This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Remembrance of Things Pasta: A Saucy Tale, first released on February 13, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Oooh! And here’s the gnocchi!
NICOLA TWILLEY: You can leave that next to me. These are really cute actually.
TONI MAZZAGLIA: While you have that on, I have to tell you something really important. There’s a slang way in Italian to say someone’s a hottie, and that’s to say they’re gnoccho or gnoccha. And so I was ordering the gnocchi I asked him if the gnocchi were Bolognese, and then at some point I made a joke, like, other than you, are the gnocchi Bolognese? I don’t know if he caught it though.
GRABER: I don’t know—I think he’s catching all of it.
TWILLEY: He’s having a good time.
MAZZAGLIA: He’s having a good time, yeah.
TWILLEY: And maybe he’s heard that he’s hot before? I don’t know—it seems like maybe?
GRABER: I’m getting the sense that he’s probably heard it before.
MAZZAGLIA: He’s comfortable with his hotness.
GRABER: You may recognize that third voice, that’s Toni Mazzaglia, so that means that we are in Italy!
TWILLEY: We, by the way, are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. While we were in Italy with Toni, we were reporting on balsamic vinegar, and olive oil, and the first theme park devoted to food. So we were busy, but my friend Toni also made sure that we ate some of the world’s most delicious pasta.
TWILLEY: It was research! Because we were on a special assignment from listener Morgan Boddy.
MORGAN BODDY: This is Morgan—is this Gastropod?
GRABER: This is Cynthia from Gastropod.
BODDY: Oh my gosh. Fangirling right now.
GRABER: Well, thank you, that’s very sweet. Unfortunately it’s just me, Nicky couldn’t join us today. But before we get to your request, could you introduce yourself?
BODDY: My name is Morgan and I live in Ventura County, California.
GRABER: Morgan had a question for us.
BODDY: Well, you look at the store aisles and you see these boxes of just different shaped pastas. You look at an Italian restaurant menu and you see all these different names. But when you look at it—when you look around, and you look at—you see them prepare it, it’s basically the same kind of stuff. So why did we make all these different shapes? Like, what was the purpose for that?
TWILLEY: This is a very good question and we did not know the answer. And the more we wondered about it, we started coming up with even more questions.
GRABER: Like, how in the world does anyone ever figure out what’s the right sauce to pair which each pasta shape? Is there any science to that?
TWILLEY: And are pasta shapes still being invented today? How many are there anyway?
GRABER: What’s the story behind some of pasta shapes’ stranger names, like strozzapretti, or priest strangler?
TWILLEY: So many pasta questions. And this episode, we’ve pretty much got the answers. Thank you to Morgan for sending us down a very delicious rabbit hole.
GRABER: Finally, we created a special episode just for our Stitcher Premium subscribers, go to stitcherpremium.com/gastropod for a free month and to hear the special stitcher premium bonus episode.
TWILLEY: With all these pasta-related questions, we figured we should consult The Encyclopedia of Pasta.
GRABER: This is a book that has more than 300 varieties of pasta in it. Each one has a description of the shape and the story of where it comes from, a bit about the history of the shape. Really, an encyclopedia. It was written by a woman named Oretta Zanini de Vita.
MAUREEN B. FANT: Oh, she’s a force of nature. She is just the greatest.
TWILLEY: That is Maureen Fant, who worked with Oretta to translate the encyclopedia, and then partnered with her to write another pasta book, Sauces and Shapes.
FANT: Oretta and I had known each other—we were both writing for the same magazine in Rome called Italy, Italy!, only she was writing food of course, and I was writing about archaeology, archaeological sites, because that’s actually what I studied. I had nothing to do with food until much later.
GRABER: Oretta, though, she comes by her pasta knowledge honestly. She is the real deal.
FANT: She’s a Bolognese. Born and bred. In fact, to go to her convent school where she learned how to make pasta, her father had to produce documents to prove that she had been born within the city limits of Bologna. There was a famous nun who had charge of the kitchen and Oretta just took to this and she used to go visit that Sister Atilia. And she learnt to make Bolognese-style pasta. And she got very good at it. I mean this nun—the convent used to lend her out to the Communist mayor of the city for special events. I mean, she was really known.
GRABER: Oretta was a prolific writer and author and researcher. Her husband was an expert in metal and became the Vatican curator of arms and armor.
FANT: And the two of them—when the two of them got started on papal history, you know, you couldn’t imagine. She knew everything about what the popes ate and he knew everything about what the popes, you know, fought their enemies with.
