The Ministry

Each pasta shape tells a story. Scroll down and click on the different shapes to learn their heritage, geometry and use in gastronomy.

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There is a class of grain-shaped pastina (small pasta), comprising orzo ('barley'), semi di melone ('melon seeds'), riso ('rice') and risoni ('big rice'). They are virtually indistinguishable in form and function, all being small, and all being vaguely rice-shaped. Fatter in the middle than most pastina, they take longer to cook and are more substantial. For this reason they are more often served to adults than babies, and the longer cooking time makes the difference between true durum wheat and soft wheat all the more important; low quality, low-gluten brands will become unpleasantly mushy. The classic use of orzo et al. is in soups, but they are also excellent in salads or as pilafs, or for stuffing vegetables as one might with rice. They are popular not only in Italy, but across Europe - especially in Greece and, to a lesser extent, Germany. The pasta absorbs flavours very well owing to the longer cooking time, but its smooth surface and small size means it can't catch sauce. Because it is so dense, it can support heavier sauces and mop them up as rice might - it could be the best pasta to eat with meatballs.

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Aka 'alphabetti spaghetti', alfabeto is a pastina (tiny pasta for soups) made in the shape of the letters of the alphabet. Almost certainly invented to appeal to children, it might also appeal to parents as an educational tool and a source of nostalgic pleasure.

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Cuscussù is of course famous for its origins in North Africa, but it is also a staple food in Sicily today - one of many gastronomic, architectural and cultural vestiges in what was once an Arab land. That said, couscous recipes are still found across Italy - notably in Sardinia (in a dish of chicken cooked in saffron), and Tuscany (Livorno, with a soupy meatball accompaniment) - perhaps suggesting that its presence on the mainland dates back instead to times of Roman rule. Cuscussù is made unlike any other pasta, where the flour is worked into a strong dough before forming. To make couscous, water is sprinkled on to a bed of semolina (not the finer semola rimacinata, but a reasonably coarse one) with one hand and stirred and raked through with the other until tiny balls of moistened flour are formed. These are then normally dried before cooking over steam - careful work leading to a fluffy texture, and a particular lightness as almost no gluten is formed when the pasta is made (gluten is a product of gliadin and glutenin, which cross-link to form gluten when dough is kneaded). The tiny particles of pasta formed act to mop up a sauce when eaten, like a sponge with water (or rather a bed of sand), or as rice does.

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Koiaimi ca sciu fai fregula. (Marry me as I know how to make fregola.) Sardinian proverb Fregola is, in essence, Sardinian cuscussù, although actual cuscussù is also found in Sardinia. Made in essentially the same manner, but rubbed in a wide ceramic or wooden bowl (the name stems from the Latin fricare, 'to rub') to create larger, more regular spheres about 4-5mm across. These are lightly toasted to aid drying, so if you buy a packet you'll notice a few that have been toasted brown, and taste a certain nuttiness like the crust of a good loaf. Saffron, along with bottarga, is the flavour of Sardinia - as with malloreddus it sometimes makes its way into the dough of the pasta as well as the sauce. Due to the large size and fierce drying over fire, fregola is cooked by boiling (often in a stew, sauce or broth) unlike its sister, cuscussù, which is steamed.

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Widely available in their dried form, these 'little ears' of pasta are quite unappetising unless fresh. Orecchiette are made from semolina dough and are fairly thick, so that by the time their interior is cooked from dry, the outside will be over-done. Freshly made, however, their cooking time is reduced to about one-third, the inside already being moist, resulting in a delightful, springy pasta. Orecchiette are delicious with scarce, slightly oily sauces that just coat the pasta, with chunky bits of about the same size that can be eaten well together.

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The shape of maccheroncini was born in Naples. Neapolitans were once known across the land as mangiafoglie (leaf-eaters) for their love of greens. The 18th century saw a boom in pasta production centred in Naples, with its climate so suited to drying the dough. Street sellers made steaming hot plates of pasta with cheese, and served them to the local working classes and the young aristocracy of England on Grand Tour alike. These street vendors became a tourist attraction, and a symbol of Neapolitan exuberance. Neapolitans were rebranded mangiamaccheroni (pasta-eaters), and the name has stuck to this day - pasta is almost synonymous with the city, even if Naples accounts for less than a quarter of Italian production.

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Fusilli ('spindles') are an industrial semolina pasta, a triple helix, like an elongated propeller or fan blade. The design is not only great for holding sauces, but is delightful to behold and has an unmistakable mouth-feel.

