Italy is famous for its pasta. Depending on the region, Italian pasta can be thin or fat, long or short, curly or straight. Regardless of shape, it’s an irreplaceable component of Italian cuisine.
There are competing stories as to how pasta first came to what is now Italy. One is that Marco Polo introduced the hungry population to the concept of noodles after a 17-year jaunt around China in the 13th century. The other is that Arab tribes introduced the West (what would later be called Europe) to noodles, inspired by cuisine they had encountered in Asia hundreds of years earlier. That, not the Marco Polo story, is probably as close to the true story as we’ll ever get. What is known is that noodles originated in Asia.
No matter how noodles arrived in Mediterranean countries, there’s no question that the Italians were making, and perfecting, pasta as far back as 800 CE — at least 500 years before Marco Polo left China — with a set of simple, inexpensive ingredients: flour and water (and an egg for most fresh pastas), the same tried and true ingredients that are used today.
“The ancient Romans ate pasta similar to pappardelle with beans,” Francine Segan, a food historian who specializes in documenting the evolution of Italian food, tells me. “Then, in the Middle Ages, they would take a cookie cutter and make little circles [from pasta dough]. They would press your family seal, or your coat of arms, or initials into the little circle of pasta.”
Today, there is some debate surrounding exactly how many varieties of pasta exist. Some sources put the number around 350; others say it’s closer to an astonishing 600, with new ones being invented all the time. The latter is believable considering each shape and style is deeply entrenched in the region it’s made.
“In Italy there were 20 different regions, but they weren’t unified [until the 19th century],” Segan explains. “They were thinking of themselves as 20 different countries. So each ‘region’ had their different styles.”
To understand how so many varieties of pasta emerged, you first have to understand the climate, geography, and economics of Italy.
“Generally in the north, pasta is made fresh,” explains Segan. “The south is more into dried pasta. The south was generally poorer, so they couldn’t afford the egg. The first pasta factories were down there. It had a longer shelf life, and it could be sold longer if it was dried.”
The first version of pasta probably looked a lot like lasagne because, as Segan points out, you can imagine how easy it would have been to roll out. The ancient Romans probably also ate a dish similar to lasagna with layers of sauce and cheese. Longer pasta shapes, like spaghetti, appeared early on too, simply because they were easy to make by hand and were easy to dry.
“The big center of dried pasta was Gragnano, near Naples. The first documented factory for pasta was there, because that area had the best air currents, which dried the pasta faster,” Segan says.
Gragnano is situated on a hill, between the mountains and the Amalfi Coast. The combination of sun, wind, and heat in that area turned out to be perfect for dried pasta, which will crack if it dries too quickly and can get moldy if it’s wet for too long.
Then there are some pasta shapes made throughout Italy “just for fun,” according to Segan, like orecchiette, which means “little ear,” or the priest choker pasta from Umbria (more on that later), or chitarra, the strands of pasta cut using guitar strings.
“There is some artistry involved,” says Segan, who asserts that Italians didn’t just make pasta to feed themselves but to express themselves, too. “They wanted to be creative with the shapes. It was a way to make this lowly inexpensive food a little fancier.”
Pasta is constantly evolving, and learning about pasta can be a never-ending endeavor. These are 67 major styles of pasta all Italian food aficionados should know about.
Each of these thin, tiny rings of pasta (anellini literally means “little rings”) originating in Sicily are smaller than a penny. Because of its small size, anelli is typically used in salads, soups, and baked pasta dishes rather than eaten alone with a sauce.
Also known as piombi, these small pearls of pasta are about the size of a pea. Anchellini is chewy and typically paired with larger vegetables rather than covered in sauce.
This long pasta is like a thicker spaghetti with a hole running through the center. Bucatini originated in Lazio, Naples, and Liguria, and today, it’s most popular in Rome. It’s typically paired with rich, hearty sauces. The hole allows the pasta to cook evenly inside and out, and it was probably originally hollowed out using a thin rod called a ferretto.
Busa can be found primarily in Trapani, a region in western Sicily. Busa is made by twisting small strips of pasta around a stick or knitting needle.
Chiocciole means “snail” in Italian, which is an appropriate name for this rounded, ridged style of elbow pasta found all over Italy. It’s usually paired with a heavy sauce.
This Neapolitan pasta got its name because it resembles calamari rings. A smaller version is called calamaretti. It’s often paired with a hearty red sauce that incorporates meat and vegetables.
Campanelle means “little flower” or “bell flower” in Italian. It’s also sometimes known as gigli. This pasta is shaped almost like a horn with ruffled edges. It’s typically served with meat- or cheese-based sauces.
Sauce easily adheres to the ridges in this seashell-shaped pasta. Conchigliette are “little shells.” Another version, conchiglie al nero di seppia, is dyed black with squid ink.
