Pasta comes in a myriad of wonderful shapes -- tubes and spirals, shells and ribbons and little ears. But why? Did some pasta manufacturer have fun -- or does it really make a difference in taste?
That was the question that designer Caz Hildebrand set out to answer in a stylish new cookbook, The Geometry of Pasta. The cookbook has text and recipes from chef Jacob Kenedy and dramatic black and white drawings of pasta shapes by Hildebrand.
"It occurred to me that there had to be a reason," Hildebrand tells NPR's Melissa Block. "And I started researching it, [and] it became clear that there certainly was a reason -- that certain shapes went with certain sauces. And that once you were let into this deep secret, known only to Italians by osmosis or birthright, you could enjoy pasta far, far more than you ever thought possible."
For example, a scoop or cup-shaped pasta would go with something that's lumpy so "you can catch it in the cup," Kenedy says.
Kenedy says the flavors mix well with certain shapes.
"Fish flavors tend to go with lighter-textured pastas, to my mind, [as do] lumpier sauces or oilier sauces with different forms," he says. "Some pastas are ridged or quite rough on the outside, which makes them catch a sauce quite well, and others are smooth and slippery. And they all have a different 'mouth feel' that works differently with a different sauce."
Kenedy says the shapes are "quite exciting."
"Tortellini, which I love -- tiny tortelloni, they’re normally filled with mortadella and prosciutto. Their shape -- reputedly at least -- is based on the shape of Lucrezia Borgia’s navel," he says. "And when you eat them, particularly in a very light sauce ... so you can really feel the pasta shape, it is slightly erotic if you think about it enough."
In doing the research for the book, Hildebrand and Kenedy identified more than 1,200 names for pasta. "They may not all be different shapes, but there are at least 1,200 names -- and counting," Hildebrand says.
"I think one of the most amazing opportunities that could ever befall a designer would be to design a pasta shape," she says. "I mean, probably incredibly difficult, and I know some people have tried and failed, but I think they are very exciting. And the idea that the Industrial Revolution inspired pasta shapes is kind of wonderful."
There are pastas whose names come from industrial words to make the industrial shapes, including eliche (screws) and fusilli (spindles).
Beyond the industrial shapes, canestrini are little baskets used in soups. Cappelletti, cappellacci and tortelli are pastas with folds.
"I quite like them with a fairly light filling, with a ricotta and chicken, or something fairly, fairly light," Kenedy says. "They're also used with a pumpkin; it's lovely in them."
And then there are the strozzapreti, or priest stranglers, which are long strips rolled into tubes.
"There are a number of different theories as to why they've got the name -- possibly because they're so delicious and priests stuff their faces with them, or down to the intentions of the woman who made them," Kenedy says. "Many a priest has probably met his fate at the hands of strozzapreti."
For the dischi volanti, or flying saucers, Kenedy says he struggled to come up with a recipe for the pasta that dates from the '70s.
"I was looking for recipes that somehow spoke of the time they came from. And we found one from the '70s with oysters in a bechamel [sauce]. And I made it, and I tried making it a number of times and playing with it, and it did come out completely disgusting every time I tried to make it -- it was far too '70s," he says. "And there's a risotto I make quite often with oysters and Prosecco [sparkling wine] -- very light -- and I adapted that into the pasta. And again with the mouth feel, it works very well -- the oysters have this slightly silky, wavy texture, when they're cooked, as does the pasta."
While Kenedy is thinking of recipes, Hildebrand says she's constantly thinking of pasta shapes.
"[I] can't stop seeing them now. I feel that there are some sort of spindle shapes with pointy ends that have never been done, sort of fat in the middle and pointed [at] either end," she says. "I feel that there might be some more geometric shapes to explore. We quite like the idea of making some very, you know, for example hexagonal forms, or octagons -- things like that, where there are lots of edges. That would be fun."