Neapolitans have a special affinity for pasta. It’s a staple pantry, sure, but also more than that – in Naples, pasta is part of the pervading spirit of the place. Not only do we have great respect for this ingredient, but we also appreciate the minute differences between shapes, differences that would surely be overlooked elsewhere. This sensitivity, like many gastronomic rules, has been handed down for generations.
With the aim of sharing such knowledge (and taking inspiration from my Pantry Raid presentation on Instagram Live), I put together a pasta guide, which will allow you to make and order pasta dishes as true Neapolitans do, and avoid the mistakes that true Neapolitans would never make, such as ordering fettucine Alfredo (a dish that does not exist here) or adding parmesan cheese to spaghetti with clams.
Like my fellow Neapolitans, I have long studied the shape, appearance and color of various pastas, evaluating the differences from one type to another – each has its own personality, its own proclivities.
Naturally, I also have my favorite producers. Industrial perfection is not the goal; instead, I appreciate the small imperfections of pasta made using artisanal bronze extruders (as opposed to those made of plastic). Pasta made in Gragnano is highly valued, with the most famous brands being Garofalo (the only pasta we eat in my house) and Di Martino. Other smaller producers are equally exceptional.
Here, at last, is my pasta guide, which is organized according to “long” and “short” pastas:
The name derives from the fact that this shape resembles small twine (spago in Italian). Each piece is 25 cm long and no more than 2 millimeters thick. It’s the most famous pasta in the world, the very symbol of Italianness abroad. (The Spaghetti Western is even the name for a subgenre of Western films that were mostly made by Italian producers and directors.) It is also the most versatile format and suitable for almost all sauces; there are even some Neapolitans who eat only spaghetti.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Spaghetti with clams or spaghetti with garlic and oil (only at night); NEVER spaghetti with meat sauce (only tourists order it)
Spaghettini or Capellini
Similar to spaghetti but thinner, this shape, which is sometimes called angel hair spaghetti (capellini means “little hairs”), cooks quickly and is perfect for light, delicate sauces. I’ve always loved this type, but it’s often considered the perfect pasta for someone who is sick.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Capellini with sea urchins, capellini with butter and basil (for something light), capellini with garlic, oil and chili pepper (only at night), or broken capellini in vegetable broth
Vermicelli or Spaghettone Gragnanese XXL
Vermicelli were so-called because in ancient times they were prepared by hand and were much shorter than they currently are, giving them the shape of “little worms” (vermis means “worm” in Latin). Nowadays they are as long as spaghetti but their thickness exceeds 2 millimeters.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Vermicelli with soffritto sauce (made by slowly boiling the less valuable parts of a pig, which are then cooked in an aromatic tomato sauce with strong chili peppers), vermicelli alla Nerano (with zucchini and provolone) or vermicelli with octopus sauce
Spaghetti alla Chitarra
This type of spaghetti is square rather than round. Its name comes from the fact that it’s made using an instrument with many parallel wires called a chitarra (“guitar”).