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Intrinsically Neapolitan, ziti cannot be separated from marriages. The word in fact means 'the betrothed' or 'the bridegroom', and ziti are invariably served as the first course of a wedding lunch. One by one, the long tubes are broken into four pieces before cooking. Their stout tubular shape works well with robust, meaty sauces as well as simpler ones. Candele ('candles'), or ziti candelati are an outsize version - twice the width, three times the length and with thinner walls, they must also be broken - not only for tradition, but to fit in any pot. Ziti are eaten almost exclusively in the south, and could be considered symbolic of the great divide - northerners can be just as sneery about ziti as about the people who eat them.

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Fusilli Bucati Corti

There is some confusion around certain ancient pastas' names, because over time several pastas have come to share the same name, or pastas still referred to by one name have evolved into a number of distinct species. The inverse is true of some modern pastas, such as the present subject, where a new but popular name has been attributed to a number of forms. Fusilli bucati are a case in point: They may be shorter versions of the above (i.e. smooth, narrowed cavatappi or shortened helical bucatini), here referred to as fusilli bucati corti. - They may be like normal fusilli, but with the flat fins of the double-helix replaced by tubular ones. You might call these fusilli bucati gemellati (twinned hollow spindles), but as with the other suggested names above this is artificial - all you'd likely see on the packet is 'fusilli bucati'.

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A very locally specific pasta, from Valtellina in Lombardy, this is another form that has emigrated and become probably as well-known outside Italy as it is within, which isn't saying all that much. The name derives from pinzochero meaning 'bigot', but in this case simply implying rustic or provincial connotations (probably). Pizzoccheri are stubby noodles made predominantly with buckwheat flour. Buckwheat in Italian is called grano saraceno 'Saracen grain'; its origins may have been further east than Syria, as it is to this day common in Yunnan in its wild form. It is not a true grain, but a seed, and gluten-free, which presents a challenge to the pasta-maker who relies on the protein to bind his or her pasta.

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Penne Rigate

Penne are probably the best-known tubular pasta. They are hollow cylinders, the length about five times the breadth, and the ends cut at an angle like the quills from which they take their name. They can be smooth (lisce) or ridged (rigate), the ridged ones being slightly sturdier, and holding more sauce. As the quill or pen nib draws ink from an ink-well, so the slanted ends of the pasta draw up sauce. The angled cut makes a larger open surface area for sauce to fall into, and the shape encourages the sauce to work its way into the pasta as it is turned by the spoon.

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Penne Lisce

Penne are probably the best-known tubular pasta. They are hollow cylinders, the length about five times the breadth, and the ends cut at an angle like the quills from which they take their name. They can be smooth (lisce) or ridged (rigate), the ridged ones being slightly sturdier, and holding more sauce. As the quill or pen nib draws ink from an ink-well, so the slanted ends of the pasta draw up sauce. The angled cut makes a larger open surface area for sauce to fall into, and the shape encourages the sauce to work its way into the pasta as it is turned by the spoon.

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Tortiglioni are similar to rigatoni, but with more pronounced grooves that are slanted, wrapping around the tubular pasta in a multiple helix, like the red and white rotating signs you used to see outside the barber's shop. The word tortiglione is also linked to heraldry, referring to the headband worn on the testa di moro (Moor's head) on the Sardinian flag - it stems from the latin torquere, 'to turn'. As with most industrial pastas, tortiglioni are popular in the south, in this case particularly Campania and Lazio.

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Agnolotti Dal Plin

Agnolotti dal plin are pinched or pleated tiny agnolotti, plin being a pinch in Piedmontese dialect. They are almost always stuffed with a meat filling and may be served in brodo (in a broth) where the pleat improves the mouthfeel, or in a sauce, which the pleat helps to catch on the pasta.

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Rigatoni are ridged tubes of pasta, somewhat wider than penne, that may be straight or slightly curved by the extrusion process. They have parallel grooves running down the length of the pasta, hence their name, which stems from rigare (to rule or furrow). They are at their best with substantial, punchy, meaty sauces - famously con pajata, the intestines of unweaned calves, cooked with the mother's curdled milk still inside.

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These thin ridged tubes, closely resemble that oft-unidentified tube in the neck end of a chicken - the oesophagus, which translates as garganel in Emilia-Romagna, hence the name garganelli. Garganelli were traditionally boiled in a rich capon broth and served in brodo - today they are more often eaten asciutta, (literally, 'dry', meaning 'in sauce' as opposed to soup) especially in a creamy sauce of ham and peas.

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Meaning 'badly cut', these should be just that - fairly random shapes. Originally they would have been made from the left-over scraps of a tagliatelle cutting session, but their shapes may nowadays be more stylised. In Piedmont, they are also called foglie di salice, cut to resemble willow-leaves and served in bean soup, while in Emilia-Romagna they are roughly cut from a roll of pasta and served simply with grated pecorino and oil.

