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Pasta shapes, the long and the short of it

There are more types of pasta than there are bathing suit designs. Ok, maybe not quite that many. But there are a lot, anyway.

Fortunately for the newcomer to the world of pasta, they break down along two broad categories: long and short, with a few crossovers. Or, more accurately, pasta shapes come mostly in two types: thin, long and solid, or short, tubed and curled.

Long pasta

Spaghetti is the most well-known, of course, though why that should be is shrouded in the mists of history.

Spaghetti, as nearly everyone knows, is the very prototype of long pasta. About a millimeter or two in diameter, typically about 10 inches long, and perfect for, well, spaghetti. Actually quite a healthy food, it does tempt nearly everyone to overindulge in a fine tomato sauce.

Fusilli ('twisted spaghetti') is a nice, dare we say it, twist on plain spaghetti. This curled, yet still long, form of pasta makes for a wonderful variation. It still goes perfectly with a tomato sauce, but cream sauces don't complain when mixed with it and neither will you.

Angel Hair or capellini (Italian for 'fine hairs') is very similar to spaghetti, but thinner and more delicate as the name suggests. Very fine for lighter sauces, it can also be used as an additive for soups or broken up and sprinkled on a salad.

Still thinner, are vermicelli ('little worms'). Don't let the name put you off. This delectable form of pasta is the perfect ingredient for a lower calorie 'spaghetti'. It tends to get smothered if the tomato sauce is too heavy, but it works quite well plain or with a nice cream sauce.

Fettuccine ('small ribbons') are aptly named, since they are shaped like longish, but fairly narrow ribbons. The perfect pasta under a fine cream sauce, they can also be used in cheese dishes and alongside a fine bit of meat. Alfredo is only one of the many ways to make use of this fine pasta.

Linguine ('little tongues') are about midway between a spaghetti and fettuccine. Perfect with just about any sauce, they are also delicious plain on a salad with just a bit of oil. Many stir-fry dishes use linguine. After all, not all pasta dishes are Italian.

And, then, ahhh, there's Lasagna. For those who want a larger, wider, heavier strip of pasta they can do no better. Used for, like the name says, lasagna it can also make a great base for other types of casserole. But don't short change it. It does well with chopped vegetables and a wide variety of other combinations.

Any form of long pasta does well when it's kept whole. After all, if it isn't at least a few inches long, how can you wrap it around the fork?

Short pasta

The short pastas tend to exhibit a much greater variety and they find themselves in dozens of delightful dishes. Short pasta forms the base for everything from ordinary macaroni and cheese to the most delicious ravioli, to those much more exotic recipes as well.

Of course, that plain macaroni ('dumpling') should not be scoffed at. It has gotten many person with little time on his or her hands through a lonely night. Baked or used in soups, or even just boiled and smothered in cheese, it's wonderful.

Cannelloni also known as manicotti ('small muffs') are a big jump up. Used to house meat and cheese, or stuffed with vegetables, they're more than just construction material. This pasta is recipe friendly. Cover with a fine tomato sauce and you've got a meal.

But there are several other pasta shapes that make for great stuffers. Medium shells like conchiglie may be a bit small and do better in soup. But jumbo shells are perfect for mixtures of shrimp or taco meat and seasoning, or a variety of other dishes.

Penne ('quills') or mostaccioli ('small mustaches') get lumped together because they're both small tubes. But they can make for great individual choices when used in a salad, in a baked casserole or just boiled and sprinkled with a little oil and seasoning.

Then there are types that the kids often have a lot of fun with. These can range from alphabet soup additions to little wagon wheels called ruote ('wheels'). Add them to soup or top with a nice cheese sauce and you'll have some budding gourmets on your hands.

Teach the children the next step and try some ditalini ('little thimbles'). They make for a great base in stir-fry dishes, creative salads and for little surprises when stuffed. Then let the young ones have fun with farfalle ('butterflies'). Great with chunky sauces.

Step up to ziti ('bridegrooms'), these cooperative little bits of pasta are great for meat dishes. They'll also make for a fine base in stir-fry dishes or all by themselves topped with a little dry cheese.

Don't forget about the venerable rigatoni ('large grooved'). With lots of surface area, where the starch causes the sauce to cling, they'll make your fine cream or tomato a stand out. Much smaller, but with even more surface area are the radiatore ('radiators'). Ruffled and ridged, they can make a casserole that just drips with sauce.

Whatever dish you plan there's a pasta shape that will make for a great taste and a sensory delight.

More about pasta

Pasta, the basics of a great food
A brief history of pasta
Pasta preparation, cooking and serving tips from the pros
Basic dictionary of pasta shapes
How to make homemade pasta
Homemade pasta machines
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