TWILLEY: But the more Oretta learned and wrote about the history of Italian food, the more she got concerned that it was disappearing in front of her eyes, without leaving a trace. She discovered there was no such thing as a catalog of all of Italy’s pasta shapes
FANT: You think such a well-known subject of pasta—such a national treasure as pasta—would be very well documented.
TWILLEY: But nope. All that knowledge was just embedded in local traditions, oral traditions…
FANT: Things that never get out of people’s houses. Traditions that just—in families. You know, there’s a town near Rome where the same kind of pasta has one name on one side street practically and the other on the other side of the street. You can’t even begin to document all this stuff, there is so much. So it’s not that easy to get a hold of this kind of information. And she wanted to do her part to record it.
GRABER: It took Oretta nearly two decades of interviewing people in their homes and kitchens and studying anything she could find in the archives that even mentioned pasta shapes.
TWILLEY: She ended up traveling the country, visiting small towns and villages to record their individual unique shapes.
FANT: She found a type of pasta in Amatrice, the town that broke everybody’s heart during the recent earthquake when it was totaled. Amatrice is known for a sauce, for Amatriciana. But there was also a local kind of pasta made with two kinds of flour and a rather complicated handmade shape. She found two old ladies, practically 90 years old, who were the last people to know how to make it.
GRABER: In fact, Oretta’s efforts might have helped save this unusual shape of pasta. It’s like a curly gnocchi. Now the town has a course that you can take to learn how to make it.
TWILLEY: In her introduction to the encyclopedia, Oretta also tried to trace back the history of pasta in Italy. First question: Who actually invented pasta and when?
FANT: It’s not rocket science to mix flour and water and sort of mush it up together and throw it in the soup and that’s pasta, you know. Any combination of flour and something to moisten it and you throw it in liquid and that’s OK, it’s done. That’s pasta.
GRABER: A lot of people still think that pasta was brought to what’s now Italy by Marco Polo in the 1200s, that it originated in China. But as Maureen explained, making pasta isn’t rocket science. It was invented many different times in many different places. People in Italy were eating pasta long before Marco Polo traveled to the Far East.
TWILLEY: In fact, Oretta, in her endless archival research, she discovered the original source for that mistaken belief: a 1938 article by a man named L.B. Maxwell in the trade marketing publication Macaroni Journal, published out of Minneapolis. Thanks to L.B., that myth about Marco Polo bringing pasta to Italy has stuck around.
GRABER: Oretta says that dried durum wheat pasta, like the kind we buy today—that was found in Sicily from about the 800s. The island’s Muslim rulers then spread the local manufacturing and drying techniques elsewhere in what’s now Italy.
TWILLEY: But pasta in its most basic form—just a dough made with flour from some kind of grain plus water—that goes back even further.
GRABER: The original pastas were some form of this—tiny balls, like Israeli-style couscous or fregola that were boiled in water, or larger balls of dough, dumpling-shaped like gnocchi.
TWILLEY: Then people started rolling these balls of dough out into sheets.
KENNEDY: The earliest records are of lagane, which then became lasagne, which were just sheets of dough and boiled.
GRABER: Jacob Kenedy is the author of a book called The Geometry of Pasta.
KENEDY: And another cookbook called Boca and I have many restaurants.
TWILLEY: We met with Jacob in London before we headed to Bologna.
KENEDY: We are in heaven, sitting by the Regent’s Canal in Angel.
GRABER: The tree-lined canal, down some stairs from the street above us, is indeed a little piece of heaven in north London. And it’s right near Jacob’s newest restaurant called Plaquemine Lock.
TWILLEY: Confusingly Plaquemine Lock serves Cajun food. But Jacob is best known for his pasta, which he serves at his first restaurant, Boca di Lupo. And he told us that the word lagane—that means rolling pin. Back in the 300s, the ancient Roman poet Horace wrote about going home after a tiring evening at the Forum to eat a dish of lagane, leek, and chickpeas—that’s the first recorded mention of lasagne’s grandaddy.
GRABER: Oretta has found similar descriptions of flat pasta sheets, sometimes wrapped around a filling like a raviolo—she’s found those all over the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East, from Baghdad to ancient Palestine.
TWILLEY: The first description of pasta shapes comes from an Arab geographer named Al Idrisi. He was describing the island of Sicily in the 1100s. And he said there was a town in Sicily, quote, “an enchanted place…” where “they make a food of flour and in the form of strings.”
GRABER: Like spaghetti. And actually the word spaghetti means little strings.
TWILLEY: So, pasta is not uniquely Italian. But how it developed in Italy—that’s what made pasta pasta.
FANT: Nobody else in the world has ever had the imagination and the dexterity and I guess the patience and the creativity to turn this flour and water mush into something beautiful, into something interesting—into something amusing.