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Spaghetti alla chitarra with carbonara sauce (made with eggs and pork cheek, this sauce was born after the Second World War with the arrival of the Americans and their bacon), amatriciana sauce (made of tomato, bacon and chili pepper), or simply with fresh tomatoes
Very similar to spaghetti, this type has the same length of 25 cm but is thin and flat, albeit with a somewhat narrow, elliptical shape. People either love or hate linguine. I love it! The flat section gives it more surface area, making it the perfect pasta for fish sauces.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Linguine with seafood or linguine with pesto sauce
This is one for the pasta expert since it’s very difficult to eat – there’s a good chance you’ll stain your clothes. It is essentially spaghetti but with a small hole running through the center. This hole allows for a short cooking time because the boiling water reaches the outside and the inside. The accompanying sauce also sneaks into the hole – by increasing the surface area, it thus increases the sensory experience.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Bucatini with carbonara, amatriciana or soffritto sauce
Fettuccine or Tagliatelle
Neapolitan fettuccine and tagliatelle are made from durum wheat semolina, without eggs. Egg tagliatelle, on the other hand, is typical of the city of Bologna. A legend says that they are produced in the shape of a nest because they were invented to celebrate the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia with the Duke of Ferrara Alfonso I d’Este, who had a splendid head of curls. They are both ribbons of pasta slightly larger than linguine.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Fettuccine all’amatriciana or tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce; NEVER order fettuccine Alfredo
Lasagna – a wide, flat sheet, sometimes with wavy edges – is one of the oldest types of pasta, as evidenced by a reference to it in Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes (the name derives from the Latin word lagana, which indicated strips of pasta). The Bourbon king Francis II was so fond of lasagna that he was nicknamed King Lasagnone.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Bourbon-style lasagna, made with ricotta and meat sauce; NEVER lasagna with bechamel sauce, which is not a thing done in Naples
The spiral shape of this pasta allows pieces of meat and vegetables to slip into its curves. Originally this pasta, which is also sometimes called “peasant hedgehogs,” was made by hand: People rolled threads of dough around chestnut twigs.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Fusilli al ragù or fusilli with tomato sauce and ricotta
A cylindrical type of lasagna pasta, it is typically used in Naples to make stuffed pasta, an important Sunday dish. The shells are partially cooked in water, then, after being stuffed, are finished in the oven.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Cannelloni stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella and meat (a typical Sunday meal)
Candele translates as “candles,” and this special-occasion pasta came by its name because it resembles the candles used in religious processions, which explains why it is used above all for important events. But they are broken before being cooked, and the corner pieces are the tastiest.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Candele with ragù
Mafalde, Tripoline and Manfredi
These three pastas are similar – a type of fettuccine with wavy edges – and take their names from historic periods in Italy. The first two are from the Fascist period: Mafalde is dedicated to Princess Mafalda of Savoy (it looks like the crown of a princess), while tripoline recalls the colonial experience of Italy in Libya, and its capital Tripoli. Then there’s manfredi, a homemade pasta that is usually prepared for Easter lunch. Its name, and the traditional recipe of making it with ricotta, comes from a story about Manfredi di Svevia, the last King of Sicily. Sometime in the 13th-century he was allegedly offered a plate of this type of pasta with ricotta, which he grew quite fond of.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Mafalde with pumpkin, tripoline with ragù or manfredi with ricotta and ragù
Maccarune ‘e Zite
In the Neapolitan language, zita refers to a girl who takes a husband. So zite is the pasta prepared for wedding dinners. It looks like a large bucatini, with a very big central hole. I have included zite in the short pasta section, however, because they are broken into 4-5 cm long pieces before being boiled.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Broken zite alla Genovese or broken zite with ragù
Penne Rigate or Penne Lisce
After spaghetti, penne is the most popular type of pasta in the world. They are called “pens” because they look like quill pens that were cut obliquely to have a thin tip. It is a pasta shape of Genoese origin, dating back to 1865, when the machine that cut the perforated pasta diagonally was patented by a Genoese pastatio. The penne lisce is smooth while the penne rigate has grooves on the surface that allow it to hold more sauce (and the angled cut allows for excess sauce to slide off). Perfection!
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Penne all’arrabbiata (tomato and chili sauce), pasta alla norma (a typical Sicilian dish made with eggplant and salted ricotta), or penne with fresh cherry tomatoes
Mezze Penne or Pennette/Pennette Rigate
This pasta type has all the same characteristics of penne except for the fact that it’s shorter. Perfect for making baked pasta dishes using lots of cheese: parmesan, mozzarella and caciocavallo.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Pennette with salmon and shrimp, or in a cold pasta salad with fresh cherry tomatoes
Larger than penne, rigatoni is the first cousin of maccarune ‘e zite. Unlike the zite, it has ridges that allow it to absorb as much sauce as possible.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Rigatoni with meat sauce or rigatoni alla amatriciana
Similar to rigatoni, tortiglioni has deeper grooves that spiral around the pasta, rather than being in a straight line. So it’s even better for holding sauces.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Tortiglioni with meat sauce or carbonara
Fusilli Corti or Fusilli a Mano
Fusilli corti was originally made by twisting a piece of pasta around a knitting needle. Unlike the long fusilli, the short fusilli is a small, elongated helix, twisted on itself like a worm. Sauces collect in its crevices. Delicious.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Fusilli corti with tomato sauce
Born in Puglia and Basilicata, this pasta looks like a small ear, hence the name. It’s particularly delicious in the city of Bari, where they refer to it in the local dialect as strascinati, a word that derives from the dragging that is done on the work table to create the orecchiette.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Orecchiette with turnip greens
A very popular pasta, farfalle is beloved by children. It is a simple rectangle of pasta with ruffled edges that has been pinched in the center, making it look like a butterfly. The pinched center allows the butterfly to keep cooking al dente (although never uniform, as the butterfly wings are always slightly more cooked) and to take the right amount of flavoring.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Farfalle with salmon, or in a cold pasta salad
Trenette, Bavette, Maniche and Mezze Maniche
These pastas are all inspired by clothing: trenette by trini, AKA lace; bavette is the name given to baby bibs; and maniche are the sleeves of a shirt or dress (or even half sleeves).
