A guide to pasta types and how to use them

03 June 2024, 13:00 PM
  • Give your customers the best experience by stocking the essential pasta shapes – and sharing your expert advice from our guide on how to use each one
A guide to pasta types and how to use them

With social media trends and a keen interest in at-home cooking driving demand for experimentation with different pasta shapes and types, now is the time to ensure you’re covering all the bases in your shop. 

“Different shapes really do have different functions, and not all pasta is made equal!” says Gianfranco Perry of Just Gourmet Foods. And while the price point for a good-quality pasta is higher than that of supermarket basics, he says it’s important to recognise that customers understand this, and many are still opting for the higher-quality options.

Demand for artisan pasta is out there, so read our guide to brush up on the many different varieties you can stock and how to best advise customers to use them for results that will have them coming back time and time again.

The pasta shapes to know

Pasta is near-universally beloved by consumers, so it would be easy to fill a whole aisle of your shop with this store cupboard staple, says Gianfranco. While classic, familiar shapes, such as penne, fusilli and spaghetti, are as in-demand as ever, there are also shapes like reginette and spaghettoni that are “gaining in popularity,” he says, as they offer a point of difference, “creating a more interesting option”.

But before you panic over where you’re going to find the space for dozens of new types of pasta, Sally Assinder of Garofalo assures Speciality Food readers that, in reality, there are no universal ‘must-stock’ pasta shapes. “It must be down to what works for a fine food retailer and meets the diverse culinary preferences and dietary needs of their customers,” she says.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that stocking something different will help your shop stand out from the multiples. “We do know that fusilli, penne and spaghetti are the most popular shapes in the UK and stocked as own label by all the supermarkets,” Sally continues, “so my suggestion would be to consider stocking less well-known varieties of these popular pasta shapes.”

Helping customers to choose pasta shapes that are out of their comfort zone may require some additional knowledge on your part as recommendations and recipe ideas will be key, so it’s important to have a good understanding of how to use different types of pasta. “Pairing the right shape of pasta with the right sauce is quite important in Italian cuisine and can significantly enhance the dining experience,” Sally says.

With so many pasta shapes to choose from, it can still be daunting to know which ones will work for your shop. Whether you’re starting from scratch or filling in gaps on your shelves, Sally suggests building a range by “thinking like an Italian”. 

“Divide the shapes into short cuts, long cuts, soup cuts and special cuts. The task becomes more manageable, and shapes can be chosen in each area to create choice, interest and variety across all shape types,” she says.

Long pasta shapes

While spaghetti is certainly the most popular long pasta shape, as Sally says, “stocking shapes and brands not found in the large supermarkets can ensure fine food retailers enhance the overall shopping experience for their customers”. She recommends fusilli lunghi, a long corkscrew-shaped pasta, for its visual appeal or spaghetti alla chitarra, a square spaghetti with “a great story behind it” – chitarra, which means guitar in Italian, was traditionally made by placing flat sheets of pasta over thin strings of steel, like guitar strings. After the sheets were pressed down, the wires ‘strummed’ so the cut pasta fell.

When recommending long pasta shapes, keep in mind that “long, thin pasta like spaghetti or linguine works well with smooth, oil-based or creamy sauces because they evenly coat the strands,” Sally explains.

In addition to smooth sauces, Gianfranco adds that long pasta shapes also work well with meat ragu. “Classic dishes like amatriciana, carbonara, and ragù alla bolognese usually feature a creamy sauce with pancetta or meat,” he says. “The texture of egg pasta allows it to hold the sauce well, which pairs nicely with tomato sauces in general. For example, linguine is often recommended for clam dishes, as you can easily twirl the pasta around your fork, capturing the seafood as well.”

Long pasta shape examples:
- Spaghetti
- Spaghettoni
- Spaghetti alla chitarra
- Linguine
- Fusilli lunghi
- Pappardelle
- Tagliatelle
- Tagliarini
- Reginette
- Bucatini

Short pasta shapes

When you think short pasta, penne and fusilli might come to mind, but there are plenty of other varieties that your customers will love experimenting with. Sally suggests paccheri, a tube pasta like penne that is often used in restaurant dishes.