GRABER: First you had balls, then people made sheets of pasta, and then strings. Next people started to wrap those strings around something to make a new shape.
FANT: You take a piece of straw or a metal rod and you pinch off a piece of dough and you place your rod or your straw or whatever on top of the piece of dough and you roll it with your hands. You roll the dough until it lengthens along this stick, rod. And then you pull out the stick and you have your pasta. You can make short ones, you can make long ones. You can make—you know, corkscrew it around or you can just make a long tube.
TWILLEY: These first curly telephone wire shapes were called busiata, after the Italian word busa or reed. That’s what you wrapped those dough strings around.
GRABER: And then people started pinching that dough into tiny artistic sculptures. Their creativity was unleashed.
TWILLEY: All the sudden there were hundreds of new pasta shapes, each with their own name.
FANT: Pasta shapes can be named for their actual geometry. Tagliatelle, for example, is just something that’s been cut. Fettuccine are ribbons, literally ribbons. So they’re actually named for their shape. And you can deduce something of what the pasta must look like from its name if you know Italian. Others are named after objects that they resemble.
GRABER: There are pastas shaped and named after butterflies and hats and one called tempestine, which means little storms—they look like little hailstones.
TWILLEY: There are garganelli, which look like a chicken’s gullet or garganel. There are denti di cavallo, which are named after horse’s teeth.
FANT: Lumache, conchiglie—shells, snails. Even penne are quills. So they’re named after objects that they somehow resemble.
GRABER: Those are objects people might have seen every day. Then there are more fanciful names for things people imagined they saw, like elves or goblins or imps.
TWILLEY: And there are some pasta shapes that are pure wishful thinking.
FANT: Strozzapreti means priest stranglers.
TWILLEY: Remember, the Catholic Church was all powerful in much of what became Italy.
FANT: The common people, let’s say, resented the wealthy clergy and expressed this—this is sort of like resistance-by-sarcasm—they hoped that the pasta would strangle the greedy minion of the pope king. Other versions say, oh they were so delicious the priest ate so much of it he strangled. Well, yeah, maybe so. But it’s more like an expression of a wish: may this strangle the horrible priest.
GRABER: You may not be familiar with all of these shapes. But one you might have heard of is tortellini. These are little twisty pastas filled with something tasty, often meat. The original name for tortellini was torteletti.
TWILLEY: And then a gentleman from Bologna mistakenly wrote that down as tortellini. And the Bolognese people ran with tortellini because it made their pasta shape different from the neighboring towns. And over time, Bologna became the center of a tortellini industry.
GRABER: Bologna also became the home of the myth of tortellini’s origin. In the 1800s, there was a factory in Bologna that employed a lot of people to make these Bolognese specialties. And they created a legend behind the shape’s invention.
KENEDY: Tortellino being a bellybutton. Whose was it? Not Venus. Lucrezia Borgia wasn’t it? Or someone. I think it was Lucrezia Borgia.
TWILLEY: Oretta says Aphrodite, but whatever. The story’s not true anyway.
KENEDY: It was meant to be a fantastically beautiful woman and someone spied her through a keyhole. And that’s the fable. But once you’ve heard that story and it really does look like the inside of an innie belly button, it adds immeasurably to the pleasure of eating it.
GRABER: We loved sitting by the canal and chatting with Jacob, but he was making us super hungry for some pasta. We were flying to Bologna the next day. So Jacob gave us an order.
KENEDY: Go to Anna Maria.
TWILLEY: So we did.
GRABER: Anna Maria Monari is the owner of a famous restaurant in downtown Bologna. It’s the place where Jacob learned to make his tortellini.
TWILLEY: When we visited two ladies were out back making, yes, tortellini—
MAZZAGLIA: So, first of all, notice that she’s hand-rolling it with this wide rolling pin, this wide, almost shoulder length—what would say that is, almost a yard? But it’s not thick, it’s very thin. See how thin this is? Watch how she does it, she’s going to pick it up and then she’s going to kind of like—
GRABER: She’s rolling it over so that it wraps all the way around it and then unwraps.
MAZZAGLIA: Exactly, and then stretches it out, stretches it out.
TWILLEY: So thin you can see the grain of the wood through it.
GRABER: That’s the goal, to get the pasta dough so thin that you can even read the newspaper through it. And then the two women—they cut the pasta and wrapped each square around tiny dabs of meat. She’s just doing these little finger dabs with meat in the middle.
MAZZAGLIA: It’s absolutely gorgeous! I’m taking video.
GRABER: Wow, and such muscle memory, it’s all even. They’re all the same.
