A priori: Different-shaped pastas taste different. This doesn’t just hold true in obvious circumstances, like if pasta A is an egg noodle while pasta B is a whole wheat variety. No, I mean to suggest that little kids had it right the whole time: A food’s shape changes its taste, and I’m tired of being forced to eat at the kids’ table solely for saying what we’re all thinking.
Dinosaur-shaped foods are, naturally, the apotheosis of culinary development. When man realized he could make any food shaped like a dinosaur, he probably should have stopped trying, shut down all the haute kitchens in French resort towns, burned the Michelin headquarters to the ground and salted the earth behind it.
Unfortunately, he didn’t, and now we all waste our time eating a bunch of goddamn garbage that’s shaped like other nonsense. This includes noodles, or as I like to call them, nature’s Legos, the endlessly adaptable playthings of the culinary universe. You can even get noodles shaped like dinosaurs, not to mention basically any other shape you can imagine.
Now, you all know me. You know I’d never engage in anti-Italian sentiment, but any rigorous study of Italian pasta does necessitate pointing out one thing: Pasta is goofy as shit. As writer Bill Buford rhetorically notes in his book Heat, “What other country serves up its national cuisine in the form of little toys?” And indeed, it’s hard to imagine any of Italy’s more buttoned-up neighbors excitedly doling out carbs in the form of bow-ties (farfalle) or cute little ears (orecchiette).
But with all those competing pasta shapes on supermarket shelves, how can you know which shape tastes the best — since, as we’ve established, it totally does matter and your mom was wrong all those times she crankily told you to just eat your damn spaghetti and quit asking questions?
In pursuit of answers, I recruited a very special guest, confirmed New Jersey Italian Jesse Marino — you know, a guy from real-deal Sopranos country, with the hand gestures and everything. Marino is notable largely because, in addition to being a very funny and knowledgeable food-and-drink professional in his own right, he also absorbs my relentless wisecracking about Italians with stoicism. For example, he didn’t even protest when I named our pasta DM “Pasta Tawlk with Tony Macaroni.”
To keep our discussion as organized as possible, I proposed a few discrete categories of Italian pastas. You’ve got your long skinnies (spaghetti, angel hair, noodles of that nature). Adjacent to the long skinnies are the long fatties (fettuccine and pappardelle, and any other noodle that could be described as a swole spaghetti). Distinct from the long-type noodles are your stuffed chubbies (e.g., tortellini and ravioli). And finally, the loosest category: dumb assholes (penne, ziti, farfalle, orecchiette and any miscreant noodle that can’t be neatly grouped with the other three pasta types).
Marino agreed to these terms, eventually. (There was initially some mild swearing about this, but isn’t there always?)
Spaghetti: The mother noodle. The Mitochondrial Eve from which Americans’ experience of other pastas originally flows. Things might be different in sunny Emilia-Romagna, where plates of pappardelle alla Bolognese spring fully formed out of the grass anytime you say “Madonn’,” but here in the U.S. of A. we mostly grow up with limited pasta literacy.
The first pasta I can remember eating is spaghetti, tossed for me with butter and fake Parmesan using a cooking method that my father proudly called “spaghetti alla dad.” My palate has developed, but I still can’t resist a heaping serving of spaghetti alla dad, the heft of all that butter and cheese meeting the spaghetti noodle’s own weightiness for a dish so dense it can’t help but feel cozy.
Marino takes a more moderate view of the humble spaghetti noodle, however. “I don’t know that we’d be anywhere at all as a people without it, so I’m very grateful to spaghetti,” he says. “But as a pasta shape, it’s not great. You can put any other shape in spaghetti’s place in a dish, but you can’t do the inverse. That says a lot.”
Final Verdict: 7/10
Angel Hair: When I initially asked Marino if he’d be down to talk pasta shapes with me, his only hesitation was the worry that I’d ask him to say something friendly about the deviant angel hair pasta. In fact, his exact words were “I will not discuss angel hair pasta,” and he softened only when he realized that I hate angel hair pasta, too. “I’m sure someone is going to say something like, ‘Angel hair is my native city in Italy’s official dish, it’s culturally important’ or something,” he tells me. “So I want to be clear, I’m brave for saying that angel hair is a dumpster-tier pasta. The promise of surface area crumbles immediately when no sauce sticks to it.”
He’s right. Angel hair pasta is like the guy in the office who isn’t really working out, but the boss isn’t ready to fire him yet, so he assigns him all kinds of grunt work to keep him busy. Still, somehow, angel hair pasta manages to screw up even the simplest tasks, and meanwhile, spaghetti is out here rolling her eyes and picking up the slack, hoping she doesn’t explode before her PTO vests and she can finally take a vacation someplace because, dammit, she needs to blow off a little steam. I don’t know. This simile got away from me. Angel hair pasta sucks. That’s my point, supported by at least one of the good people of Italy.
Final Verdict: 0/10
Fettuccine: As Americans, most of us first encounter this particular noodle in an unappetizing plate of fettuccine alfredo from our neighborhood’s red sauce joint. Now, I’m one of the dish’s most prominent apologists; I’m not too proud to admit that I love a big gloppy plate of possibly cummed-upon noodles. Still, it’s easy to cut corners and make bad fettuccine alfredo. It’s also hard to be a die-hard adherent of a dish that’s so impossible to trust. Moreover, fettuccine’s an in-between shape — fatter than spaghetti, thinner than pappardelle and always the bridesmaid as a result. Fettuccine alfredo, too, feels like an afterthought of a dish, for an afterthought noodle with little else to do.
