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How to decipher Italy’s mind-boggling pasta menus

In case you hadn’t noticed, Italians take pasta very seriously. There are dozens of varieties, and menus can be hard to decipher to visitors and newcomers.

How to decipher Italy's mind-boggling pasta menus
There's much more to Italian pasta than just spaghetti and ravioli. How many can you recognise? Photo: Depositphotos

Pasta is an art form; not only does each region have its local specialities, but there are rules as to which sauce goes best with which pasta.

To start with, Italians would never pair chicken or meatballs with any type of pasta – and don't even think about topping a seafood pasta dish with cheese.

Menus can become confusing. There are so many different kinds of pasta out there that sometimes you don't realise it's pasta, let alone what shape.

Waiters have been known to draw pasta shapes in order to help diners understand what they're ordering, while many foreigners in Italy have sat through lectures from Italian housemates on why you should never, ever order spaghetti bolognese.

So to help you blend in and impress your Italian friends, here is our guide to the country's favourite food.

Capelli d’angelo

Photo: David Adam Kess/Wikimedia Commons

Literally translating as 'angel hair', this pasta is very thin and light, meaning it cooks very quickly. It is sold either in strands or 'nests' and should be eaten with light sauces or can be used in soups.

Capelli d'angelo is in the same pasta family as fidelini (slightly thicker), spaghetti (even thicker) and vermicelli (thickest), all of which work best with lighter sauces, often seafood-based, and can be used in soups.


Photo: stu_spivack/Flickr

Bucatini is another long, skinny pasta, but with one crucial difference – it is hollow. The tube shape allows sauce to flow through it, making it a great partner with thicker, meatier sauces than the thinner strands can handle. Bucatini is particular popular with amatriciana, a Lazio sauce made from guanciale (pig's cheek).


Photo: Yaksar/Wikimedia Commons

Named after Princess Mafalda of Savoy, and sometimes also called reginette (little queens), these are flat, wide ribbons with wavy edges, allowing them to pick up chunks of sauce.

They are used in a similar way to other ribbon pastas: linguine ('little tongues' with an eliptical cross-section), tagliatelle (ribbons), fettuccine (wider ribbons), pappardelle (widest), all of which go well with meaty or thicker sauces. For example, 'bolognese' sauce or ragu is usually eaten with tagliatelle in Italy – never spaghetti.


Mezze maniche

Photo: pp109/DepositPhotos

The name translates as 'half sleeves' and they are also known as maniche di frate (friar's sleeves), inspired by the shorter-sleeved garments worn by religious men in the summer, and are short tube shapes.

Tubes are one of the most popular kinds of pasta and there are many varieties – from thin, ridged penne to large rigatoni. They are designed to hold thick sauces in the ridges and tubes.


Photo: Edsel Little/Flickr

These are short twists of pasta, usually served with light, smooth sauces and pesto in particular, and a local speciality in Emilia-Romagna.

Their name literally means 'priest stranglers' and is thought to come from the legend that greedy priests would eat the pasta so quickly that they would choke – it could also be because their shape resembles a priest's collar. Pici are a similar kind of pasta made in neighbouring Tuscany.


Photo: Tom/Wikimedia Commons

Usually eaten with pesto, trofie are smaller and denser than strozzapreti but made in a similar way by rolling the dough. Their name probably comes from the Ligurian word 'strufuggiâ' (to rub) as a reference to this method.


Photo: zkruger/DepositPhotos

Casarecce come from Sicily, and they are a narrow, twisted shape – the name means 'homemade' so the shapes are rarely uniform. Sturdier than strozzapreti or trofie they can handle thicker, creamy or chunky sauces


Photo: Meg Lauber

Fazzoletti get their name from the Italian word for handkerchiefs, and they are flat and square-shaped, often made with herbs rolled into the dough. Because of this, they are usually served with simple dishes to let the flavour come through, such as butter, Parmesan and just a drizzle of olive oil.


Photo: Rooey202/Flickr

Their name literally means 'little ears' due to the small bowl-shape which is used often with heavy, vegetable-based sauces, especially with broccoli.

There are plenty of other pasta shapes which are good at holding chunky sauces, including farfalle (butterflies), cavatappi (corkscrews), radiatori (little radiators) and many spiral varieties including classic fusilli.


Photo: Sreebot/Wikimedia Commons

Gigli are from Florence, and the name translates as 'lily' – the city's emblem, which the shapes resemble. They are cone-shaped and can be used with heavier sauces.


Photo: Commons

Conchiglie is Italian for 'shells', and the seashell shape allows them to pick up sauce, just like other shaped pasta. However, conchiglioni (literally 'big shells') are usually filled – popular fillings include ricotta and spinach, pumpkin, or beef and bechamel sauce.

Other varieties of filled pasta are ravioli and tortellini, which are small and usually served with a light sauce, and cannelloni and lasagne, which pair well with heavy ragu or creamy sauces.

This article was originally published in 2016.


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Gelato, iced tea and escaping to the hills: How to survive an Italian summer in the city

As Italy swelters in the early summer heat, writer Richard Hough in Verona shares his tips for keeping cool in the city this summer.

