You will pardon me for the following wordy introduction. I would be very pleased if you read it but, if you’re in a hurry, feel free to skip to section The world of Italian pasta
and the following.
Being a very shy lad is not an easy position, I can assure you. When it’s time for all good men to come to the aid of the party, I’m the one who stealthily crouches behind a sofa, hoping no one will remember his presence in the room. But there are times in life when one needs to show oneself that one’s existence is not a complete waste; after all, if God almighty put me here, there must be some good buried deep in my soul.
So, I decided to come to the aid of all the pasta italiana
eaters of this forum. It is the least I can do: you have been really kind to me, and in this somewhat sombre time in my life you’re really helping me to carry on.
Now, let’s imagine a hypothetical dialogue about pasta between Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, two immortal characters created by the wonderful mind of P. G. Wodehouse.
“I say, Jeeves, my old bean is literally fizzling.”
“This Italian chef who took charge of Flippo Tupperware kitchen is feeding the old chap with these pasta dishes.”
“Yes sir, I’m aware of this somehow exotic situation. My nephew operates as a chauffeur at Stroppington Manor, sir.”
“Exotic may be the right word, Jeeves. Old Flippo absolutely loves the stuff, and keeps on blabbing about ravioli, spaghetti, perciatelli and some other unpronounceable strange recipes.”
“I can imagine, sir. Lord Tupperware is a slightly mercurial gentleman, if I may say so, sir.”
“Well, if you mean fickle, you’re absolutely right! However, yesterday at Stroppington I gave the impression to be an eminent expert in the field of Italian pasta, to impress this very nice girl, Flippo’s cousin Florence. I was invigorated by some glasses of a strong Italian red wine, I must say. And now I’m trapped: Florence invited me to speak on the subject at a devilish girls’ cooking school, and I could not refuse. I’m not that kind of chap.”
“I understand, sir.”
“But I cannot tell the difference between a ravine and a ravioli! Jeeves, a master plan of yours is needed to solve this puzzle!”
“I think that you should consult the DC forum on the Internet, sir. There you will surely find exhaustive information on the subject.”
I can assure you that asking an Italian “what is pasta?” is like asking a good old Eskimo “what is ice?”. He, I mean the Italian specimen, will stare at you, eyebrows raised, speechless for some moment. Then he will start inundating you with such an amount of passionate gibberish that you will promptly become an advocate of one of those terrible low carb diets. And if you ask ten Italians to illustrate the difference between ravioli, agnolotti, cappelletti and tortellini, you will obtain ten very different answers. Furthermore, if you consult Gillian Riley’s wonderful “Oxford Companion to Italian Food”, at the entry “Pasta” you will not find a single definition, but eleven cross-references to other entries.
The world of Italian pasta
The Italian word comes from the Latin word “pasta” which, among the ancient Romans, meant “flour mixed with water and salt”. Nowadays in Italy pasta is a generic term, which can refer to many different things. However, here we are talking about “pasta alimentare”, which I will liberally translate with “pasta intended to be used as a food”. Let’s be clear: in Italy we just say pasta, you will not ask a grocer a kg of pasta alimentare… This specific pasta is basically a mixture of flour and water. But from this deceivingly simple start, a sort of cookery Tower of Babel comes out.
Now that I managed to create an inextricable confusion, let’s put some balls in the proper holes.
On this first part of the treatise, I will address the unfathomable subject of pasta morphology. As you may well know, one way to decipher pasta is by looking at its size, shape, surface and stuffing, if any. So we have:
, like spaghetti, tagliatelle or linguine. Long pasta can be further divided into:
– round-section pasta, like spaghetti or pici
– square-section pasta, like tonnarelli or scialatielli
– rectangular- or lens-section pasta, like trenette or linguine
– flat-section pasta, like tagliatelle or lasagne
– tubular pasta, like bucatini and perciatelli
, like penne, farfalle or fusilli, which can be divided into:
– free-shape pasta: in the field of short pasta, you will find very simple shapes and fancier ones, like farfalle (which resemble small bow ties), radiatori (which resemble, well, radiators) and spiral-shaped fusilli
– tubular pasta, like penne and tortiglioni
– curved pasta, like gomiti
– shell-shaped pasta, like conchiglie
– disk-shaped pasta, like orecchiette or corzetti
– knotted or rolled pasta, like strozzapreti and strascinati
Very small pasta
(called pastina), like filini, stelline, tempestini.
Pasta sold in sort of nests
, like tagliatelle, tagliolini, pappardelle.
constitutes a huge realm. It is generally not so large in size. There are many different shapes of stuffed pasta, with various stuffing; I will not dare to talk about the stuffing, here. The following are the main kinds of Italian stuffed pasta:
– ravioli, usually with a squared shape
– tortelloni, square but folded to form a sort of triangle
– tortellini, similar to the tortelloni but smaller
– agnolotti, square shaped
– cappellini, small size, similar to the tortellini
About the surface
, we have smooth and ridged pasta, sometimes for the same shape: for example penne lisce (penne smooth version) and penne rigate (the ridged one).
Wow, it’s been hard… In Part II I will talk (probably only to myself) about the ingredients of Italian pasta.