MAZZAGLIA: It’s really fast.
GRABER: She wraps them and then she wraps it around her finger, right?
MAZZAGLIA: She wrapping it around her pointer finger.
GRABER: So it’s two of the corners are over each other, and then she wraps them around her pointer finger, and it forms these little bellybutton things.
TWILLEY: The women told us they make pasta all day, 8 hours straight. They banged out about 300 tortellini in the half hour we spent with them. They told us they could make them with their eyes closed. One question actually—does she ever make these at home?
MAZZAGLIA: Always—otherwise her husband would kick her out! She said I’m crazy, I’m crazy, you’ve got to be crazy to do this work. She says when she goes home on a Saturday after doing a shift here, she’ll go home and make her own pasta fresca.
TWILLEY: These ladies—I’m not kidding—they were like machines.
GRABER: This might be how tortellini have always been made in the past, but now most pasta is made by real machines.
TWILLEY: And that has led to even more shapes—and even more confusion about how to pair them with sauce. We have the science behind that, after a quick word from a couple sponsors.
GRABER: The very first pasta machine was designed by everyone’s favorite Renaissance renaissance man.
FANT: Yes, we’re talking about Leonardo of course. He did attempt to make a pasta machine. I don’t know whether it was before or after his flying machine. But yes, he got into that as well. I mean, there was nothing that Leonardo didn’t get into.
TWILLEY: Leonardo’s machine was gigantic. It was designed for making one huge sheet of lasagne, which he said could then be cut into quote “edible string,” or spaghetti. Unfortunately, Oretta says, the pasta sheet was so huge that it broke apart under its own weight before it could be cut.
GRABER: Leonardo didn’t give up after that failure—I mean, would Leonardo give up? He later tried to invent a way to measure the tension that spaghetti could sustain. Oretta writes that he actually preferred to be thought of as a cook rather than a painter or even an engineer, which is obviously how he’s remembered today. In fact, Leonardo had even once managed a restaurant part-time. Renaissance man indeed.
TWILLEY: The next step forward in pasta machinery was equally unsuccessful.
FANT: The biggest problem for making pasta in bulk in the early days—which is to say the 1700s or more or less, getting up to the Industrial Revolution—it was mixing all this dough. So the earliest machines, the earliest mass production, not machinery but mass production, involved stomping flour and water with feet. Like mashing grapes, you mixed your flour and water with human feet. So a very early machine was made to resemble the action of human feet. And this was known popularly as the bronze man and was ridiculed in its own day.
TWILLEY: But, finally, technology caught up with Italian appetites, and, by 1827, the first mechanical pasta making factory opened in a small town in Tuscany It was founded by the Buitoni family. That’s a name you can still find on packets of pasta today, although the family sold the company to a multinational a few decades ago.
GRABER: Basically the way these original pasta machines worked is that they pushed dough through shapes, or dies. It’s just like the Playdough fun factory, where the playdough gets extruded through a piece of plastic, and it comes out in new cool shapes.
FANT: And that changed everything. Because all of a sudden you could have curlicues, you could have tubes, you could have—before that tubes would have to be formed from flat sheets, as you would do it if you were making cannelloni at home today. You could extrude spaghetti, you could extrude rigatoni, as is done today. You can change your same machine from spaghetti to rigatoni to penne to anything, any other kind of shape, by changing essentially a metal disk. The machine remains the same.
TWILLEY: But it’s not just that you could make all kinds of shapes really easily with these groovy new machines. It was also a revolution in who could eat pasta.
GRABER: Before industrialization, mostly rich people ate pasta. The regular folk, they ate pasta on feast days or at super special celebrations. Ziti literally means grooms or brides because people at it at their weddings. That’s how fancy pasta was.
FANT: The industrialization created a market for pasta and pasta then became more widely available. The price dropped. You got this phenomenon of the Neapolitans eating—this would be even before tomato sauce got popular—you’d see the people eating spaghetti with their hands just dressed with a little cheese. And they’d be on street corners and the Grand Tourists would think this was, you know, one of the amazing things to see and one of the curiosities of visiting Naples.
TWILLEY: So now everyone was eating pasta, and the pasta makers were competing to invent new shapes. By counting the different dies in pasta machinery catalogs, Oretta calculated that within just a few decades, in the early 1800s, Italians had invented more than 700 brand new shapes—or a total of thirteen hundred, if you included all the ones that were actually the same, but were just given different names.
GRABER: To show just how crazy confusing this all is, in one province in Italy, called Viterbo, the same one shape of pasta is known by 28 different names. One of those is lombrichelle—the name means earth worms.