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Like bigoli, these are made at home by forcing a dough through a hand-press, this time one like a giant garlic press, as considerably less pressure is needed for the softer dough. And like canederli, the dough is made from breadcrumbs - unusual perhaps, but just one of many ways to use up stale bread. It may be for this reason that this is one of the key pastas (along with tortellini, and tagliatelle) from Emilia-Romagna, as well as Le Marche and Umbria. Its use of an unpalatable leftover of daily life to make something at once nutritious and delicious has ensured it a hallowed place in the cook's repertoire. The dough itself is made with eggs, Parmesan, lemon zest and sometimes bone marrow in addition to breadcrumbs, and is pressed directly into a boiling broth which flavours the pasta. It may be related to tardura, a Romagna soup of eggs, cheese and breadcrumbs traditionally used to re-energise and sustain new mothers.

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(Little) squares - the simplest shape to make, but rather fiddly and so easier to buy. This delicate pastina (small pasta) is made from an egg dough, which may be spiced with grated nutmeg if making at home. It is traditionally served in a broth, oft-times with beans, notably broad beans in Urbino, or fagioli di Arsoli in Rome. The broth itself might be of goose or chicken, whilst in Gubbio the squares are served in a fish broth with fresh spring peas. Pasta in broth is always restorative, but somehow this shape is seen to be the best to help invalids recuperate.

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The defining characteristic of these stars, other than their points, is the pin-prick of a hole in their centre. Stelline ('little stars'), stellette (bigger stars), or fiori di sambuco (elderflowers) are also sometimes called avemarie - they are so tiny they cook in the time it takes to say one Hail Mary. Miraculously they have been around for much longer than industrial pasta production - since at least the 16th century. It is hard to conceive how such delicate forms could be made by hand. Like most pastina, stelline are normally served in broths and soup, and normally to the elderly and children. They appeal to both because of the ease with which they may be eaten and digested, and the romantic inspiration of their form, evocative of the night sky, constellations and angels, and the ancient world from which they came.

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Ditali, and their smaller brethren ditalini, are short tubes of pasta whose diameter is about the same as their length. Their name stems from ditale (thimbles), and thus dita (finger). Small ones are usually served in brodo, larger ones in thicker soups. Both sizes come lisci (smooth), or rigati (ridged) for thicker sauces - such as Calabrese pasta ca trimma, the pasta cooked with potatoes, and tossed in a sauce of beaten egg, pecorino and parsley.

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Anelloni d'Africa, which can still be found in southern Italy, are great hoops of pasta. They originated in the 1930s, probably inspired by the huge earrings worn by some African women, who became known to the Italian military during campaigns in the First World War. Anelletti are their little brother, meaning 'little rings'.Anelletti have other uses within Italy - primarily in soups. But it is likely that by far the majority of their consumption is outside her borders - open a tin of pasta hoops (perhaps the most popular remaining tinned pasta), and anelletti is what you get.

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A modern form, in the shape of a hollow corkscrew (from which the pasta takes its name) or pig's tail. Cavatappi are not just a gimmick, but are delicious with most sauces designed for smaller tubular pastas, particularly for maccheroncini and sedanini.

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The diminutive of malloru ('bull' in Sardinian dialect), malloreddus are therefore 'fat little calves'. Made from a semolina dough normally coloured with a little saffron, these tiny dumplings have an elongated, elegant conch shape that is ridged on the outside to catch sauce.

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Casarecce means 'home-made'. Unlike most shapes of semolina pasta that were once made by hand (see orecchiette, cavatelli, trofie etc.), this one has mechanised well, and is an excellent pasta to use, particularly for fresh, chunky sauces.

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There are a few stories behind the name… One theory is that the azdore (Romagna housewives) would make pasta for men of the cloth as partial payment for land rents. Their husbands would be so angered by the sight of fat churchmen feasting on their wives' food they might wish them to choke as they stuffed their faces. It is also said that the pastas resemble rolled towels, with which one might strangle a priest if one felt so inclined. Perhaps the most commonly told story is the simplest, and probably closest to the truth - that gluttonous priests were so enamoured with the savoury pasta that they would eat it too quickly, often choking, sometimes to death. The common thread in these stories is the gentle anticlericism of the people of Tuscany and Romagna.

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Trofie originate from Liguria, where they are the pasta to eat with pesto Genovese. Their name may stem from the Greek trophe ('nutriment'), or be a bastardisation of gnocchi: their origins were as a breadcrumb and potato dough, rolled into the shape of modern gnocchi. Today, trofie are made from a simple semolina and water dough. Trofie bastarde are of the same form, but made with chestnut flour - a staple of the poor in olden days, giving a sweeter taste but less nutrition. These can occasionally be found today.

