Pasta Names and Shapes… Explained!

Orecchiette, an interestingly-shaped pasta from Puglia, gives away its shape with its Italian name…

Bucatini, spaghetti, tortellini, rigatoni: There are hundreds of kinds of Italian pastas, and each one has its own, special name. That’s pretty confusing… but it’s also fun!

We’ve said many times before that Italian food is regional (in fact, there’s no such thing as “Italian food”). Pasta is a major part of that. Local kinds of pasta in Tuscany differ from those in Rome, Milan, or Puglia.

For us, though, one of the really fun things about Italian pasta—and the names of Italian pastas—are that each pasta name actually means something. Usually, in fact, the name gives away the shape of the pasta itself.

Want proof? Here are just some of our favorite pastas, and what their names mean in Italian!

Bucatini all’amatriciana, a popular dish in Rome

Bucatini: One of the most popular kinds of pasta in Rome, bucatini look like thick spaghetti—but they have a tiny hole in the middle. (Think of a Twizzler!). What does bucatini mean? “Little holes!”. (Buco means hole, while adding an -ino, or -ini for plural, means “small”).

Cannelloni: These big tubes of pasta (usually stuffed and popped in the oven) are named after, well, “big tubes.” (Adding -one, or -oni for plural, means “big”).

Farfalle, or “butterfly,” pasta

Farfalle: This pasta might have the prettiest name of them all… “butterflies”! Hence the shape—of a bow tie, or (more creatively) a butterfly.

Fettuccine: This flat, ribbon-shaped pasta is named after, you guessed it, “little ribbons.”

Fusilli pasta might just be named after… rifles!

Fusilli: This pasta is thought to come from the word “fucile,” or “rifle”. Makes sense because fusilli are spiral-shaped… as is the inside barrel of a gun.

Linguine: This flattened, long pasta is named after “little tongues” (tongues: lingue, and the -in makes them “small”).

Orecchiette: This pasta, unique to the region of Puglia, means “little ears.” Sure enough, it’s an ear-shaped pasta.

Penne: An easy one, penne means “pens.” Next time you have a bowl of penne, check it out: The end of each piece of penne is similar to the tip of a fountain pen.

Spaghetti: Spaghi are “twines”; an -ett makes them small, so these are “little twines.” Perfect, right?

Strozzapreti pasta

Strozzapreti: From central Italy, especially Emilia-Romagna, Umbria and Tuscany, this pasta might have the strangest name of them all: “priest-strangler.” No one’s exactly sure where the name comes from. Some think it’s because priests loved the pasta so much, they ate too quickly and choked.

Vermicelli: In Italy, this is a tubular pasta that’s a little thicker than spaghetti. The name means “little worms.” Sounds gross—but, of course, tastes great!

(Check out the video below to learn how to make carbonara, a classic Roman pasta, from scratch!).

What’s your favorite pasta—or pasta name? Tell us in the comments!


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20 Responses to Pasta Names and Shapes… Explained!

  1. tony regonini October 11, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    campanelle “little bells” swirly horn of plenty shape that hold the sauce perfectly. Eat them with a spoon !!

  2. Nathalie ( @spacedlaw ) October 11, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    Mezze maniche (half sleeves) if only for this funny name and rigatoni (the big ribbed ones) (no, that’s not a condom type. Or at least I hope it isn’t. And if it is, I don’t want to know.).

  3. Home@Rome October 15, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    Conchiglie: also in this case this kind of pasta is named accordingly to the literal translation, as they are shaped like the snail’s shell

  4. Hotels in Italy October 19, 2012 at 5:00 am #

    I love Italian Pasta, now I know why they are so called like that. Very appetizing!

  5. Paolo October 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    I’m italian, and I love italian pasta. My favorite pasta are spaghetti al ragu`, which come from Emilia. They give you the perfect combo of meat and pasta.

  6. alyo October 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    My favorite pasta is spaghetti

  7. Leonardo October 25, 2012 at 7:45 am #

    The best pasta for me is: tortellini al cinghiale , it is the same as spaghetti but the meat in it is better.

  8. Carlo deRosa January 23, 2013 at 1:36 am #

    Do you know of a pasta called “Riccia”, or some thing like the word. If you do know, and it does exist, are you able to describe it’s appearance? Thank you for your help.

    • walksofitaly January 25, 2013 at 10:57 am #

      Hi Carlo, “riccia” means “curly” in Italian, so the most common kind of pasta “riccia” refers to a lasagna; you can see an example here. Please let us know if we can help with anything else!

  9. Jim June 5, 2013 at 11:39 pm #

    When I was a kid my mom and aunts always had a large rigatoni like pasta that cooked up flat and not as ridged. A fork would fit through it. Is there a name for this?

  10. Robby Lyon July 13, 2013 at 3:21 am #

    The thing about pasta, and the most important factor is the subtle difference in tastes of different shapes in conjunction with different sauces, textures etc. There are thousands of shapes.
    Some people believe that the shape is something that defines superficial importance or frivolity but on the contrary it is of utmost importance when planning what ingredient you will combine a certain pasta and shape.
    Some will never understand this, will never get it, but that is okay because that’s how the world is – different.

  11. DD Altemus July 20, 2013 at 12:37 am #

    There is a pasta only made in Montella Italy, in the province of Avellino, it sounds like “Staysay”. I’m wanting to know about this pasta and the rolling pin that they use to make it. Can you help me?

    • Walks of Italy July 26, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

      Hi there,
      Hmm… are you referring to cecaluccoli, similar to cavatelli? It doesn’t sound like “staysay,” of course, but we’re thinking of this one because the piece of pasta is rolled around a rolling pin. Let us know if that sounds right to you… there are hundreds of types of pastas in Italy, many of them very local, so it’s sometimes hard to come up with just the right one! :-)

  12. Pamela Holmes October 11, 2013 at 2:41 am #

    While in Rome recently, I had a delicious pasta dish made with a pasta that looked just like traditional penne but it was much, much smaller. Does this have a different name? I would love to try and recreate the dish.

    • Walks of Italy October 25, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

      Hi Pamela,
      It would probably be “pennette” (small penne). Happy cooking!


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