TWILLEY: And the other 27—don’t even ask. But behind each shape and each name, there’s often a story.
GRABER: Turns out, you can pretty much trace Italian history through the dinner plate.
TWILLEY: Take mafaldine. Or, as this shape is sometimes known, reginette. It’s a long half-inch-wide ribbon shape, with a wavy ruffled edge, like the ruffles that would be worn by a royal princess.
FANT: The Kingdom of Italy began in 1860. And like the pizza Margherita named for the Queen of Italy, you have mafalda for Princess Mafalda.
TWILLEY: Princess Mafalda was the daughter of the last king of Italy, and when she was born in 1902, the pasta makers invented a new shape in her honor. Although Oretta has her suspicions that they actually just renamed an existing shape, manfredine, to take advantage of royal baby fever.
GRABER: You can also tell Italy’s colonial history through pasta. Tripolini is a little bow-shaped pasta. It represents Italy’s conquest of Libya—Tripoli is Libya’s capital. Aneli are big loops that are supposed to look like the hoop earrings worn by women in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and those were both Italian colonies.
TWILLEY: Some pasta shapes have been renamed as times change. Take sedanini. These are narrow ridged tubes, and they were originally called zanne di elefante, which means elephant tusks, and then when people started frowning upon the use of ivory, the manufacturers renamed them sedanini or baby celery stalks
GRABER: As Italy industrialized and started falling in love with cars and airplanes and machinery, they came up with new types of pasta.
FANT: There was a fad of the radiators, there was even, in the 1950s, flying saucers.
TWILLEY: In fact, Maureen told us that pasta shapes are still being invented today. A company called Verrigni has come up with right-angled rigatoni-style shapes. There’s a shape called calamaretti that Maureen spotted recently.
FANT: Italians are confused by this when they see it on menus because they don’t realize that what it is, it’s a ring of pasta. But people see it on menus and they’re confused. Because it’s a relatively new name.
GRABER: They think calamaretti means actual squid rings. Yes, even Italians can’t always figure out what’s on the menu when it comes to pasta shapes.
FANT: They are always inventing them. They don’t all catch on. They don’t all enter—you know, hang around for posterity. But there’s no reason why they can’t be continuously invented. At home, when you’re working with your hands, you can tie a knot in something and say, oh, this is in my new shape, it’s nodi. You know, there’s no limit.
TWILLEY: And the factory-made pasta—you can squeeze out any shape through a die. There are even penis pasta shapes.
KENEDY: You can get boobs too. I hate to think what else you can get. You can probably get—you can probably get everything.
TWILLEY: Jacob is not of a fan of new shapes for the sake of it.
KENEDY: They’re a bit pointless, because it’s all pasta. And up to a point you get different textures that play on your tongue or different textures that will react differently to different sauces. Beyond that you get something which is at best a statement and at worst a joke. There’s nothing wrong with a joke really but it depends on how intelligently is made.
GRABER: Not all new pasta shapes are being invented for novelty or the sake of a joke. And not all of them are being invented in Italy.
LINING YAO: My name is Lining Yao and I was a Ph.D. student at MIT Media Lab and I graduated this February and now I’m a student assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
TWILLEY: Last year, Lining and her collaborators at MIT invented shape-shifting pasta. It’s kind of amazing—it starts out as flat sheet, like a sheet of lasagne, but when you put it in water, it curls and it bends and it forms itself into a pre-programmed shape. So you put it in flat, and it comes out as fusilli. Or as a flower.
GRABER: But Lining didn’t invent this shape-shifting technology just so that we could have flowers in our tomato sauce. She was interested in sustainability.
YAO: For example, one point is if you make all the food flat, you can save a lot of shipping and packaging space.
TWILLEY: Lining explained the science behind the magic.
YAO: So really the basic mechanism we were looking into is differential swelling.
GRABER: They used gelatin because gelatin swells in water.
YAO: So, for example, if you have a piece of food that can swell differently at different locations, you can basically engineer food that are initially flat and then can can swell into different shape once you cook them in water.
TWILLEY: So how does Lining make the gelatin swell differently in different locations? She used two different techniques. First, she took advantage of the fact that the denser gelatin is, the more water it will take in. She laid the gelatin down in two layers, and made the bottom layer more dense, and the top layer less dense.
YAO: So when you put a flat piece of such a film in water, the bottom layer will take in more water and swell more, and the top layer will swell less. And as a result out the the film can basically wrap up and bend upwards.
GRABER: And then she used a second substance—cellulose. It doesn’t absorb water at all. So she and her colleagues used a 3D-printer to apply cellulose onto the gelatin base.