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Once known as zanne d'elefante (elephant tusks) for their slightly curved shape, these elongated, narrow ridged tubes of pasta were renamed when ivory became taboo. They are now called sedanini, or 'little celery stalks' which is just as descriptive, if less exotic.

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Gemelli - 'the twins' - are related to fusilli as another complex helix. In this case, always with two blades, but the blades are curved until they almost enclose themselves to make tubes - somewhat like twisted casarecce. They are an example of pasta architecture at its best and, as with all good architecture, not only for adults to enjoy - children just love gemelli, and other entwined pastas.

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Canestrini are 'little baskets', shaped like old-fashioned wicker trugs that might be taken to market, into the woods for foraging, or into the fields to gather flowers. The shape is, in fact, a derivation from farfalle. With its double-cupped shape, it provides an excellent scoop for sauces, especially types of fish and meat ragù in larger sizes, and in smaller ones the texture is delightful in soups and broths.

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Cavatelli are mostly associated with Puglia, but they are also one of the pastas of choice in Molise, Basilicata and Calabria - the deep south of mainland Italy. Here, where vegetables are exalted and use of meats scarce, cavatelli of appropriate sizes are paired with almost any single vegetable that grows locally. With potato, or cime di rapa and chilli, or cooked rocket, or wild turnips (lassini), or cannellini beans, or perhaps simply dressed with cheese (ricotta salata or cacioricotta), or in a soup. In hard times they would have used a poorer flour - notably made from acorns, or perhaps chestnuts - but today they are made only with semolina. This flour, however, may be in its usual form or di grano arso - made from charred wheat, with a near-black colour and smoky flavour - which is impossible to find outside of Puglia, but worth trying if you visit.

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These tiny pastas, like enlarged commas or young grass shoots in fact take their name from the latter - gramigne means 'little weeds'. They are served with tasty, savoury sauces, often with a base of sausage. Because of their diminutive size, they tend to almost become a part of the sauce, rather than a vehicle for it. In fact, in summer they might be actually cooked in a light tomato sauce and served, hot or at room temperature, with plenty of refreshing basil and oil.

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Unmistakably floral, even in name (gigli means 'lilies', campanelle 'bells' or 'bell-flowers'), these pastas are made from a single sheet of pasta with a frilly edge, twisted into a tapering helix - just as a baker might make flowers from sugar paste. They are a fantasy pasta shape - designed to meet consumer desire for something new.

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Pici (from appicciare, to stick to/be sticky) are irregular, hand-made round noodles from Tuscany - especially the Val di Chiana and Senese. They represent the northern limit of semolina pastas, with the exception of trofie, and corzetti from Liguria. Almost brutish in their diameter and lack of uniformity, they go with brutish sauces - ragùs of any kind of game, heavy doses of mushrooms, oodles of garlic (pici con l'aglione), con la nana (with duck, anatra), con rigatino (bacon and breadcrumbs) or even - as they are still served in Trasimeno - with pike caviar…

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Maccheroni Alla Chitarra

Typical of the region of Abruzzo, this is a long egg noodle made by pressing a thick sheet of pasta dough through a chitarra - a 'guitar' of tightly stretched strings or wires. It may be surprising to find a long noodle called maccheroni but this is historically correct - indeed, the word is still in use as a general term for pasta in the south. Traditionally served with a sauce of hot peppers and diced lamb, this pasta has recently broken out of its original terroir and gone global - a favourite among chefs for the ease with which it is made (if you have the equipment), and the way it marries so well with julienne vegetables. Sauté it with thin strips of raw courgette and peeled red prawns and you're in heaven.

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Maccheroni Inferrati

Maccheroni inferrati are made traditionally by wrapping a strand of pasta dough around an iron rod (an old, thin knitting needle), although a wooden one works at least as well. Where the strand is wrapped diagonally to make the busiati, for maccheroni inferrati the length of the pasta is parallel to the rod, which it encloses to make a tube.

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Fusilli Bucati Lunghi

There is some confusion around certain ancient pastas' names, because over time several pastas have come to share the same name, or pastas still referred to by one name have evolved into a number of distinct species. The inverse is true of some modern pastas, such as the present subject, where a new but popular name has been attributed to a number of forms. Fusilli bucati are a case in point: - They may be long, spiralled, narrow hollow tubes, like spiralled bucatini or smooth, vastly elongated, narrowed cavatappi - here termed fusilli bucati lunghi.

