The Daily Heller: Pasta by Any Other Name is Pasta

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While suffering through COVID lock-up, what to eat has taken center stage. I cannot think of a better (albeit fattening) comfort food than pasta. Delizioso, squisito, succulento, appetitoso. Yet which pasta is the most appetizing? There are almost as many choices as there are Netflix series to watch. Steven Guarnaccia, illustrator, author, Italophile and snappy dresser, has just authored/illustrated a pasta design guide titled Farfalle, Lumache & Vermicelli: Butterflies, Snails & Little Worms, published by Raum Italic (the husband-and-wife team of Barbara Gizzi and Marco Ghidelli, founders of Raum Italic design studio and bookstore, and now publisher of art and design books, as well).

The book is a feast of language and sound.

“When I learned Italian, I learned all of the meanings of the names for pasta that were familiar to me (spaghetti, vermicelli, ziti) as well as those that weren’t (bucatini, fazzoletti, gigli),” Guarnaccia writes in the introduction to the book. “I loved the sound of the names, but even more I loved the sheer visuality of their meanings. Before then, it hadn’t occurred to me that the names meant anything. Had you told me that I was eating little strings or worms, I would have thought you were pulling my leg.”

In fact, the shapes are far from arbitrary. They are deliberately designed, have different literal and metaphoric meanings, and combine with specific sauces and ingredients in distinctive ways. I asked Guarnaccia to whet our palettes. (Copies available here.)

You’ve created a masterpiece of visual punning. Is this because the pasta is itself kind of a visual pun?

I think of the shaping of pasta as a kind of folk art. And like a lot of folk art, there’s an element of wit in the final results.

There are over a dozen pasta shapes I have never seen before. Have you tasted them all?

There are only about a dozen of the 90-odd shapes in the book that I haven’t tried. I’m working on it.

Why are there so many different types of pasta? Is it fun or function?

Like so much in Italian culture, the shapes evolved along regional lines. They were designed through spontaneous invention with the materials at hand, and originally always handmade. For fusilli, for example, dough was wrapped around an improvised tool: a spindle. Some shapes did earn their place in the pasta pantheon by being functionally effective—they cooked easily and held their form or were adept at holding sauce. Only in post-war years did industrial makers of pasta invent shapes that were designed purely for “fun” (e.g., body parts, animal shapes, alphabets, etc.).

What did you discover about pasta that was a surprise to an Italophile like yourself?

I wasn’t surprised so much as reconfirmed about how intensely regional Italy is—pasta shapes, and certain dishes made with them, disappear once you cross a regional border, or they exist in similar form but under a different name.

What are your three favorites, and why? (Don’t tell me all the pastas featured in the book are all your children, and you love them equally). You can break it down by your favorite drawings and/or pasta shapes.

Drawings: barbina/strozzapreti/sedani. Pasta: bucatini/orrechiette/cavatappi.

Do you think priests like priest chokers (strozzapreti)?

If they were as greedy as the history of the pasta seems to indicate, then they probably couldn’t get enough of them.

For me, I love strozzapreti with pesto, but the chicken necks are the most difficult to swallow.

And it was the drawing that went down the least-easily.

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