I think, though, fettuccine deserves to be rehabilitated; it holds its own nicely in any thick, creamy sauce where spaghetti might have trouble soaking up enough sauce to be satisfying.
Fettuccine’s only problem, really, is its big brother pappardelle, to whom it can never measure up even after pappardelle finally leaves for college. That said, Marino pointed out something I hadn’t considered. “Seafood pastas are somehow better with fettuccine than pappardelle,” he notes. True! True, and weird, and inexplicable! “Pappardelle is an absolute king, but serve it to me with clam sauce or fra diavolo and I’m going to do something VERY Italian: get angry in public.”
Final Verdict: 8/10
Pappardelle: I love pappardelle because I love any sauce that’s basically a bisque. If your pasta sauce could have cheese melted on top of it and get served with crackers and crudites at a Super Bowl party, it’s a great candidate for pappardelle. It’s a great candidate for fettuccine, too, for that matter; this is the beauty of the long fatties — the way they thrive in sauces that could overpower a wussier noodle. But if I’m given the choice between a fat noodle and an identical-except-fatter noodle, I’m picking the fatter noodle every time.
Final Verdict: 9/10
(Upon hearing me say this, Marino says “Just like Nonna used to call them” in a tone of unmitigated dismay.)
Tortellini: Handmade tortellini are positively angelic. Grocery store tortellini are not. Most supermarkets now sell refrigerated, mass-produced tortellini whose cheese stuffing tastes invariably of powder. I’m not a snob about factory-made food, but it does seem that handmade pasta lends itself poorly to the factory treatment. Too much of fresh pasta’s character is inherent to, well, its freshness.
My untested suspicion is that the powdery awfulness that plagues supermarket tortellini’s filling is due to the preservatives it contains. The pasta casing itself is fine, but even a perfectly prepared casing can’t rescue a filled pasta if the filling is bad, and my representative of the Italian people agrees with me. “How is grocery store tortellini somehow dry?” Marino asks rhetorically, because how the fuck should I know. “Science has its hands full right now, but when they free up some time, we need to figure what’s going on.”
Final Verdict: 5/10
Ravioli: As mass-produced filled pastas go, I’d trust factory ravioli before factory tortellini. Ravioli’s larger size allows it to host a wider variety of fillings, and some of those fillings are pretty good. I’m particularly fond of both the mushroom and the pumpkin varieties, two flavors that I guess are strong enough to overcome the fillings’ textural issues.
No argument from the Italian on this one either. “It’s embarrassing how prevalent tortellini is as a pre-made option,” Marino says. “Ravioli is at least passable as a refrigerated stuffed chubby.”
Again, handmade ravioli can be exquisite, and I have no quarrel with them. But I will not be making either tortellini or ravioli from scratch for this article, because I don’t love you guys that much.
Final Verdict: 6/10
Penne: What’s this guy’s deal? Who does he think he is? What, I’m gonna sit there and eat a bunch of stupid little tubes that inexplicably refuse to be stabbed by the tines of my fork, so I have to place one penne on each individual tine like a lunatic every time I want a bite of my goddamn dinner? That’s what I’m going to do with my one wild and precious life, get outfoxed by a bunch of tubes? Fuck you.
As Marino describes my penne conundrum, “It’s the pasta version of putting Bugles on your fingertips.” This led me to the joyful assumption that Italian children run around poking each other with penne fingers, which Marino kindly allows me to believe. “It’s true. We talk with our hands to keep them elevated so that our fingers stay thin enough to put penne on the ends.”
Anyway, penne tastes fine. Points deducted for resistance to fork-stabbing. Points re-added for the sheer joy in the image of penne-tipped fingers.
Final Verdict: 6/10
Ziti: I must grudgingly respect ziti for its cameo as “Karen’s ziti” in an episode of The Sopranos. Still, my respect for ziti is that which one pays a despised enemy. Baked ziti is the tragic failson of the baked pasta dishes, and you can tell it I said so.
Marino agrees with me. “Ziti is the star of the most boring baked pasta dish,” he says. “You should only eat baked ziti on the day of your Catholic confirmation because your mom bought a hotel tray of it from a dumpy pizzeria.”
Final Verdict: 5/10
Others: “Dumb assholes” is the most populated of the pasta categories, and despite its pejorative name, it contains all my favorite shapes. Farfalle — despite the fact that it’s subject to constant perversion in pasta salads — looks like adorable bow ties and deserves a little love for it. And as Marino points out, the most lovable pasta dish is orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe; it’s easy to cook, tasty to eat and full of pasta that’s shaped delightfully like little ears. As I see it, the calling card of the dumb asshole is its ability to grip even a chunky sauce, which is a project that we must support. So you can consider this paragraph a blanket salute to the dumb asshole. These pastas do a lot of work, and we have no choice but to stan.
My Last Bit of Noodling
After spending my day with pastas — cooking them, eating them and riffing on them at length with a real live Italian person — I found myself returning to Buford’s idea of pastas as “little toys.” Marino finds this quip belittling and suggests that it was spoken out of jealousy, but I think the man has a point. Other cultures have noodles of their own, but it seems that only the Italians bothered to develop this excitable range of Play-Doh shapes out of their noodles.
I, for one, am grateful. I love all the shouting matches that our opinions about them provide! And at the end of the day, even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye on which pasta shape tastes best, we can find peace in our ability to gang up on angel hair, which categorically sucks.