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Trenette with pesto
In the shape of a very large tube, this thick, smooth pasta has a hole almost four centimeters wide and is thus perfect for housing meat or vegetable sauces. Once boiled, it flattens on the plate with the sauce and produces a sound that resembles a slap, or a pacchero. Hence the origin of the name. Its large size also allows it to be stuffed in various ways, usually with ricotta or ragù. (Mezzo paccheri is as smooth as paccheri and with the same size hole, but half the length.)
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Paccheri with seafood or paccheri (or mezzo paccheri) with Genovese sauce
It has the same size hole as the mezzo paccheri but half the length, and therefore is a quarter of the size of the paccheri. It looks similar to calamari, hence its name.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Calamarata with calamari
Invented by chef Enrico Cosentino in 1975, this pasta has a width larger than spaghetti alla chitarra but smaller than tagliatelle, and is shorter than both. They are so called because our cook claimed that the pot (tiella) was happy (scialare).
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Scialatielli with seafood
Conchiglioni or Lumache
Conchiglioni (larger) and Lumache (smaller) are so called because they resemble shells and snails, respectively. They collect sauce and seasonings like small spoons.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Conchiglioni stuffed with ricotta and spinach
This pasta almost looks like a small piece of parchment rolled inward on each side; the curled shape is perfect for welcoming sauce or a dressing.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Casarecce with shrimp and zuchinni
This is the crushed and broken remains of various types of pasta all mixed togehter. It was born as a way to recycle the scraps that remained under the crates of pasta, when it was sold by weight at delicatessens. Obviously this mixed pasta was not thrown away but was instead sold at a lower price. Poor families purchased these pasta remains and used them mainly with beans, chickpeas and potatoes. The habit of using pasta mista with soups was so widespread that, when pasta began to be sold in individual packages, the Neapolitans continued to ask for pasta mista. And the producers were forced to make it again, although in a more uniform manner.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Pasta mista with beans or chickpeas, pasta mista with potatoes and provola, or pasta mista with pumpkin
Gnocchetti Sardi (Sardinian Gnocchi)
It looks like a small, ridged shell that’s wrapped around itself, ready to welcome small pieces of vegetables and sauce.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Gnocchetti sardi with pumpkin
Gnocchi di Patate
The only pasta on the list that is not produced using durum wheat semolina, these dumplings are most commonly made of potatoes.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Sorrento-style gnocchi with mozzarella and tomato
Ditalini, Tubettini, Ditali, Ditaloni, Occhi di Lupo and Tubettoni
These are all small, hollow cylinders of pasta, gradually increasing in size. They work especially well when cooked with legumes, as the legumes creep into the tube, a perfect match. My favorite size is the ditali (ditale means “thimble”), which, not surprisingly, is the same size as a finger thimble.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Tubettoni with beans or ditali with lentils
Lagane is made by flattening dough and then cutting it into large, irregular strips. It is a very old pasta, one that’s also mentioned in the Roman cookery book Apicius. It is mainly used in chickpea soups or paired with other legumes.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Lagane with chickpeas
Avemaria or Padrenostro
Avemaria is a pasta shape so small that it cooked in the time you said a short prayer, an Ave Maria. The padrenostrum pasta is a little larger and therefore requires a few more seconds of cooking – its name comes from the fact that the Pater Noster prayer is slightly longer than the Ave Maria. In short, those who originally cooked them did not have a clock but instead used prayers to mark the time.
How to eat it like a Neapolitan: Avemaria in broth
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