YAO: If we distribute the cellulose in different locations, you can basically control where it swells and where it doesn’t.
GRABER: So like a circle of cellulose would prevent the center part of the flower, the head, from curving up at all.
TWILLEY: Like I said, it’s amazing. We have a video on our site, and it is just mesmerizingly beautiful to watch the pasta twist itself into shapes.
GRABER: There are a few limitations, of course. First of all, this technology can’t form tight angles into a totally closed shape like a square. And then, it’s hard to create the patterns for new shapes. Lining would love to be able to have anyone design any new pasta shape, push a button, and poof—the software will figure out where to have thicker gelatin or where to put some cellulose.
YAO: But so far it doesn’t work that way.
TWILLEY: Instead, they have to kind of reverse engineer backward from the shape they want to where the gelatine and the cellulose needs to go in their minds.
GRABER: And finally, it’s not actually pasta, right? It’s gelatin.
YAO: And for a very classic traditional Italian pasta, it’s basically just water and semolina flour, not anything else. And we try to respect that because ultimately we want this to be appreciated and eaten by people who love pasta. So nowadays with my new research group at Carnegie Mellon University, we started a research collaboration with Barilla, the Italian pasta company. So they’ve been providing us a lot of insight in terms of the science and property of semolina flour.
TWILLEY: Lining is excited. I am too. She’s still preparing to write up her research for publication, so it’s too early to share the results. But…
YAO: What I can tell you it’s very likely you will see some actual authentic pasta transform in the market, maybe very soon.
GRABER: I’m joining you in this excitement, Nicky, I can’t wait to see what she comes up with. So this new approach could certainly help with the packaging conundrum that started Lining off on her self-assembling pasta path. But she has even bigger ambitions.
YAO: So, for example, for hiking. So for hiking people will also need to pack food very efficiently. And if you think a bit further, maybe this can be used for food delivery, for disaster site, or people who need to go on a voyage.
GRABER: A very distant voyage.
YAO: Say you are traveling to Mars and there are two years on the way and you don’t have much to do and food’s gonna be still a big portion of the time you’re going to have to spend it. We wanted to make the experience a bit interesting.
TWILLEY: Back on Earth, Lining imagines that one day, you’ll be able order your own customized shape-shifting pasta, and have whatever design you want shipped flat-packed to your home.
GRABER: Once Lining has conquered the pasta challenge, she thinks that her flour-and-water self-assembling technology could be useful in, say, Mexican tacos. Or even self-wrapping Chinese dumplings. She got the idea for that one when she was watching her mom at home in Inner Mongolia.
YAO: I thought it would be a very interesting and basically effort- and energy-saving for my mom, that was kind of motivation. I did talk about it with my mom and she laughed. I think if it happens she would like to try out and many Chinese would like to try it out.
TWILLEY: Lining is not Italian, obviously. But she presented her shape-shifting pasta in Milan, and she was pleasantly surprised—Italian people seemed open to the idea. And open to helping her with her next challenge.
YAO: So as researchers in a lab we developed the raw materials. We had this vision of making food flat for easy packaging, or for fun, or for science. But we don’t really know how to kind of pair this material with other ingredients to make interesting dishes. So that was something we wanted to get help from a professional chef.
TWILLEY: This question is tough for everyone. Even with regular non-magic pasta. All those hundreds of shapes—but which sauce to serve them with?
GRABER: You will learn the …science? … of pasta-sauce pairing after a brief message about one of our sponsors this episode.
GRABER: Pasta shapes were developed over hundreds of years. Were sauces created because they perfectly complemented these beautiful little sculptures, or were the shapes sculpted to marry the sauces? When we asked Jacob Kenedy, he told us a story.
KENEDY: At university, there was this Welsh boy who was in my college. And at the end of the second year at university, he said, Jacob, I had pasta for the first time, which I can’t believe because how could you be at university for two years and not eat pasta? And I said, how was it? And he said, it was great, but it would have been nicer with some kind of a sauce. So I think—and that really struck me because pasta comes with sauce. Probably when people first made pasta they just boiled it and ate it. And, quite frankly, pasta with butter and sage or just butter and cheese or just butter or just olive oil is bloody delicious.
TWILLEY: But now we have all these beautiful sauces—pesto and marinara and alfredo—so we need to decide which of the hundreds of pasta shapes we should serve them with. It seems as though there must be some secret Italian rules about this—some kind of pairing algorithm that you can only learn in Italian kitchens?
