There are, depending on what source you consult, somewhere between 350-500 different pasta shapes found in Italy. Yes, really. Here, for example, is the pasta aisle of a not-very-large grocery store in Milan:
Beyond the enormous variety of pasta shapes, Italians are sticklers when it comes to pairing sauces with pasta. Some shapes are basically designed to work better with certain types of sauces, and that’s all there is to it – you won’t find an Italian straying from the accepted pasta-sauce norms.
Rather than recreate the wheel (with the “wheel” in this case being the existing, fine, and usually very long lists found online of all the pasta shapes in the country), I’d rather focus on some of the more unusual pasta shapes you might come across in Italy.
I mean, you all know spaghetti*. You don’t need me to tell you about it. But how about “priest-strangler” pasta? Ever heard of that one? I thought not.
For even more pasta shapes in a pretty PDF that includes cool pasta pictures, check out this chart from Chowhound.
We’ll start right off with the priest strangler, since your interest is likely piqued. The name of this pasta means, as mentioned, “priest stranglers,” though the origin of the name is a bit murky. The least deadly story is that the shape looks like the collar priests wear (which is sometimes called a “Priest Choker”), though the story most often repeated is simply that priests would so greedily devour the pasta served to them by parishioners that they would choke. (I’ve always thought the pasta looks vaguely like rope, too, for what it’s worth.) At any rate, strozzapreti are flat pieces of pasta that get rolled up and curled a bit.
This one is, hands down, one of my favorite pasta-related words to say. It just feels great rolling off the tongue. As a bonus, the tight weave on the little ripples of the pasta itself feel good on the tongue when you’re eating them, too. Oh, and the name? Radiatore means “radiator,” since they’re shaped like those old-school metal radiators (that you often still find in Italian buildings).
These adorable little pasta shapes look like elbow macaroni with a mohawk. That mohawk looks like cock’s combs, which is what creste di galli means.
If you’re fluent enough in Italian wine vocabulary to recognize this word, then you won’t be surprised at the shape of the pasta. Cavatappi are corkscrew-shaped, because the word cavatappi means “corkscrew.” And now you know both a shape of pasta and what to ask for when you need to open that bottle of Brunello.
While pasta shaped like seashells is popular outside Italy, this snailshell shape isn’t nearly as common. (Lumache means “snails” in Italian.)
Gemelli pasta look a little bit like strozzapreti, but on the former the twist is always consistent and regular, giving the illusion of two pieces of pasta wound around one another. Why? Because gemelli means “twins.”
If you’re a cook you may be familiar with the word “mezzaluna” that describes a rounded knife with two handles, used in a rocking motion for fine chopping. The word itself means “half moon,” and mezzelune pasta are just that – circles of pasta dough that are filled and folded over to create a half-moon shape.
You probably know what tortellini are, so I’m including them on this list not because they’re unusual but because of the story behind this pasta shape. This little stuffed pasta, curled delicately onto itself, is supposed to resemble what an early-16th-century innkeeper saw when he peered through the keyhole of Lucrezia Borgia’s room as she undressed – her navel.
This little pasta is meant to mimic the body part which gives it its name – ears. (Orecchie means “ears,” so orecchiette means “little ears.”) It’s handmade, which means each little bowl is slightly different, and sometimes you can still see the thumbprint of whoever pressed the indentation in that particular ball of dough.
You might know these as “bow-tie” pasta, but in Italy they’re farfalle – which means “butterfly.”
Here’s another shape with which you’re probably familiar, though you probably haven’t given any thought to the name. In Italian, the word penna means “pen” these days – but once upon a time, it meant “quill.” Now the sharp angle at each end of these little tubes of pasta make sense, right? As the clipped ends of a feather quill so it can be dipped in ink? Yep.