Offer more than spaghetti for an updated pasta menu
Pasta is like walking into an amusement park. You can get lost in all the combinations, flavors and lovely profiles –– some old, some young, some just made up on a whim. Either way, the perfect pasta not only depends upon the fancy (or non-fancy) shape. It is predicated on what the pasta will be used for and who is eating it. Here are a few of the factors for different pasta shapes.
Quality: Just like pizza, you can only make high-quality pasta with high-quality ingredients. Cutting corners on pasta, sauces and ingredients only degrades your dish. Here are some tests to check pasta quality.
Boil the pasta, drain and sniff the steam for that fresh wheat smell of quality pasta.
Taste the pasta. There is nothing better than side-by-side tasting. Do you taste the wheat or the bitter, off-chalky, pasty flavor?
Pinch the pasta for quality al dente texture. Inferior pasta is gummy and soft in the middle. (Higher-quality pasta stays al dente longer.)
Check absorption by placing a few strands or pieces of cooked pasta in a bowl side-by-side and add just a small bit of water. The higher-quality pasta will absorb moisture better.
Sauce: This can be thick, thin, chunky, broth or even just oil with cheese. Ridges and tube-shaped pasta catch more liquid-like sauces where a more creamy sauce would stick to a flat, non-ridged pasta.
Protein: Another factor is the size and shape compared to the protein and/or vegetables in the sauce and how the consumer would eat this pasta. For example, you don’t see jumbo shrimp served with the small ditalini pasta but famously paired with linguine. The way you can fork-twirl the linguine and spear the shrimp is perfect for dining whereas the ditalini is perfect with soup.
Vegetables and nuts: Just like pasta, you can manipulate veggies to mimic pasta like long zucchini, carrot or spinach ribbons with thin pasta. The addition of a crunchy counterpoint to pasta either in the form of nuts added to a cream sauce or the salty tang of olives in a tomato sauce is a great finish to pasta.
When it comes to pasta shapes in the pizzeria, consider the market you are in and gauge your target customers’ knowledge of pasta to determine what pasta will sell. For example, years ago, I created a bar/lounge menu that was frequented by families and kids with a best seller of bowtie or farfalle pasta in a cream sauce with shrimp that was only trumped by the spaghetti and meatballs. In the accompanying restaurant, the Linguine with clams was the best seller followed by a pappadelle alla Bolognese. Here are some really cool modern pasta shapes that will wow your guests and boost your sales of pasta:
Farfalle: This “bowtie” or “butterfly” pasta catches both sauce and is large enough to get a fork-full of protein and veg with every bite. This is a great children’s seller.
Fusilli: This spiral wonder catches more sauce than just about any other pasta. Great with bell peppers, olives, cauliflower, sausage and figs.
Ditalini: Meaing “small thimbles” in Italian, this short macaroni is perfect in cold summer salads and soups like minestrone, bean and fennel soup.
Trenette: This thick pasta is almost as big as fettuccini but larger than tagliatelle. It is great with radicchio and goat cheese, rustic potatoes and beans, pesto and the “Trenette Norcina” with sausage and mushroom.
Orecchiette: These “little ears” are my favorite served with lava beans, dandelion greens and caramelized onion. Peas and tomato concasse find these little nests perfect for spooning and sautéed spinach and mushroom wind their way around this pasta perfectly.
Mezzi rigatoni: These are fun, large, half tubes with ridges. Great cooked and stood up and piped with a mascarpone or Gorgonzola cream and herbs. They make a warming winter lunch bowl with a deep meat ragu garnished with peppers and basil.
Strozzapreti: This small twig-shaped pasta has a fascinating past. Initially made by wives that were forced to feed travelling priests anytime they knocked and so its name means “priest stranglers.” Great with fennel, almonds, mint, capers and basil or mandolin-thin zucchini and cream with speck or a wonderful dance with spinach, cream and Parmigiano.
Conchiglie: These “shells” can be very fun to cook and eat. Tossed correctly, they hold plenty of pesto, extra virgin olive oil, peas, diced carrot and tomato. I love them with broccoli florets, tomato and guanciale with a Gorgonzola cream sauce. The larger shells have been used by some Italian chefs as really cool “Italian sushi,” glorious cocoons of pasta around tuna and veggies.
Stelline: This is really cool, small star-shaped pasta perfect for a contrasting, colorful soup or salad. Stelline is also great with cheese in baked Portobello and I’ve even used them in meatballs for my kids!
Campanelle: This beautiful pasta is shaped like a cone with ruffled edges and was designed to be used with a thick sauce or with creamy cheeses like ricotta and mascarpone. Campanelle is great with broccoli pesto, capers thick ragu’s and spicy greens with béchamel and pine nuts.
Traditional Italian pasta with the sauces and ingredients they are famous with:
- Rigatoni: bean paste / tomato, celery root
- Vermicelli: thyme honey, pork fat / breadcrumbs, oranges
- Fettuccine: cream, vodka, ricotta / cod, peas
- Tagliatelle: pecorino crema / tomato, basil, eggplant
- Penne: butter, bacon, onion / garlic, pepperoncini, parsley, pecorino
- Corzetti: butter sauce / mushrooms, braised beef
- Piccagge ribbons: basil pesto / artichoke, peas
- Pappardelle: Bolognese meat sauce / lamb, pork, veal, tomato
- Spaghetti: bottarga (cured fish roe) lemon, artichoke, pine nut
- Linguine: salsa verde / calamari, pepperoncini
- Fusilli: garlic, olives, capers / cauliflower, parsley
- Bucatini: nutmeg, butter, cream / Parmigiano, pepper
- Pici: tomato sauce, marjoram / sausage, wild mushroom
- Trenette: basil pesto / pine nuts, shrimp, Parmigiano
- Fregula: garlic, white wine, tomato / chili, clams, sun-dried tomato
- Cavatelli: garlic, tomato sauce / braised goat, parsley
- Ziti: orange-caper sauce / octopus, basil, almond pesto
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio and has a pizza blog called Pizza Goon. He is an award-winning pizzaiolo, baker, teacher, speaker and author.