Gelato, iced tea and escaping to the hills: How to survive an Italian summer in the city
Photo: Tommaso Pecchioli/Unsplash

With the temperature in Italy soaring and this year’s first wave of the famed ‘caldo Africano’ sweeping the nation, a number of coping strategies can be employed to try and stay cool in the brutally hot Italian summer.

In Verona the temperature is now well into the thirties, and even through the night it rarely falls below 20 degrees.

I can’t remember the last time it rained, and there’s barely a breath of wind in the air. Even performing simple tasks, like putting on a pair of socks (to be avoided at all costs if possible), cause an alarming outbreak of perspiration. Anything as vigorous as cycling to work or going for a jog becomes an energy-sapping endeavour that inevitably results in an unpleasant sweaty drenching. 

READ ALSO: Fried eggs and sweaty underpants: 10 phrases for complaining about the heat like an Italian

With the effective use of blinds, shutters and air-conditioning, some of our neighbours and friends boast of being able to keep their house at a relatively stable 19 or 20 degrees, a feat of household management we’ve never quite managed to achieve.

Noisy, expensive and generally unsatisfying, we tend to use our air conditioning system only as a last resort and instead endure the heat of our apartment like some kind of mildly unpleasant act of self-flagellation.

Ice-cream, of course, is an altogether more pleasant way to confront the summer heat.

To my squirming delight, the local gelateria even offered me a loyalty card earlier this week. On closer inspection, I was somewhat dismayed to calculate that I’d need to consume €100 of ice-cream before I received any reward! When you consider that a cone costs as little as €2 a pop, you have some idea of the scale of the task that lies before me.

READ ALSO: How to keep cool like an Ancient Roman in Italy’s summer heat

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Iced tea is another vital source of refreshment in these sweltering days. Before moving permanently to Italy ten years ago, I had always mocked the idea of cold tea. For me tea was brewed hot and strong with a splash of milk. The notion of ice-cold, sweet, peach-flavoured tea just seemed ridiculously self-indulgent. The first summer I spent it in Verona I consumed the stuff by the gallon. It remains one of the few things that can quench that insatiable summer thirst.

Another, of course, is beer. 

Verona is well-known principally as a wine-producing region, but in the summer months that intoxicating blend of barley, hops and water comes into its own, as the full-bodied red wines of the region momentarily take a back seat. Even my wife, who never drank beer before we came to Italy, is known to enjoy the occasional birra media in the summer months. 

Some of the best birreria in town even serve their beer in chilled glasses. If you can avoid getting your lip stuck to the glassware, this is a delightfully refreshing way to enjoy the ancient amber nectar.

As the popularity of locally-brewed craft beers has soared in recent years, a number of new bars have sprung up in Verona to cater for the seemingly insatiable demand. Amongst the best of these new arrivals is the Santa Maria Craft Pub, near Piazza Erbe. Perhaps I can persuade them to introduce a loyalty card?

READ ALSO: How to spot good quality gelato in Italy – and how to suss out the fakes

Verona’s Piazza Erbe. Photo: Shalev Cohen/Unsplash

The hills above the city also provide some respite from the stifling heat below, and the Verona Beer Garden in the Torricelle hills opens every year from May to September. The Beer Garden offers the standard range of German beers and simple fast food, as well as live music, crazy golf and beer-pong, in the blissfully cool surroundings of the Veronese hills. 

This year has also seen the launch of the Mura Festival which runs from June to October. Mura is Italian for ‘wall’ and this exciting new addition to the local events scene takes place in the green ramparts of the ancient wall that surrounds the city. With everything from yoga and children’s theatre to Thai street food and arrosticini abruzzesi (barbequed lamb skewers), it’s another refreshing place to chill out and cool down after a day under the fierce sun. 

Of course, the best strategy for avoiding the heat is to leave the city behind you and head to the beach. In recent years we’ve done exactly that, exploring Sicily, Sardinia and Elba when the heat of the city gets too much. The region of Puglia, famed for its pristine beaches and crystal-clear water, has long been on our list too, but this year we’ve opted to stay local. With the ever-evolving pandemic situation, we took the decision not to be too ambitious with our travel plans. 

REVEALED: The parts of Italy where Italians are going on holiday this summer

With three months of school holidays to contend with, many Italian kids have already been dispatched from the sweltering cities, often with their obliging nonni (grandparents). We too will soon be decamping, returning this year to Bibione, a popular beach resort to the east of Venice on the Adriatic coast, where we’ve enjoyed simple family holidays in the past. 

Like many families, we’ve opted for a ‘camping’ style resort, but will be treating ourselves to a luxurious, six-berth ‘leaf tent’, fully equipped with air-conditioning, fridge/freezer and the all-important mosquito netting, as well as two sun loungers and a parasol on the nearby beach.

The only slight cloud on the horizon is that I’ll have to tear myself away from the beach for a few hours to return to Verona for the second dose of my vaccine. As long as I’ve got a supply of chilled peach tea for the journey, I think I’ll be ok. And if all goes to plan, I’ll be back on the beach in time for a quick pre-lunch dip in the cool Adriatic.

Richard Hough has lived in Verona since September 2011 and writes about the region’s history, football, wine and culture. His new book, Rita’s War, a true story of persecution, resistance and heroism from wartime Italy, is available here. He is currently writing his next book about wartime Verona.