KENEDY: So there are two rules of thumb. The first, which I stick to, but you don’t need to stick to it: I like to stick with the traditional approach. People have had a long time to get things right, there’ll be a particular way of making a sauce that seems to work particularly well with a pasta. And when you have the two together, if you’ve been to that place before it will take you right back, the memory. So I tend not to mess with it. But the other, better rule is whatever tastes good to you is the right thing for you to do, because you’re going to eat it.
GRABER: Here are some of those classic pairings that people have apparently gotten right: alfredo goes with long strands of fettuccine. Pasta alla Norma, a chunky red sauce with eggplant, is paired with chunky penne.
FANT: The secret is like the song: tradition, tradition, tradition. Basically, yeah, there are general guidelines and there are general principles. For example, flour and water pastas normally take olive oil-based sauces. Egg pastas normally take butter-based sauces.
TWILLEY: This is history and geography as pasta destiny: in the north of Italy, which was and is wealthier, people had the money to put an egg in their pasta dough, and they also had richer pastures for raising cows to make butter and cream. In the south, where the land is drier and less fertile, people used olive oil instead.
GRABER: But it’s not just tradition and geography. There are some aspects of pairing sauces and shapes that do seem to be about the particular interplay between the pasta and the sauce.
KENEDY: Different textures will affect how the pasta interacts with the sauce. If you have a very fine pasta, so very thin strands of something, it’s got a lot of surface area to the outside and that will tend to go better with a lighter sauce. Because there’ll be a lot of surface area, you don’t need a lot of sauce sticking to the outside and anything too heavy will clag it together and make it into a lump.
TWILLEY: This is why angel hair pasta should never ever ever be served with a sauce—it’s so fine, it can only go in broth. I’m looking at you, Olive Garden. And Maggiano’s. And Buca di Beppo.
KENEDY: If you get thicker, bigger, brasher pastas, they tend to need thicker sauces that will stick better to the outside because there’s less surface area for the outside to stick into. And then things which are very chunky sauces will tend to marry better with pastas that have some means of catching the chunks. So there’s generally thin pasta, thin sauce, thick pasta, thick sauce, big chunky pasta, big chunky sauce.
FANT: And people have internalized these basic principles and so they’re not going to have much trouble with it.
TWILLEY: Italian people, sure. The rest of us … not so much.
GRABER: Chefs who work with pasta also talk about the importance of something called emulsification. Let’s say you want to make a traditional Roman sauce called cacio e pepe. The only ingredients are pecorino cheese and black pepper.
TWILLEY: But the sauce is super, super creamy, as if you had put in cream, which you didn’t. How does it get so creamy? The wonders of emulsification.
GRABER: The sauce is made of water and fat from the cheese. But molecules of water and molecules of fat don’t stick together. To get them to bind and turn creamy, you need starch. Like the flour particles that comes off of cooked pasta in the water. And if you mix that starchy pasta water in with the pecorino cheese, the starch helps bind the water and the fat together.
TWILLEY: And so that’s why chefs often serve cacio e pepe with a long pasta like tonarelli or just ordinary spaghetti—these shapes have a large surface area so as you toss the pasta and sauce together, you get lots of lovely emulsification. Surface area is an important factor in this whole pairing game.
GRABER: We’ve now just made this sound like an exact science.
TWILLEY: But in real life, it is not nearly so cut and dried.
FANT: When I went to a seafood restaurant on an island off the coast of Lazio, we ordered for the family pasta with a beautiful fresh fish, we were going to make make a sauce out of this fish. And the waiter said, may I give you linguine with that?
TWILLEY: Now bear in mind, linguine is the traditional shape that is paired with seafood.
FANT: And we said, yes, of course, it’s seafood. Why not? And he said, well, you know, some people just can’t stand linguine. And so I wanted to make sure. How can you not like linguine? You like spaghetti, how can you not like linguine? They’re so similar. So try coming from some other part of the world, approaching Italian pasta and trying to match it. You’re never going to get it right. You do the best you can. You do the best you can.
TWILLEY: None of this confusing pairing thing is helped by the fact that Italians are so horrified if you get it wrong. Serve an Italian a sauce paired with the wrong shape…
KENEDY: The world ends. And you’ll never be able to look at yourself in the mirror again.
GRABER: Maureen told us another story about the sauce called Amatriciana, it’s a red sauce with chiles and black pepper and guanciale, which is salt-cured pork. It’s usually paired with either spaghetti or bucatini. Bucatini is like a thick spaghetti with a hole in the middle.
FANT: Oretta, when we were doing the book, she reported a story. She said, I ran into a young woman of my acquaintance the other day and she told me, I went to a restaurant near the Pantheon and you cannot imagine the horror. She said they served a short pasta all’Amatriciana. She said, I felt ill. Now, short pasta all’Amatriciana—there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s fine. I actually know a few restaurants that serve short pasta all’Amatriciana. But for this woman it was so outrageous that she could hardly eat it. And it is the same thing. Your chemical analysis of rigatoni or whatever and spaghetti—it’s identical. It’s the same dough. It just goes through a different die.