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Ruote are wheels of pasta. A complex, arguably naff shape that was only possible with the advancement of the pasta industry's mechanisation, it was itself inspired by mechanics. A number of pasta shapes have taken their form from the industries which shaped Italy in the early 20th century, and were much lauded by the Fascists.

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Pasta Mista

Pasta mista (mixed pasta) is essentially broken bits and misshapes, that might have been collected from the bottom of bins of dried pasta and used as 'something out of nothing', just as breadcrumbs present the ultimate economy to homemakers and bakers alike. Pasta mista became popular to the extent that you can now buy purposely made mixed pasta in packets, with no economical advantage over regular shapes. The most traditional recipes call for cooking pasta mista actually in the sauce - broken bits are always accompanied by tinier bits, which might be lost through the colander if the pasta were boiled separately.

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Dischi Volanti

Flying saucers (literally, 'flying discs'), dischi volanti were designed shortly after the name was coined in 1947 following Kenneth Arnold's sighting in the United States. A media frenzy cast these objects of dubious reality into the forefront of the world's psyche. Martians or no, dischi volanti do actually exist as a pasta, and a delicious one at that.

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Radiatori (obviously, 'radiators') are one of the newest shapes. They have been traced back to between the world wars, rendering the tale that they were created in the 1960s by an industrial designer apocryphal. They are modelled on old industrial heating fixtures (a straight pipe with concentric, parallel fins): in both cases these features are designed to maximise the surface area - in one case for heat exchange, in the other for absorbing flavour and trapping sauce.

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Chifferi Rigati

Chifferi (smooth), and chifferi rigati (ridged, as illustrated), are industrially made pasta in the shape of kipferl, the Austrian biscuits. As fresh pasta used to be made by bakers (there are still some shops that perform both functions), it is likely that this form drew inspiration from Italian mezzelune (half-moon biscuits), themselves an adaptation of kipferl.

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Gomiti means 'elbows' or 'crank-shafts'. It is unclear whether their inspiration was in fact anatomical or industrial. In either case, the resultant curved, ridged tube is a versatile one, functioning both as a cup and a tube, and excellent at trapping chunky, heavy and oily sauces.

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Manicotti ('sleeves') are the subject of some confusion. In the USA, where manicotti probably originate, the term often refers to a baked dish of stuffed tubular pasta rather than the pasta itself. Dried tubes of pasta are often sold as cannelloni although cannelloni, at least originally, are sheets of pasta rolled around a filling, rather than extruded tubes that need to be stuffed from the ends. Whilst these dried smooth tubes are not normally named as such, they are likely the original manicotti. There is no doubt that the ridged versions, like ruffled sleeves of fabric, are indeed manicotti. These in turn should not be confused with the Italian pasta, maniche, which are similar to rigatoni and served only occasionally baked, and never stuffed.

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An abbreviation of maccheroni al torchio ('macaroni in the shape of a torch'), torchio is another shape, near-identical in structure and use to campanelle, but without the frilly edges, the pasta instead being ridged and curved in profile to catch and cup the sauce.

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Gnocchi shells are an industrial, dried semolina pasta that take their name and image from the famous, freshly made gnocchi dumplings. Rather like an open shell (these are relatives of conchiglie) with a series of bulbous, rounded ridges, this is the pasta the Michelin man would make. They are good baked, as well as with wet sauces. Gnocchi are little dumplings, normally made of potato, boiled and served in a sauce. Their name may derive from gnocco ('idiot'), but seems more likely to stem from nodo ('node', or 'knot' as in wood). This refers to an ancient folktale about a poor wife who laments she has nothing to cook for her husband as he returns from war. She is overheard by a kindly old tree who offers her its knots to boil for him: she accepts, and the gnarled bits of wood turn into fluffy dumplings when the wife lifts the lid from the pot.

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Arced in cross-section, and curved in the shape of an crescent, spaccatelle are like gramigne, but over double the size. The name possibly has something to do with there being a speccatura (cleft) along the middle. These are one of the few originally Sicilian pasta forms - bent like the local politics.

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Agnolotti are, in essence, ravioli, but instead of being made from two squares of pasta, they are made from one piece folded in half. The pasta sheet may be circular or rectangular. A speciality of Piedmont, they were named after a cook called Angiolino from Monferrato, known as 'Angelot', their reputed inventor (the ancient spelling, still sometimes found today, is piat d'angelot or angelotti).

