It didn’t start that way. Pasta probably originated in China. Marco Polo returned from his adventures with this fabulous food in the 13th century. Recognizing a good thing, Italians were quick to take it and make it their own. Italians eat far more pasta than anyone else: an estimated 27 kg (60 lb) per Italian each year, compared to Americans, who scarf down a mere 9 kg (20 lb) per person.
Ranging from the tiny, toasted dots called fregula to the long, wide ribbons we know as lasagna, pasta comes in many shapes and sizes. Just how many? Type the question, “How many varieties of pasta are there?” in a search engine, and here are some of the results:
- “There are over 600 pasta shapes…”
- “There are over 50 distinct types of pasta…”
- “It is estimated that there are approximately 350 different types of pasta…”
- “There are more than 400 unique types of pasta…”
What is the correct answer and why is there so much indecisiveness? First, let’s address some classification terminology:
- Pasta comes in two broad categories: dried (pasta secca) and fresh (pasta fresca).
- The pasta of each category is further classified by shape. There are more than 300 such shapes. Those 300 shapes are known by more than 1,300 names. Cavatelli, for example, is known by 28 different names, depending on the town or region.
- The shapes are commonly classified into groups of minute, short cut, stuffed, long, ribbon cut, irregular, and specialty.
The classification system isn’t nearly as precise as the taxonomy system developed by Carl Linnaeus. Added to the confusion is that nearly every chef insists that his or her variation on pasta is a definitive new variety. All things considered, it is better to agree with an insistent chef than to demand precision of definition.
At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss the many different pasta shapes as being nothing more than decorative. Each has a distinct purpose, however. The shapes are designed to hold and complement sauces and complementary ingredients at the level that best enhances the overall flavor. The thin, long angel hair pasta, for example, is best served with thin sauces. Cream sauces seem to work best with flat-shaped pasta, whereas tomato-based sauces cling better to round shapes.
For a list of many different varieties of pasta, together with a picture and description of each, look here. Alternatively, check out the visual Encyclopedia of Pasta below.