Chefs in Campania, in particular the city of Naples, created this extra long pasta. It gets the name from candele, or “candle.” Legend holds that Catholic religious ceremonies inspired the shape of candele.
These “large reeds” are a tube-shaped lasagna from the Campania region and Sicily. Cannelloni is most commonly baked and topped with cheese and a tomato-based sauce. In English, the name for these large pasta tubes mean “little sleeves.”
These tight twists mimic the shape of razor clams from the Adriatic Sea. The short tube shape of Cannolicchi captures sauce and is usually served alongside seafood like clams or mussels.
12. Capelli d’angelo
This thin, wispy pasta is also known as angel hair. You’ll sometimes find this pasta sold in a nest shape. It likely originated in Genoa and Naples. Because it’s so light, angel hair pasta is best drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with basil and Parmesan.
These “little hats” come from Emilia-Romagna and come stuffed with either meat or a ricotta and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese filling. Traditionally, cappelletti is served in a meat broth and especially popular around Christmas. The legend goes that the shape of invading Spanish forces inspired the shape of cappelletti.
Casarecce comes from Sicily and resembles sheets of paper that have rolled in on themselves. The folds in this pasta help perfectly capture the sauce.
Cavatappi is a type of macaroni, known for its hollow, corkscrew shape. Sometimes cavatappi is scored with ridges, which help capture the pasta sauce.
This southern Italian pasta has an elongated shape with an opening in the middle. It’s made by pressing a finger into the center of each piece of dough. The final result is a pasta that looks like a shell or a hot dog bun. Cavatelli is especially popular in the Puglia region.
Corzetti likely come from city of Genoa in the Liguria region of Italy. The most common version is the curzetti stampae, a thin circle of pasta, about the size and shape of a quarter, that’s either stamped into the shape of a flower or with a decorative image like a family crest.
18. Creste di gallo
The name of this pasta means “crest of a rooster” or “coxcomb.” The curved, c-shaped tube has a ruffled edge that perfectly captures pasta sauce. The fresh version was first made in the Marche region of Italy.
These “small thimbles” are short tubes and are also known as ditali. Common in the Campania region of Italy, as well as Sicily, ditalini are often added to soups.
Elicoidali means “helix.” This tube-shaped pasta from Naples is also known as tortiglioni, which is similar to the Italian word torque, meaning “to twist.” The name refers to the spiral ridges that traverse the surface of the pasta.
This popular pasta is sometimes nicknamed butterfly or bow-tie pasta. It comes from the Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia regions in northern Italy, where a similar version is called strichetti.
This spiral-shaped pasta originated in Puglia and Basilicata. The shape is created using a knitting needle.
One of the most well known types of pasta is fettuccine. Originally from Rome, these “little ribbons” of pasta are well suited to a simple sauce of oil and butter, but its best-known use is probably in fettuccine alfredo. The dish isn’t an ancient Italian recipe: Alfredo di Lelio began serving it at his Rome restaurant in 1914. Legend has it that he came up with the recipe to help cure his wife’s nausea during pregnancy. Two silent movie actors brought it back to America, where it became an instant classic.
24. Foglie d’ulivo
This Sicilian pasta is delicately crafted in the shape of olive leaves (hence the name). It’s sometimes dyed with spinach to give it a green hue and is served with a light sauce or with diced tomatoes and, of course, olives.
Fregola is a Sardinian pasta that’s rolled into small balls and toasted until golden brown to give it a crunch and a nutty flavor. Because it’s similar in texture and taste to couscous, fregola is often added to pasta salads.
While you might recognize the name of this pasta from Seinfeld, fusilli originated in southern Italy, where it was made by wrapping strips of pasta around a thin rod and allowing it to dry out. The result is a spiral shape that resembles a spring or a corkscrew. There are many varieties of fusilli: A longer version is called fusilli lunghi while the larger version is known as fusilloni.
Flat sheets of pasta are rolled into a cylinder shape and pressed with ridges to make garganelli. While similar to penne, garganelli has one distinctive feature: a visible flap where the corners of pasta folded over each other. Garganelli originated in Emilia-Romagna.
Gemelli means “twins” in Italian, though just one strand of pasta is used to make it. The s-shaped piece of pasta is twisted into a spiral or double helix shape.
This pasta style originated in Emilia Romagna. It’s named after a weed, which might explain the shape. The top half of a short, thin, hollow tube of pasta is curved into a circular spiral shape that resembles a piece of grass.
Grattoni is another small, round, grain-like shape of pasta served in soups. These diminutive varieties of pasta are known as pastina.
