A Walks of Italy Guide to Italian Pasta

October 10, 2012

The Colosseum, the Mediterranean, the Renaissance … the Pasta. Italy is known throughout the world for many reasons, but there’s little more famous than its pasta. An icon of the peninsula, no trip to Italy is complete without sampling its many pasta dishes.

We’ve said before: Italian food is regional, and that goes for its pasta too! Local kinds of pasta in Florence differ from those in Rome, Milan, or Palermo. Each locale has a pasta with its own unique recipe, with its own unique shape, length, size and story. Not only that, but Italians swear that each pasta has its own sauce. To truly eat authentic pasta, you need to match each type with the correct sauce. Those little shells? Great with a cheese sauce. Long, flat tagliatelle? Nothing’s better than a classic ragù. Short, twisted Ligurian trofie? Covered with homemade pesto, naturally!

Bucatini, spaghetti, tortellini, rigatoni: There are hundreds of different kinds of Italian pastas, each with its own name and delicious sauce. Don’t know where to start? Here are some of our favorite pastas, and what their names mean in Italian!

Bucatini all’amatriciana, a popular dish in Rome

Dry Pasta

There are two basic types of pasta that you can find in Italy: Fresh pasta, made with flour and egg, and dry pasta, pastasciutta, made without egg. Typically dry pasta tends to be the more mass-produced, Barilla-style pasta while fresh pasta is what’s served in restaurants. Since it lasts longer and stores better, most fresh pasta can also be found dry, like tagliatelle or spaghetti. That said, both hold a special place in the heart of Italians, and both are worth tasting! 


The sacred grail of pastas, spaghetti is an Italian staple. Children are patiently taught how to twirl just the right amount of spaghetti on their forks from a young age, practicing regularly (hint, don’t start in the middle, take just one or two strands and twirl, no spoon.) Spaghi are “twines”. The -ett makes them small, so these are “little twines.” Spaghetti pair with a variety of sauces, but the best is a classic marinara. The purest of the sauces and the base for nearly all tomato-sauced pastas, this is just fresh plum or San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, salt and basil. Homemade, of course. 


Penne is another pasta that lends itself to hundreds of different sauces. Actually, out of all the pastas, this is probably the most versatile. As for the name, this is 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.


Fusilli, a spiral shape of pasta

Fusilli, a spiral shape of pasta

This pasta either comes from the word “fucile,” or “rifle”, for the spiral-shaped inside barrel of a gun or for a fuso, or spindle, which they were rapped around to form spirals. Fusilli are versatile, capturing the flavors of elaborate, dense sauces but also good for simpler dishes, making them the perfect pasta for new culinary experiments. Try a creamy, classic ricotta sauce, experiment with a pistachio pesto, or keep it simple with marinara and sausage. 


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”). Though they can technically be stuffed with anything, these are often either made with a ragù or stuffed with spinach and cheese.


Farfalle, or "butterfly," pasta

Farfalle, or “butterfly,” pasta

This pasta might have the prettiest name of them all… “butterflies”! Often called bow-tie pasta in the United States, the Italians poetically view the pasta as more of a butterfly. Farfalle are best dressed with extra-virgin olive oil. Try adding high-quality tuna, capers and olives and drizzled with olive oil for a salty dish perfect for a warm day. 

Fresh Pasta

In general, dry pasta is known for its al dente bite, allowing it to hold up against hearty, meat-based sauces particularly well. Fresh pasta, on the other hand, is softer, more delicate. It’s best for simple, fresh sauces, particularly dairy-based. The exception to this rule is, of course, ragù. Ragù alla bolognese is a rich, homemade meat sauce that’s always paired with fresh pasta. 


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”). The most classic bucatini dish is bucatini all’amatriciana. Said to be from Amatrice, in Lazio, the amatriciana sauce is the perfect combination of sweet guanciale, salty pecorino cheese and spicy red pepper flakes mixed with tomato sauce. Thousands of this dish were sold recently as a fundraiser for the town of Amatrice, all but destroyed in the summer of 2016 by an earthquake.

Tagliatelle and Pappardelle

Ragù alla Bolognese, Italian Food

Ragù alla Bolognese – always with tagliatelle, never spaghetti. Photo by Fotoos Van Robin @Flickr

Both tagliatelle and pappardelle are long, flat ribbons of pasta. Tagliatelle are the skinnier of the two, while pappardelle are wide tongues of pasta from Tuscany. From Emilia-Romagna and le Marche, tagliatelle are great with a traditional bolognese meat sauce but also with cream, prosciutto and peas; tomato sauce and mushrooms; or even oil and shrimp. Basically, they’re always good! Pappardelle, on the other hand, are best paired with a wild boar ragù. A rich, rustic sauce pairs perfectly with the wide, flat noodles. 


This flattened, long pasta is named after “little tongues” (tongues: lingue, and the -in makes them “small”). Wider than spaghetti but not as wide as fettuccine, this pasta is king of sea food pasta dishes. Make linguine with shrimp scampi, or warm butter and prawns. Our favorite? A fresh linguine with vongole, or clams. 


Traditional pasta of Italy's Salento peninsula

Photo: Giuseppe Masil

This pasta, unique to the region of Puglia, means “little ears,” named after its shape. Puglia has a long tradition of artisanal pasta, but the most famous are by far the orecchiette. This is one pasta that can be served dozens of different ways, because of it’s concave shape, but they’re most famously served with broccoli or turnip greens and seasoned by anchovies, garlic and olive oil.


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. Legend has it that it’s because priests loved the pasta so much, they ate it too quickly and choked!

(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!


by Walks of Italy

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23 responses to “A Walks of Italy Guide to Italian Pasta”

  1. tony regonini says:

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

  2. 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. 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 says:

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

  5. Paolo says:

    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 says:

    My favorite pasta is spaghetti

  7. Leonardo says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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?

    • 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! 🙂

    • Vincent says:

      I think you mean “stese” which means to spread or stretch and is probably referring to how the pasta is made.

  12. Pamela Holmes says:

    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.

  13. N.stephen guru says:

    very good explain

  14. Lynda Taylor says:

    What is that thick, chewy pasta spaghetti from the Anghiari area of Tuscany called? Where celandine I get it in North Carolina?

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