Italian Food – Know Your Pasta

A glutton’s glottological guide to the galaxy of pasta

Pasta is like beauty: it comes in all shapes and sizes.
We all are able to tell spaghetti apart from lasagne, but do we know what their names mean?
Here’s a small glutton dictionary for pasta lovers, with the explanation of the names of 42 main kinds of pasta (not stuffed).

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This kind of pasta – together with Trenette (see below) and Linguine (see below) – is typical of Ligury, and namely of its capital town Genoa. 
Bavette are a sort of Spaghetti, but with a rectangular section. Their name has the same root as the word “bava” (drool), plus the diminutive suffix -ette (feminine, plural); it’s probably because they look like dripping like drool when stretched through the machine.


They also are a sort of Spaghetti, yet made of whole wheat flour, instead of durum flour. Their peculiarity is that they are made by pressing the dough through a traditional machine; this gives them their typical irregular shape and surface. 
They are typical of Veneto (region with Venice) and some areas of Lombardy.
Their name comes from the local dialect and means “little worms” (see Vermicelli, below).


Everybody knows this typical pasta from Lazio (region with Rome). 
They look like thick Spaghetti, but with a hole. Indeed, their name simply means “pierced” or, more precisely, “the small pierced ones”, from “bucato” (past participle of verb “bucare”, to pierce) and the diminutive suffix -ini (masculine, plural).


Their name stems from the word “canna” (cane) and the augmentative suffix -oni (masculine plural), so they are the “large canes”.


Long, subtle and delicate: they are a sort of thin Spaghetti that look like hair (“capelli”, plural, for it’s a countable noun in Italian), and their name means just “small/thin hair”.


This small kind of pasta from southern Italy has the shape of a shell. Cavatelli are folded, yet hollow inside; from the adjective “cavo” (hollow) and the diminutive suffix -elli (masculine, plural).


“Conghiglia” (feminine, singular) means “shell”, and that’s what this kind of pasta’s shape resembles.
“Conchiglioni” is the augmentative noun (masculin, plural: augmentative and diminutive suffixes can often change the noun’s gender, in Italian grammar).


This word simply means “thimbles” (being “dito” the Italian word for “finger”), because of their shape.

Eliche (see Fusilli)

“Elica” means helix, from the shape – again – this pasta has. They are more commonly called “Fusilli”.


Doesn’t this kind of pasta look like butterflies? And butterfly is just the meaning of the word “farfalla” (singular; plural, “farfalle”).


This pasta – made with eggs and wheat flour – has the shape of a little tape, and that’s exactly what its name means, from the word “fettuccia” (tape, ribbon) and diminutive suffix -ine (feminine plural).
They also are called Tagliatelle (see below).


Rare yet delicious, odd kind of pasta from Sardinia, Fregola is made by rubbing the dough against the bowl it had been kneaded in. The word comes from “fregare/sfregare”: to rub. See that in standard Italian “fregare” mainly means “to cheat”, while in Genoese dialect it only means “to rub” (see also French “frayer”). Languages spoken in ancient times in Genoa, southern France and Sardinia mutually influenced through the centuries, because of maritime trades.


Another rare kind of pasta typical of Trieste and Istria (a region nowadays divided between Slovenia and Croatia, where this name is written fuzi or fuži), Fusi are made of thin squares of dough with a couple of opposite corner folded on one another, forming a small, short straw.
They roughly look like a spindle (“fuso”), from which their name probably comes from.


With this name, people in Italy call two kinds of pasta: Eliche (see above) and Cavatappi (meaning “corkscrews”), which are Fusilli in the strictest sense of the word.
Etymology is, again, the spindle, as they are made by winding dough up on a rolling rod, as if they were spun.


They have more or less the same shape of Fusi. Their name might come from the root “*garg-”, which is the same of the word “gargarozzo”, a popular noun for throat (see also “gargarismo”, gargling). It may allude to the act of chocking (see “Strozzapreti”).


This name is given to a plethora of kinds of pasta, basically all with a round shape. The root of the word comes from latin “nucleus” (same).

Gnocchetti sardi (see Malloreddus)

The expression means “Sardinian small gnocchi”.


This kind of pasta probably boasts the most interesting etymology: either from ancient Greek “làsanon” (pot) or from “làgaron” (flaccid), that is either after the recipient it had to be cooked in or the consistency it assumes once cooked.


These kind of pasta shares origins and look with Bavette (see above) and Trenette (see below), but Linguine have an oval section. Note that in Italian it’s Linguine, ending with -e (pronounced [e]), and not “Linguini” (ending in [i]). 
The word means “little tongues”, from “lingua” (tongue) plus diminutive suffix -ine (feminine plural), in all likelihood because they are flat and long.