The city of Naples gets the credit for coming up with lasagne. The name comes from the Greek word laganon, which was used to describe pasta dough that had been cut into strips. Traditionally, Parmigiano-Reggiano and a tomato-based pasta sauce are layered between sheets of lasagne (or lasagna) though many modern adaptations now include ricotta, ground beef, and spinach. A ribbon-style pasta called lasagnette is simply a narrower, longer version of lasagne.
This long, thin, flat noodle originated in the Genoa and Liguria regions of Italy. Because it comes from the coast, linguine is often paired with seafood, particularly clams. The name means “little tongues.”
This Sardinian braided pasta was named for the iron rings used to hitch horses to houses and other buildings. Another story goes that the young women who made the pasta would hang it from their ears to dry, making the rings of pasta look like earrings. Lorighittas originated in the town of Morgongiori and are rare outside the town.
This ridged, shell-shaped pasta is served with chunky sauce. The shape is very similar to that of a snail’s shell. Lumanche appears in both Roman and southern Italian cuisine. The larger version is known as lumaconi.
This curly pasta is said to have been named after the lustrous locks of a princess named Mafalda of Savoy. These long, flat noodles have ruffled edges that look similar to curly hair. Another name for this pasta is reginette, meaning little queen.
Maccheroni is probably better known as macaroni — yes, of macaroni and cheese fame. Though maccheroni generally takes the form of a hollow tube, it can be formed into a variety of shapes, including short twists. The word maccheroni is probably derived from several Greek words, including makaria, meaning “food made from barley,” and makros, meaning “long.”
37. Maccheroncini di Campofilone
This silky noodle comes from the Le Marche region in central Italy. The long, thin noodles are similar to angel hair pasta and have a practical purpose, too. When the people of Le Marche first began making maccheroncini di Campofilone, they decided on thin strands to make it last longer, thus providing a source of food year-around.
These ridged shells are often called “little Sardinian gnocchi.” It’s so popular in Sardinia that it’s sometimes considered the island’s signature dish. Malloreddus is sometimes flavored using saffron, first introduced to the region by either the Moors or the Phoenicians.
Maltagliati literally means, “badly cut,” which might explain the uneven shape and thickness of these pasta squares from Emilia-Romagna. Originally, maltagliati was made using the scraps from tagliatelle dough.
40. Mezze maniche
This short, hollow tube is of pasta from Emilia–Romagna means either “short sleeves” or “monk’s sleeves.” It’s about half the size of rigatoni, and ridges or grooves catch the sauce it’s served in.
Orecchiette, which means “little ears,” comes from Puglia, Italy, though a very similar version of this pasta also emerged in France in the Middle Ages. Orecchiette is shaped like a cup or a small bowl, which catches the sauce. One of the most popular ways to serve orecchiette is with broccoli rabe and sausage.
Orzo might look like grains of rice or barley, but it’s actually a type of pasta. In Italian, orzo means barley, making matters a bit confusing. Though orzo did originate in Italy, it’s also very popular in Greece. Typically, it’s used in salads and soups and sometimes as a filling for peppers.
Paccheri is (generally) a smooth tube of pasta from Campania that likely originated in Naples. Its shape is sometimes compared to pieces of cut up garden hose. One origin legend says that Sicilian pasta-makers created paccheri to smuggle banned garlic cloves into Austria (known as Prussia at the time) in the 1600s where imported garlic had been banned, as the garlic fit neatly in the hollowed out tube of pasta.
Pappardelle is a broad, long noodle from Tuscany, where it was originally prepared using chestnut flour. The name of this pasta might come from the Latin word pappare, meaning “to eat” or, more colloquially, “to gobble up.” It’s often served with hearty red sauce.
Penne is another variety of pasta that’s popular in America. Penne means quill or feather, perhaps due to the slated ends of this ridged, tube-shaped pasta. A larger version is called pennoni or “giant pens.” Though penne originated in Liguria, one of the most beloved recipes for penne, called arrabbiata, comes from Rome. Arrabbiata, meaning “angry,” is a spicy red sauce made with tomatoes, chili peppers, and garlic.
Pincinelli, also called bigoli or bigui, is very similar to spaghetti with one crucial difference: These long, super thin noodles are hollow with a hole at each end. Pincinelli likely originated in the Le Marche region of Italy.
This variation on a short tagliatelle is special in the pantheon of Italian pasta: The wide, flat noodles are made with buckwheat flour. Pizzoccheri probably originated in Lombardy, specifically in Valtellina, where it’s traditionally served in winter alongside potatoes and cabbage.
Quadrefiore is supposedly shaped like a square flower with ruffled edges (or petals) on each side. Though Quadrefiore is hollow in the middle, it’s also quite dense and thick, so it requires a longer cooking time than most other pastas.
Quadretti, also known as quadrucci, are exactly what the name states: little squares. Though it’s found throughout Italy, the origin is probably Puglia or Abruzzo. Traditionally, quadretti is served in broth or soup.