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Cannelloni are sheets of pasta wrapped around a sausage of filling and baked. Their name derives from canna (cane), thus cannelloni means 'large reeds' - the same stem as cannella (cinnamon - 'little reed'). The idea of stuffing a soft pastry with a savoury filling isn't new in Europe - crêpes have been around for ever, and references to macheroni ripieni date back to around 1770 - but cannelloni were first mentioned in print at the beginning of the 20th century, likely the time they were invented. Their popularity took off and went global after the Second World War, for the dual reasons of their ease of advance preparation (they can be made ready to go in the oven even the day before), and being the symbol of domestic bliss - the housewife at her gleaming white enamel oven.

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Whilst any shell-inspired pasta might be called conchiglie, the term primarily refers to a specific form, not unlike a stylised winkle or cowrie. With a ridged outside and smooth, deep bowl of an interior, conchiglie rigate cradle a sauce more than any other pasta. They are excellent with lighter sauces, such as light tomato or arrabbiata as well as with chunkier vegetables, where the vegetables might enter into the shell's cavity, and make for easy eating.

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Lumache ('snails') are much like gomiti but often larger, and with one end crimped so as to be partially closed - better to impersonate the model snail shell, and better too to hold the sauce once it gets into the pasta.

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Farfalle, ('butterflies') are sometimes known as 'bow-tie' pasta outside of Italy. They are one of the simplest shapes formed by manipulating a sheet of pasta. Rectangles, normally cut with frilly ends as though by pinking shears, are pinched across the middle to make a bow shape. The pinched middle of farfalle helps keep them al dente when cooked, and catches a little sauce. They are often dressed with light vegetable sauces as a summer pasta, to eat outside when the butterflies are in full swing.

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To read a book in translation is like sucking a sweet in its wrapper. Proverb Caramelle - 'bon-bons' or 'candies' - are stuffed pastas, shaped like sweets whose plastic wrappers are twisted at both ends, and they are the one candy better in its wrapping. They are made like miniature, half-filled cannelloni, the ends twisted to seal them. This at once encloses the filling so it can be boiled, provides a texture that is capable of holding some sauce, and makes a shape that is reminiscent of happy childhood days. Perhaps for this last reason caramelle are generally served on festive days or Sunday lunch, particularly in Parma and Piacenza. They are invariably made from an egg pasta dough (or should be - avoid like the plague any that are pale), and may be stuffed with any manner of filling, but are best with one that is subtle and delicate.

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Lasagne Ricce

Lasagne ricce are crimped, wavy or ruffled lasagne - lasagne with wavy edges - that are decorative and may allow lighter sauces to infiltrate the dish better. This shape of pasta is primarily a southern thing. Across Sicily, baked al forno with layers of a rich ragù and ricotta, it is a staple of the Christmas table.

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Cappelletti ('little hats'), are closely related to tortelli and tortelloni, but with a subtle difference in the way they are formed, leading to a more elongated shape (like an eye when viewed from on top), and fashioned after an Alpine trooper's or cardinal's hat. Whilst all in this family of stuffed and twisted pasta can be made from squares or circles of dough, most are more elegant when made from squares, and this is especially true of cappelletti. In Emilia-Romagna, and Modena in particular, these are a permanent feature of Christmas lunch, where they appear as a first course stuffed with ricotta, lemon zest and nutmeg and served in a limpid pool of capon broth. As with many older dishes, there are also vegetarian varieties (cappelletti di magro) for lean or fasting days.

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Tortellini ('small tortelli') are the pride of Emilia-Romagna, Bologna in particular, alongside tagliatelle and lasagne. Miniaturised tortelli formed around the tip of a finger, they require skill and patience to get right. There are various enchanting and similar tales of their origin. In one, Lucrezia Borgia stopped off at an inn in Castelfranco Emilia. Smitten by his guest's beauty, the innkeeper crept up to her door in the night to sneak a peek through the keyhole. All he could see was Lucrezia's navel, but what a navel it was! He rushed to his kitchen and created a pasta in the exquisite bellybutton's image. In an alternative version, the tavern is in Bologna and the guests are the battle-weary Venus and Jupiter. As the two slept, the publican did what all seem to do in Italy - crept up to peer through the keyhole - and was taken by a beauteous navel.

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Stuffed pastas have trickled down to the populace from the kitchens of (predominantly northern) royal courts since medieval times, and still hold a special place, especially on feasting and celebratory days in cuisine across Italy. None has made the transition more completely than ravioli, made from two squares of pasta pressed together with a filling trapped inside. They are a popular pasta, so claims to their invention are numerous: Cremona lays one claim of origin; it is also possible they developed from manti under Arab influence in Sicily after the 1100 invasion. Genoa holds the same belief, insisting the name stems from rabilole ('thing of little value' in dialect), referring to meals impoverished sailors improvised, turning scraps of leftovers into a whole meal of pasta. The name might also come from the medieval rabbiola (from Latin rapa, 'root vegetable') - ricotta and vegetable dumplings wrapped in turnip tops, or most likely simply from the Italian avvolgere, 'to wrap'.