Even if in Anglo-Saxon languages “maccaroni” may mean a wide variety of short kinds of pasta, there is only one kind of Maccheroni to Italians: short tubes made of durum wheat.
Their name also comes from ancient Greek: “makaronia” was the meal served during funerals (even if originally it probably was a rice dish).


These small gnocchi are similar to Cavatelli, but their name, in Sardinian language, means “little calves”, because they resembles the back of a calf.


This pasta has an irregular shape. Indeed, they are the “carelessly (“mal”, apocope of the adverb “male”) cut (“tagliati”, past participle – masculine, plural – of the verb “tagliare”)”.


Does this kind of pasta resembles small ears? According to locals it does, because “orecchio” (masculine singular) means “ear” and -ette is the diminutive suffix (female plural – take it as it is: explaining this switch of gender requires a whole lesson of Latin!).


Large, short and smooth tubes whose name might be connected with latin “patulus”, meaning just “large”.


Another large kind of pasta, whose name should have a relationship with the word “pappa” (“mush” or “food for children”) and the verb “pappare” (popular for “to eat”).


Eggs, breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese: these are the ingredients of a special pasta made by pressing the mixture through a machine, or a sort of colander. 
From the word “passato”, past participle of the the verb “passare”, meaning (among many other meanings) “letting something pass through something else”.


Short tubes with pointed edges that resemble pens made with feathers: “penna” (singular), indeed, means both pen and feather.


This speciality from Valtelline (Lombardy) is made with buckwheat flour, and has a name that means “sanctinomious, churchy”, but it’s probably not its right etymology. This name more likely come from “pizzicare” (to pinch), because Pizzoccheri have a flat shape, that can be obtained by squeezing dough with fingers.


They are a sort of large Spaghetti from Tuscany, and their name is a mystery. Maybe it is connected with the adjective “appiccicoso” (sticky), because they stick to one’s finger when one stretches them on the pastry board; maybe it is connected with the name of the village of San Felice in Picis, by Arezzo.


They are a kind of large Maccheroni, with stripes on their surface. Therefore, they are “the large (suffix -oni, masculine, plural) striped (rigato) ones”.


No explanation needed for the most famous kind of pasta that looks like many little twines (“spago”, plural “spaghi”, plus diminutive suffix -etti ).


These small gnocchi are common in Trentino-Alto Adige and in some other areas of northern Italy, but they come from Austria. Their name has a German origin and means “little birds”.


They are a sort of Tagliolini (see below) from Marche and Umbria, but they don’t contain eggs.
Their name likely is a modification of the noun “stringa” (string), because of their shape, even if they are also known as Strangozzi or Strongozzi.


From the verb “strozzare” (to strangle) and the noun “prete” (priest). The structure of this verb-noun compound tells this is something used “to strangle priests”. Indeed, they sometimes are also called “strangolapreti”, with the same meaning (verb here is “strangolare”). Their shape is similar to the one of Garganelli. 
Why priests only should be strangled is a mystery.


They are long, pretty thick (but not thicker than one millimeter, 0.04 In) and have a rectangular section, because they can be 2 or 3 millimeters large. They contain eggs, while their name contains the root of the verb “tagliare”, to cut.


This is another name of Taglierini, and the root is the same.
This kind of pasta is common more or less all over Italy, with slight differences.


The name comes from the verb “tagliare” (to cut) again, but this time the section is a little larger: surface can be up to 5mm large. Basically, this is another name for Fettuccine (see above).


They are an unusual and delicious pasta typical of Lunigiana – an area shared between eastern Ligury and northern Tuscany – made by boiling roughly cut pieces of a sort of flat bread, that was first cooked in a special pan. This pan is called “testo”, so “Testaroli” are the pieces of pasta come out from a “testo”.


Last member of the “Ligurian trilogy” of long kinds of pasta, together with Bavette and Linguine (see above), Trenette have a rectangular section, like Bavette, but are usually thicker, larger and shorter. Their name probably comes from Genoese dialect, in which “trena” means “little string”. Diminutive suffix -ette (feminine plural) belongs both to standard Italian and to Genoese dialect.


Again, a kind of pasta from Ligury, short and similar to a flattened small gnocco.
The meaning and the etymology of this name are unknown, even if some say it comes from ancient Greek “trophé”, “nourishment”. Genoese dialect actually has some terms coming from ancient Greek, but experts are not sure on this one.


“Little worms”, that’s the meaning of the name of this kind of pasta, from the noun “verme” (worm) and diminutive suffix -elli (masculine, plural). Word “vermicelli” comes from Latin “vermiculi”.


This sort of Maccheroni was traditionally served during wedding parties, that’s why they are called with a name that means, in Apulian dialect, “the engaged ones”.
The word “zitella” (little fiancée, in a cruel, ironic sense) has the same etymology. A zitella is a spinster, that basically is someone always ready to be married, but still unmarried.