beef broth concoction, perhaps with sage, anything simple enough to let the pasta and its filling be the star of the dish. Agnolotti is most commonly found in the Piedmont region.
Bucatini resembles spaghetti, but is a little thicker, and has a hole running through the middle of the strand. Common in the Lazio region, especially Rome, bucatini is most often served alla amitriciana (a zesty tomato and pancetta sauce).
This wide, flat noodle hails from Emilia-Romagna, and is usually made fresh (not dried). Its hearty shape and thicker texture holds up well with heavier sauces, and so tagliatelle is most commonly served with Bolognese or other meat sauces.
This butterfly- or bowtie-shaped pasta originated in the Emilia-Romagna region in the sixteenth century. Small rectangular pieces of pasta are pinched in the middle to create the distinctive shape. The versatile bowtie shape holds creamy sauces especially well, but they are paired with a wide variety of thick and chunky sauces.
In Italian, orecchiette literally means “little ear”, so you can imagine what these small, rounded pieces of pasta resemble. This pasta originated in the Puglia region, but is now fairly common throughout Italy. Orecchiette is classically paired with rapini (also known as broccoli rabe) for a traditional Pugliese dish.
These thick tubes of rolled pasta are perfectly suited for stuffing with all sorts of delicious fillings, but ricotta cheese, spinach, and meats such as pork or veal are the most common. The relatively new pasta is more common in the north, such as the Emilia-Romagna region, and is frequently served at banquets and formal occasions.
The classic Italian pasta, these long, thin noodles date at least as far back as Naples in the fourteenth century. It pairs well with tomato-based sauces, but you won’t find it accompanied by meatballs in any decent Italian restaurant; that’s a purely American marriage of separate ingredients. In Italy, meatballs are served as a main course or in a soup, not with pasta.
The Tuscan pasta of choice, these flat egg-based noodles are wider than tagliatelle or fettucine. Its hefty size finds pappardelle perfectly suited for rich meat sauces, and its classic preparations include wild boar and rabbit.
Although it is a semolina-based pasta, orzo is named after the Italian word for barley; indeed, these tiny pieces of pasta look far more like barley or grains of rice than long noodles or sheets of lasagna. Orzo is most frequently used in soups, although it’s recently become more popular in salads, pilafs, and as a stand-alone pasta.
These are just a few of the hundreds of pasta visitors to Italy may encounter. Whether playing it safe with a classic dish of bucatini alla amatriciana or trying cannelloni transformed into haute cuisine, eating pasta is a must-do Italian experience. Be adventurous!
Header image credit: rachel_titiriga / Flickr