TWILLEY: The horror continues. Classic combinations that I was raised eating—they are seen as utterly barbaric in Italy. Like macaroni and cheese—just no. Don’t even.
KENEDY: So the classic wrong pasta that we all eat is spaghetti bolognese.
GRABER: So what you’re supposed to eat bolognese sauce with is tagliatelle. These are thin, flat long noodles and they’re wider than spaghetti and made with a slightly different dough.
KENEDY: And so those are egg pasta ribbons. Not a huge difference and probably not that much to get hot under the collar about. But if you have had a really good tagliatelle with ragu, so it’s a really good ragu which has got lots of animal fat and dairy fat. Not too red and it’s very rich and unctuous with good fresh tagliatelle. So they’re very, again, rich pasta—kind of elastic opulent things. And there’s this wonderful symphony that happens, which tells a story that goes back hundreds of years in Bologna. It evokes a place and a history. And if you then have relatively crappy or incorrect Bolognese, as we make it all the time in Britain, which is ground beef simmered in a load of tomato and quite wet. Maybe with lots of red wine in it, maybe not, on traditionally overcooked spaghetti, which is made with soft wheat instead of hard wheat. And you get the stuff of school lunch. And it tells a different story. And I prefer the Italian story. But then if you put a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in front of me which is completely American and not Italian. And who cares about the origin of it—it’s delicious. That’s what I grew up eating at home and I love it.
TWILLEY: Jacob is a tolerant man. He’s also English. Not every Italian would agree. But sometimes even an Italian will break the rules. Sometimes you have to. Like if you’re making a sauce that no one has made before.
GRABER: Massimo Ratti cooks at his restaurant called Ponte Rosso. He is passionate about Italian food—not shocking for an Italian chef. But he is particularly enthusiastic.
TWILLEY: He respects tradition. He even waxes lyrical about tradition. But he will also break it when necessary.
GRABER: Because Massimo creates dishes like meat-filled tortellini with strawberry sauce.
TWILLEY: So good, by the way.
GRABER: Oh yes, but there is no tradition for pairing pasta with strawberry sauce. So Massimo invented his own.
TWILLEY: What Massimo is saying is that the strawberry and the meat in the tortellino, together they create a harmony. If he served the strawberry sauce with tagliatelle, it wouldn’t be balanced.
GRABER: Okay, I will keep this rule in mind. No strawberry sauce on plain egg tagliatelle.
TWILLEY: For when you’re next making strawberry pasta sauce. Meanwhile, remember Lining? She has the opposite problem—not a new sauce but a new shape. So she found a chef in Boston to help her figure out the pairing.
YAO: He made four dishes. One is a tomato flower pasta salad. So for that one he basically add tomato ingredients into the plain gelatin.
GRABER: When it’s first set down in front of the customer, it’s just a flat red disc. But then when it’s paired with mushrooms and other ingredients and then liquid is poured over, the disc transforms.
YAO: This is a tomato flower so it transforms from a flat disc into a tomato flavored flower shape.
GRABER: Gorgeous. But her point is, the chef came up with the best flavors to highlight this new flower shape.
TWILLEY: But, really, at the end of the day, if you’re worrying about which pasta to pair with which sauce, you’re overthinking it. Italians might tell you you’re wrong, but if you like your seafood sauce with penne, knock yourself out. Tell them you have Massimo Ratti’s blessing.
GRABER: Massimo says make whatever shape you want, cook it, and eat it. Simple. There’s only one pasta sin that he will never forgive: don’t overcook it.
TWILLEY: Huge thanks this episode to Maureen Fant, translator of The Encyclopedia of Pasta and author of Sauces and Shapes, to Jacob Kenedy, co-author of The Geometry of Pasta, and to Lining Yao, creator of shape-shifting pasta. We have links to their books and restaurants and to learn more about their work, including a cool video of Lining’s pasta, on our website at gastropod.com.
GRABER: Thanks also to Trattoria Anna Maria in Bologna and to Massimo Ratti at Ponte Rosso Ristorante and most especially to Toni Mazzaglia who introduced us to them and translated for us. Take Toni’s food tours—tasteflorence.com.
TWILLEY: Links and photos on our website, including amazing video of the tortellini making process.
TWILLEY: As always, we’re back in two weeks’ time with a brand new episode that is … well, I’ll just say it’s spicy!