Updated: Nov 21, 2020
author: Kristin Sanders
The simplicity of eggs, flour, olive oil, and salt. Four ingredients (and sometimes even less) to create a basic pasta dough in a variety of shapes: round or flat, thick or thin, strands or familiar little shapes like farfalle (butterflies/bowties) or conchiglie (shells). Home cooks may pull out their Kitchen-Aid pasta attachment, perhaps stuffing some ravioli on occasion -- but, more often opting for a handy box of dried or refrigerated “fresh” pasta at the store. That’s the extent of what we expect here in the US...until we see a jaw-dropping window display of glorious pasta in shapes we never imagined while traveling in Italy or online. When we taste the velvety richness of hand-crafted pastas in shapes we can’t even pronounce from the kitchen of our friend’s nonna or the latest innovative chef, we unlock a new-found pasta appreciation.
Just as there is more to authentic Japanese sushi than spicy tuna rolls and a vast existence of German sausages besides the familiar bratwurst, the world of unique Italian pastas beyond spaghetti awaits our discovery and enjoyment. Mona Talbott, founding executive chef at the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the American Academy in Rome, says that the wide range of pasta shapes shows that cooking “was a way of self-expression for women to show their creativity and imagination with little or no resources.” We’d like to introduce you to three unique shapes using those simple, inexpensive ingredients mixed with Old World creativity that we’re betting you won’t find at your local American grocery chain.
Strozzapreti, or “Priest Strangler,” (pictured above) have a somewhat sordid history with various tales of origin dating from the 14th-16th centuries. The basic version relates that strozzapreti was a popular dish among the monks and priests who ate it so quickly they almost choked. Another legend is that housewives, tired of being pressed to provide room and board to traveling clerics, created these thick, rolled, rope-like pastas hoping gluttonous priests might strangle themselves while eating it. Other variations exist arising from a time of anticlericalism in central Italy where the history gets much darker (you can research that on your own!). Strozzapreti fairs are still held regionally in local hamlets, attracting gourmands from around the world. Each locale has their own special regional preparation, but traveling journalist Silvia Marchetti suggests they are best served with wild boar stew that clings onto the pasta’s curls and twists, with peas, mushrooms, and truffles; even in capon broth. Andiamo from pasta ropes to pasta coins!
Corzetti stampae or croxetti pasta, from northwestern Italy, are said to have been stamped originally with a 14th century Genoan gold coin called a corzetto. Both the pasta and coin had a cross on one side, hence the name from either “crux” for cross or the coin itself. Corzetti are small thin round pasta disks imprinted using either a wooden hand-tool or bronze die. The machine or hand-stamped pasta has a detailed design on one side, such as a coat of arms or trademark, and a simpler design on the other, perhaps a cross, family initials, sailboat, or floral motif. Stamps, as beautiful as the pasta themselves, are still hand crafted by commissioned artisans for big events and weddings. The ridges of the embossed image help sauce cling to the pasta. One of the oldest sauces prepared with corzetti is from medieval times: a pesto made with marjoram, pine nuts, walnuts, olive oil and parmesan cheese. Corzetti are also served with a simple meat or mushroom sauce. Originally created by peasants for aristocracy to show off their wealth and status, corzetti pasta can now be created by anyone at home with stamps easily found online or around the house.
Saving the best for last, a nonnina demonstrates for you macarrones de ungia (yes, that’s fingernail macaroni) from start to finish! Try not to fall in love while watching Pasta Granny Giuseppa Porcu making Macarrones de Ungia.
There are literally hundreds of types of pasta (and perhaps up to four names for each kind), so we are only getting started... but, basta pasta! Time to get into the kitchen and start sampling the never-ending creative options from the minds of mothers and chefs everywhere. Surprise your love with strozzapreti or let your kids stamp their favorite images while helping you make corzetti (kids LOVE pasta and playing with dough!). Spend an afternoon with your Nonna making her speciality, such as the macarrones de ungia. You’ll both appreciate the time together while you learn to carry on family traditions. If Nonna is not available, please watch more of the most adorable nonne sharing their family secrets and kitchen traditions at Pasta Grannies!
Chef Brendon of Liliahna has some Pasta Pointers for you:
Putting oil in the pasta water is lazy; just stir and be attentive to avoid sticking.
Use a bit of reserved pasta water to finish your sauce with a nice starchiness; it will adhere to the pasta more easily.
Remember that all pasta shapes and sizes require different cooking times -- Linguine and Bucatini definitely don’t cook in the same amount of time.
Different pasta shapes are more suited for certain sauces: bucatini (tube spaghetti with hollow center) with a heartier sauce and cappellini (angel hair) and a light cream/white wine sauce.
In general, the thicker the pasta, the heartier the sauce.
Cook pasta al dente (to the tooth); tender, but sticks to the teeth a bit, has bite.
Use your sauce cooking pan/pot to mix the pasta in for finishing. This brings the pasta and sauce together cohesively as they absorb a bit from each other.
Get some flour on your hands and show us the finished product from your pasta adventure in comments!