One of my favourite pastimes is learning about different types of pasta shapes. I guess you could say it’s as much a pasta-time as a pastime.
Perhaps I’ve been primed to appreciate pasta shapes ever since eating alphabet soup as a child. Then I moved onto spirals, shells and elbow macaroni. I still remember seeing farfalle for the first time – bowtie pasta – and delighting in the fact that we could eat something that looked like an accessory for a small doll.
But while pasta shapes can be amusing, they also have a serious function: each shape holds the sauce differently.
“There’s a myriad of pasta shapes, and some people would be inclined to think that they’re interchangeable, but Italians are very specific about which one goes with what,” says Silvia Colloca, author, actress and the host of Cook Like An Italian on SBS.
“For example, if you’ve got a sauce that’s quite rich, you probably want a pasta shape that’s got ridges or some sort of little pattern on it, because you want all the richness of that sauce to get into all those nooks and crannies and cling to the shape.”
And of these myriad shapes, what is Colloca’s favourite? She’s inherited her Nonna’s passion for penne lisce – smooth penne. “There’s the texture of penne lisce with a simple tomato-based sauce. It’s one of my desert island dishes,” she says.
When it comes to fresh pasta, Melbourne restaurateur Guy Grossi prefers cute tortellini parcels, stuffed with a pumpkin mix or a duck and mushroom filling. “I think tortellini are a favourite because while they can be simple, they can also be really elegant and refined,” says the chef behind Grossi Florentino, Arlechin and other venues.
His favourite dry pasta is rigatoni. “They really hold a nice firm bite to them because they’re nice and thick, and I love it with a spiced veal ragu.”
He’s also a fan of angel hair pasta with a really simple sauce – “just olive oil, garlic, and a little bit of Fraser Island crab meat, fresh parsley and a little touch of chilli,” says Grossi, pausing to do a chef’s kiss. “Mamma mia.”
Another fan of angel hair pasta is Federica Andrisani, co-owner and chef of Hobart’s Fico, who has great respect for good dry pastas. “The dry pasta is the only one that can really be al dente; the fresh pasta, not really,” she says.
At Fico, there’s an angel hair dish where the pasta is cooked in an onion sauce that’s been reduced, and takes on the flavour of the onion.
To that, Andrisani adds a little bit of vinegar (to counter the sweetness of the onion), as well as some olive oil, pepper, and a bit of parmesan or pecorino.
You can also cook angel hair in tomato, or in a mushroom or a fish stock. The idea is to cook the pasta by adding small amounts of liquid slowly, so the pasta absorbs the flavours of the liquid.
“There’s the texture of penne lisce with a simple tomato-based sauce. It’s one of my desert island dishes.”
Andrisani recommends using a pan wide enough to lay down the angel hair pasta. Add a few ladles of stock, then turn on the heat and slowly boil the liquid with the pasta for a few minutes.
Add a bit of salt, but not too much. As Andrisani points out, unlike when you cook pasta in water and get rid of the water, here you’re going to keep all the liquid in the pasta.
This all sounds very delicious, but angel hair doesn’t really have the humour, of say, a farfalle. What about all those fun-shaped pastas – what are they good for?
According to Colloca, pasta salads in summer.
“There’s a pasta called radiatori and they look like radiators, they’re hilarious. And then there’s rotelle [shaped like wheels], and obviously farfalle,” she says. “We use pasta like this as a salad element with bocconcini and fresh tomatoes and tuna.”
Having learned about the importance of pairing the right pasta with the right sauce, I wondered about restaurants that give you the option to pick your pasta and your sauce. Grossi was quick to weigh in.
“No, I’m not a fan,” the chef says. “I’m a traditionalist, a dish is a dish. I don’t think gnocchi belongs with carbonara or Bolognese belongs with orecchiette. It’s just not right.”
You heard it here first: no more gnocchi carbonara.
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