Though there are many claims as to the origins of pasta, there is no doubt that Italians claimed and embraced the art of pasta and pasta-making. Hundreds of pasta shapes and sizes have been developed over the centuries in Italy, Asia and nearly every developed country. Pasta is traditionally made with eggs, flour, water and salt, though you can find noodles made with soy, rice and whole wheat grains as well.
Long pastas, or "pasta lungi," are all suitable for use in tomato sauces, bolognas, creams, or herb and olive oil based sauces. Long pastas include angel hair, spaghetti, busilli lungi, fettuccine and linguine. A favourite in long pastas is Bigoli, or pincinelli, a larger diameter and very long-cut spaghetti type that is made with whole meal soft wheat flower.
Pasta for Use in Soups
Soups like Minestrone contain special types of pastas, usually much thinner cut and smaller in size than other pastas. Pasta for soups include orzo, alphabet --- yes, there is an Italian name, alfabetini --- rigati and tubetti. Anchellini, which is a small, beadlike pasta, is suitable especially for thinner-brothed soups. Anelli Siciliani, the round-shaped pasta most associated with spaghetti-o's, is also a thinner pasta suitable for vegetable soups or broths.
Ribbon pastas, or fettuce, are used most suitably in Alfredo and liver-based pasta sauces. They tend to be long and flat as opposed to the round spaghetti-shaped noodles, which makes them suitable for holding sauces --- and holding their own in heavier dishes. Ribbon-shaped pasta includes fettuccine, pappardelle --- slightly wider than fettuccini --- and tagliatelle, another rendition of the same.
Well-known to most children in the shape of macaroni, tubular pastas are used mostly in heavier dishes with meat or cheese sauces. The noodle shapes are rounded,usually hollowed in the middle, and are great for absorbing all the flavours of the casserole they're cooked in. Tubular pastas include penne pasta, cannelloni --- a larger shortcut shape good for vegetable sauces and casseroles --- and of course, macaroni pasta.
Pastas you can Stuff
Stuffed pastas include tortellini, a small pasta that can come fresh or dry, pre-stuffed with meat-based or cheese fillings. Traditionally, these are served with a meat broth or in a casserole. Ravioli, a square-shaped pasta known to most Westerners, can also be stuffed with a variety of fillings, including spinach and cheese or meat fillings. Rigatoni is a long, hollow-shaped tubular pasta that can be stuffed with a variety of fillings. More recently, stuffed shell-shaped pastas have become popular, and are usually served with a marinara-style sauce.
Special Shaped Pastas
Special shapes, such as spirals and other twisted pastas are used primarily in dishes where the sauce can stick easily, such as pasta salads, or casseroles with meat sauces. Cream sauces that have salmon or chicken added are also a good pairing with these types of pasta. One such special shape, gnocchi, are actually like small dumplings that are made with potatoes and flour. Trottole are made of pasta spirals that curl around a central piece, like an exotic seashell. Rigatoni shaped pastas are ridged and very suitable for catching and holding onto sauces.
Pastas of all types can be coloured by using tomatoes and red beets for red colours, squid ink for black pastas, and spinach for green colours. Brown-coloured mushrooms can also be used for darker pastas as well as other grains like buckwheat, which makes a rich brown colour. Saffron can be used for a bright yellow-coloured pasta. These pastas can be used in many dishes where colour brightens the look of the dish, such as pasta salads or dishes with a white sauce.
Asian noodles are available in a very large variety of sizes, shapes and lengths. Most are made with wheat or rice flour, but they can also be made with mung beans, arrowroot starches, tofu and sweet potato starches. Eggs also comprise an ingredient in some Chinese style noodles, but the majority are made without eggs in the mix. Rather than being used mixed with sauces, Asian noodles are often used in soups such as the Vietnamese Pho --- pronounced "fuh" --- or stir-fried in other Asian dishes.
North African Style Pasta
Couscous, a tiny, wheat-based pasta, is used most often in North African dishes. It is often mixed with vegetables and sometimes sweetened for a sweet and savoury Moroccan-style dish. Couscous is spherical, and comes in very small granules which are made by rolling semolina wheat, then coating granules with very finely ground wheat flour.
While many might consider dumplings more of a dough, they are nearly always made in the same way as pastas. Dumplings can be doughy, as in dishes such as chicken and dumplings, but can also be finely rolled into won ton skins or other stuffed pastas. Different styles can be found all over the world. Not included in the pasta dumpling set are dessert "dumplings" such as apple dumplings, which are made with pastry dough, not pasta-style doughs.