Give your customers ideas for recreating restaurant-style dishes at home by having cooking advice for the short pasta shapes you sell at the ready. “Short pasta shapes,” Gianfranco says, “are excellent with simple sauces like pesto and tomato sauces, with the shape naturally trapping the condiment. However, I would also recommend them for chunky vegetable sauces, such as pasta alla norma, which includes fried aubergines and ricotta cheese,” he continues. “Imagine the perfect mouthful with one piece of aubergine and one maccherone, all covered in ricotta.”

Careful attention should be paid to the pasta’s texture too. “Thicker, ridged pasta like rigatoni or penne can capture chunky sauces to provide a different eating experience,” Sally says.

Short pasta shape examples:
- Penne
- Fusilli
- Paccheri
- Conchiglie
- Cappellitti
- Farfalle
- Macaroni
- Rigatoni
- Cavatappi

Special pasta shapes

“Special pasta formats, like Cocco conchiglioni, are great for experimentation,” says Gianfranco. “You can treat them similarly to cannelloni by filling them with sauce, covering them with bechamel sauce, and grilling them in the oven, just like you would with lasagna.”

Special pasta formats are ideal for cooking showstopper meals at home, so it’s a great option for retailers keen to capture consumer interest in the ‘big night in’ trend.

Special pasta examples:
- Cannelloni
- Conchiglioni
- Orecchiette
- Lasagne
- Gigantoni
- Lumaconi
- Ravioli

Other pasta types

The division into long, short and speciality pasta shapes can be applied to the many different ranges of pasta types, like gluten-free and wholewheat. While standard white pasta still far outsells other types of pasta, Sally notes that certain types of ‘alternative’ pastas are trending now, “driven by various factors but mainly health trends and in some cases social media,” she says. 

Here, we’ll delve into some of the different types of pasta retailers should know.

Gluten-free pasta

Gluten-free pasta isn’t new, but the diversity of shapes now available certainly is. “One thing we do know is that consumers following a gluten-free diet are looking for shapes other than fusilli, penne and spaghetti and want to have the familiar shapes such as linguine, farfalle and tagliatelle in gluten-free and not be restricted in the culinary choices because of their dietary needs,” Sally says.

And as demand for gluten-free pasta rises, you’ll find more pastas made from chickpeas, lentils, black beans, brown rice or ancient grains hitting the market. These varieties, Sally says, “are trending with the demand for healthier and gluten-free options due to dietary restrictions and high-protein, low-carbohydrate alternatives”.

Whole wheat pasta

With health demands on the rise, Garofalo has also noticed an increase in sales of whole wheat pasta in some of the retailers it supplies. “And although we have quite a variety of whole wheat pasta shapes, it is the traditional shapes like fusilli, spaghetti and penne showing the largest increase,” Sally says. 

The spark in interest for whole wheat pasta seems to be down to the gut health trend. “There has been a lot of media coverage on gut health and gut microbiome recently with more specific and greater attention given to the benefits of whole grains versus refined grains,” Sally says. 

“We think the increase is coming from consumers swapping to whole wheat pasta in their favourite shapes mainly for the high-fibre health benefits whole wheat pasta offers.”

Flavoured pasta

You might come across pastas that are flavoured, for example with squid ink or spinach. These often give the pasta an unusual colouring or flavour, and Gianfranco views these as “enhancers”.

“Squid ink linguine, garlic and parsley and lemon flavours work particularly well with seafood dishes,” he says. “Chilli flavour can be versatile and used in various recipes, but it pairs especially well with rich tomato sauces. Spinach flavour complements vegetarian dishes and creamy sauces with cheese.”

Egg pasta

While many good-quality pastas include eggs in their recipes, most dried pasta from the supermarket doesn’t, and this offers speciality retailers another unique selling point to shout about. “Egg pasta is a good option to consider if you aren’t already stocking it, as it has a completely different texture: silky and more like a fresh pasta, although you can keep it in the cupboard until you need it,” says Gianfranco. “We love the egg pastas from Filotea, and they come in a variety of flavours too.”

Italian culinary tradition is founded on generations of foodies perfecting regional recipes and pasta pairings. Of course, retailers can encourage their customers to experiment with different pastas and sauces to find out what they like best, but the combinations above will offer an unforgettable home cooking experience.

As Sally says, “While it’s fun to experiment and there are no absolute rules in pairing other than using quality pasta and sauce ingredients, respecting traditional pairings can often results in the best dishes.”

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