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Paccheri Rigati

Huge, smooth, thick tubes that should never be stuffed, as they collapse on cooking and are often served with a seafood sauce such as totani (‘flying squid’, pinkish in colour, and about the same size as the paccheri). The name derives from paccaria, the Neapolitan term for a ‘slap or smack’, with -ero a disparaging suffix indicative of a common, poor food – indeed, this pasta is now one of the most popular in Naples today.

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In Tuscan dialect, papparsi means to gobble up, or stuff oneself. This is easily done with this wonderful shape of egg pasta - wide, luscious ribbons of rich egg dough. They are best served with a chunky, flavoursome, oily sauce - oil to coat the pasta, and juicy morsels to catch in the folds. These noodles have been around since medieval times when they were cooked in a game broth, thickened with blood.

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These are nothing more than short-cut lengths of capelli d'angelo. Primarily used in soups in Italy, vermicellini have broken out and gone global. In India, they are roasted in oil and then cooked in condensed milk as a sweet; in Armenia and Iran, again roasted in oil, then cooked with rice to make a pilaf; in China, cooked with mung beans; in Mexico, in chicken soup; in Spain, in fideuà, and as an ancient tradition in Jewish cookery as vermishelsh. Strangely, they do not seem so popular in Italy.

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There are two forms of busiati, made in almost identical manners but looking quite distinct. The other is listed under maccheroni inferrati and is more similar to hand-made bucatini or hollow pici - the version here looks and behaves like a coiled telephone wire. From Sicily (and Trapani in particular) this, along with spaccatelle and cuscussù, makes up the triumvirate of Sicilian pastas. Notwithstanding that all pasta came to Europe via the Arabs, the link between the Latins and the Moors is particularly strong in Sicily. Cuscussù is an obvious result - but this marriage of races is also evident in busiati, which take their name from busa (a type of reed), itself stemming from the Arabic bus.

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This charming pasta was created to celebrate the birth of Princess Mafalda, born in 1902 to Vittorio Emanuele III, the last King of Italy. Indeed, their two most common names refer to her - reginette means 'little queens', and mafaldine 'little Mafaldas'. Made from semola, these are a thoroughly southern pasta (the King had, after all, been born in Naples). With their ruffled edges, like narrow lasagne ricce, they are a joyous sight - there is something intrinsically celebratory about them.

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Fettuccine are the southern equivalent to tagliatelle. Although they hail from Rome (bang in the centre of Italy), this is already considered 'south' by northern tagliatelle eaters. Although these pastas can be used interchangeably, fettuccine would typically be 2-3mm wider than tagliatelle and perhaps double the thickness. Meaning 'ribbons' (from affettare, 'to slice'), fettuccine are usually served with a creamy sauce, which they can absorb a little, and are thick enough not to become claggy and clump together in the process.

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Tagliatelle comes from tagliare, 'to cut'. As with almost all ribbon pastas, these are made by rolling up a sheet of thinly rolled egg pasta dough like a roll of cloth, then cutting it across to make ribbons, curled like party streamers which can be fluffed up and laid out to dry a little.

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Corzetti are large coins of pasta from Liguria, made from flour and water, sometimes with a little egg and oil. They are cut into discs and embossed on both sides using a pair of cylindrical fruit-wood stamps, hand-carved with a delicate pattern, normally a family coat of arms. Corzetti are a highly decorative pasta, and would have had some symbolical significance. As with all good pasta design, the decorative is also functional - the embossed pattern helps to hold scant oily sauces such as walnut pesto, or the classic marjoram and pine nuts.

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As spaghetti is the diminutive of spago (string), so spaghettini are 'little spaghetti'. Their finer texture means they cook faster, take up a little more sauce, and have less resistance to the tooth - you feel them less in the mouth. It seems many, especially non-Italians, prefer this experience to the original spaghetti. Largely, this is a matter of taste and the two may be used more or less interchangeably. In general, spaghetti will be better with a heavier sauce, and spaghettini with a lighter one.