The squat, square shape of radiatore is supposed to resemble a radiator. Given the ancient origin of most pasta, radiatore is actually a new addition. Some stories say that it was created between World War I and World War II while another legend speculates that it didn’t emerge until the 1960s, when the radiator grill on the Bugatti sports car inspired pasta-makers.
The name for ravioli — a layer of filling (anything from ricotta to spinach) stuffed between two layers of pasta — comes from the word riavvolgere, which means “to wrap.” The exact origin of ravioli is difficult to pinpoint, though there is mention of it as far back as the 14th century in the city of Prato. Originally, ravioli was served in broth. It began appearing with tomato sauce around the 16th century.
Ricciolini means “little curls.” Originating in Emilia-Romagna, in the city of Ferrara, ricciolini can be served with soup or sauce.
The name for these short tubes of pasta comes from the word rigato, which means “ridged.” Rigatoni likely comes from central Italy, around Rome. Though rigatoni is generally bigger than penne (and doesn’t have the curved ends) it can be cut in a variety of diameters.
Rotelle are pieces of pasta shaped like miniature wagon wheels, sometimes also called ruote.
Sagnarelli comes from Abruzzo. This thick, short ribbon pasta has scalloped edges and is often served with cream sauce.
Spaghetti might be the most popular, and best known, style of pasta on this list, and it’s also one of the oldest. One cultural survey of Sicily from around 1154 mentions a precursor to spaghetti — dried strands of dough made from wheat flour — being exported to other regions of Italy. Another version called spaghetti alla chitarra originated in Abruzzo, where it was first made using a tool similar to a guitar (chitarra means guitar). The dough was placed on the chitarra then pushed through so that the strings cut the sheet of dough into strips.
This curved tube of pasta is similar to macaroni. However, stortini is much, much smaller (about the size of a fingernail). Given it’s small size, stortini is typically added to soups.
There are many legends surrounding the origins of strozzapreti. This “priest choking” pasta first appeared in Umbria, Tuscany, and Emilia-Romagna. One story goes that housewives, angry that they had to pay rent in part by cooking pasta for local priests, created a version that their unlucky guests could choke on. Another story goes that priests would often stop by the homes of locals for dinner but overstay their welcomes. In order to get the priests to stop dropping in for dinner, families would serve them strozzapreti as a warning. Or it could simply have picked up the name because the shape simply resembles a clerical collar.
These long, flat, and slightly narrow noodles come from Emilia-Romagna and Marche. According to legend, a chef in Bentivoglio invented tagliatelle in honor of Lucrezia Borgia in 1487. He cut the pasta into long strips to resemble her blonde hair. While that story might be romantic, it’s likely that tagliatelle is centuries older. One mention of a precursor to this ribbon pasta appears in a 1338 encyclopedia of foods from the Emilia-Romagna region. Tagliolini is tagliatelle’s distance cousin. It comes from the Liguria region of Italy, and it’s thinner than tagliatelle though still a long ribbon-style pasta, similar to spaghetti.
Torchio is the Italian word for a press (it can refer to either a wine or pasta press). However, the name for this pasta, which is found mostly in Emilia-Romagna, might actually be derived from torcia, or torch, to reflect its curved shape.
The name for this Ligurian pasta might come from the word strufuggia, meaning ‘“to rub.” Originally, the pasta was prepared by rolling or rubbing pieces of pasta dough against a wooden board. Trofiette (sometimes also called trofie) comes from Recco in the Liguria region, the birthplace of focaccia.
This stuffed pasta comes in many shapes, including a twisted, circular shape, and a ravioli-like square. The filling depends on the region. In Tuscany, tortelli is often stuffed with spinach and ricotta or with tomatoes and garlic. In Emilia-Romagna it can be found stuffed with pumpkin or with ricotta and a butter sauce.
Tortellini is often described as navel-shaped and is a small pasta pouch with various fillings. One legend states that pasta makers in Modena were inspired by the belly button of the goddess Venus. Another story claims the impetus for creating tortellini was much more practical. It apparently originally emerged as a way to boil pasta with the fillings already inside.
These pasta tubes have a triangular cut at each end and look similar to a quill or a fountain pen.
Trottole comes from Campania. The name means “spinning top,” perfect for this squiggle-shaped noodle.
Tufoli might look similar to penne, but there is a subtle difference. The tube is slightly curved, and it’s straight, not diagonally, cut at the end. There are many names for it, including occhi di elefante (elephants eyes) and occhi di bove (bull’s eye). It can also be stuffed with cheese or meat.
Ziti probably originated in Naples, where a baked dish, still popular today, made with ziti was originally served at special occasions. Baked ziti is also a staple of celebratory Sunday lunches among big families. The longer version of ziti is called zitone.
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