Orecchiette & Co.: Five Handmade Pasta Shapes
Orecchiette, strascinati, cavatelli. The musicality of the Italian language is displayed not only in inherently lyrical expressions, like poems and songs, but also in the names of everyday things, like pasta. Scorze d’amelle, scorze di nocelle. Simply saying these names tickles the imagination.
When I want to learn more about a pasta shape, my reference is the “Encyclopedia of Pasta” by Oretta Zanini De Vita. The book contains entries for 310 types of pasta. Each type is identified by a main name, and when applicable, alternative names. The same pasta shape can have different names in different regions, or different towns. Various sizes of the same shape may have different names. Sometimes the same name refers to two different types of pasta. Such proliferation can be a bit intimidating, if not maddening, for the visitor – or the writer trying to inform her readers.
While names are important, they should not distract you from enjoying the shapes – these celebratory expressions of human creativity inspired by pasta dough. Skillful hands follow local traditions to shape the supple dough into pretty pasta jewels. Traditional shapes were taught by one generation to the next, so the recipes tend to have strong family roots.
The five types of pasta mentioned above are commonly (though not exclusively) made with semolina flour (ground durum wheat) and water. In their many variations, they are found in southern Italy. They are shaped either with the fingers or with the help of a blade working on the traditional wooden kneading board on which the dough is mixed and kneaded.
1. Orecchiette literally means “small ears” (orecchie). To make them, small pieces of dough are drawn across the wooden board with a blunt-tipped knife, or are stretched and turned inside out on a fingertip. In Puglia, orecchiette are traditionally served with cime di rape (rapini or broccoli rabe), a vegetable popular in the region.
The use of a small amount of burnt wheat flour (farina di grano arso) makes dark grey orecchiette that have a light, smoky flavor. This flour was traditionally obtained by milling durum wheat grains gleaned from the fields after the stubble had been burnt. It was then mixed into regular semolina flour to make pasta.
2. Strascinati – “It is practically impossible to make sense of the Babel of strascinati in the regions of southern Italy,” writes Zanini De Vita. They come in all sizes, made with any number of fingers, with edges more or less raised. The basic idea is to drag a small piece of dough on a wooden board to thin it and shape it. The result depends on how the dragging is performed and carries the finger imprints on the concave surface. A simple dressing for this pasta that is popular in Basilicata includes garlic and fresh mint.
3. Cavatelli are made in a similar way: small pieces of dough are drawn across the board using a blunt-tipped knife or fingers, which leaves an indentation. “This shape is just one of the many that evolved from the flour-and-water gnocco common in the medieval Italian kitchen,” writes Zanini De Vita.
4. Scorze d’amelle – To make scorze d’amelle (almond shells), small pieces of dough are drawn downward on a wooden board with the rounded tip of a knife. The result looks like half the shell of an almond (see top photo).
5. Scorze di nocelle – To make scorze di nocelle (hazelnut shells), poke a finger in the middle of a small piece of dough rounded into a ball and leave a depression. This pasta may be cooked in broth or served with legumes.
Besides the ones already mentioned, there are many other traditional ways of dressing these pasta shapes, depending on the region, the time of year, and whether they are prepared for a celebration: various types of ragu, fresh tomato sauce, local cheeses (like cacioricotta). The pastas’ concave shape is a receptacle for the chosen dressing.
(This is the first of a series of articles on traditional Italian pasta shapes.)