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For me Italians have only got two things on the brain… and the other one is spaghetti. Catherine Deneuve What is pasta, if not spaghetti? Simpler is always better, and it doesn't get any simpler than a cylindrical strand of semola-and-water dough. The name is also as obvious as can be - the diminutive form (for a shorter length) of string or twine ('spago'). The most popular form of pasta in the world, spaghetti account for two-thirds of global pasta consumption. Given the pasta's history, this may be a surprise. The word appeared relatively late, in 1836, the invention delayed because spaghetti are an intrinsically industrial form of pasta which can be extruded only by mechanical press.Spaghetti being known worldwide came even later. Tinned spaghetti were invented in the last moments of the 19th century in America, and this product (that would make an Italian turn in his grave) became widely available in Britain at the end of the Second World War. The Italian journalist Giuseppe Prezzolini noted spaghetti had done more to spread Italian genius across the globe than the work of Dante. He wasn't wrong - we watch spaghetti Westerns, drive through Spaghetti Junction, and spag bol is apparently one of Britain's most cooked dishes today.

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There are three key features of this pasta that render it unique. Firstly, the flour - wholewheat doughs are unusual, in this case lending an earthy flavour and pleasant texture. Secondly, the freshness - this is the only cylindrical pasta, traditionally cooked from fresh), apart from pici. This allows its thick shape to cook quickly, the interior already being moist, leading to a finished product that is springy and chewy, when al dente. Thirdly, the roughness, produced by a coarse dough rubbing against a bronze die, which allows the pasta to take up more sauce than its counterparts.

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Their name stems from buco (hole), or bucato (pierced), and the hole has a specific function. A pasta with a large cross-section takes a long time to cook. Above a certain diameter they would take so long to cook from dry that the outside would be overcooked before the middle was al dente. The ingenious solution is the fine hole that gives this pasta its name. Water enters as the pasta boils, reducing the cooking time to no longer than that of spaghetti. Long before the advent of the microwave, people were finding ways to cook their food from the inside out.

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Capelli D'Angelo

These thin, thin strands of pasta ('angel's hair' or 'little worms') cook very fast, overcook easily, and their fine texture can become porridgy if served in a thick sauce. Their exceeding fragility means they are always dried in nidi (nests), as they are too delicate to hang up to dry, or to transport otherwise.

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Linguine, simply means ‘little tongues’. This describes the shape – as long as spaghetti, but flattened to an ellipse in cross-section, like your own tongue. It is commonly used, especially with seafood - and tomato-based sauces.

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Tagliolini are nothing more than very thinly cut tagliatelle. The art of cutting sheets of lasagne into finer noodles was discovered in the 15th century. Maestro Martino (author, and the world's first celebrity chef) wrote in his Libro de Arte Coquinaria in 1456 that 'macharoni alla Romana' (fettuccine) should be cut to the width of your finger, but 'macharoni alla Genovese' (tagliolini) should be cut as finely as the width of a needle. Their delicacy is both a boon and a burden - these pastas are so fine, they have an ethereal delicacy, but they are easily overcooked by a miscalculation of a few seconds, and can be swamped by clumsy saucing. Tajarin, from Piedmont, are a variation made with a supremely rich pasta dough, rolled a little thicker than the tagliolini made elsewhere. These have slightly more body and bite, and are the classic pasta to serve with the king of the soil, the white truffle.

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Trenette are typical of Liguria, and Genoa in particular. Trenette possess two great qualities: they are blessed with a larger surface area than linguine or spaghetti, so they get coated in that little bit more sauce, and they are slightly chunky, so they retain a marvellous bite when cooked properly.

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Chi guarda a maggioranza spesse volte s'inganna: granel di pepe vince per virtú lasagna. (He who looks at magnitude is often mistaken: a grain of pepper conquers lasagna with its strength) Jacopone da Todi The above quartina dates from the 13th century, proof that lasagne are indeed one of the earliest types of pasta . Lasagne are rectangular sheets of pasta dough, and are always layered with a sauce to make the familiar baked dish. Their name may derive from laganum, a Greco-Roman word for an unleavened cake of dough that would have been baked on hot stones or fried, then used as a dumpling in soups. It has also been attributed to the Latin lasanum or Greek lasonon, a tripod-like cooking vessel. From the early 19th century, as houses began to have their own ovens, lasagne became a popular dinner party dish as a way of showing off - and it still enjoys a place of honour at Italian family meals along with other baked pastas.

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Found around north-central Italy, and often a favourite of contemporary chefs who enjoy the freeform way these fine, almost transparent squares fall on a plate, fazzoletti derive their name from handkerchiefs They are particularly popular in Liguria (where they are made from a flour and white wine dough - elsewhere egg is used), called fazzoletti di seta, or mandilli di sea in dialect, meaning 'silk handkerchiefs'. The dough is so supple, the thickness so fine, the texture so smooth that, when well made, they do indeed seem silken. It was a conceit of Renaissance cooking to elevate pasta-making to such a high art. When working by hand, it is a rare skill to roll dough so thinly. The finest fazzoletti require levels of artistry that correspond with the Renaissance ideal of perfection.

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