What The Names Of Pasta Shapes Really Mean

Most pasta shape names are pretty tame, but a couple of them might shock you.
Three different pasta shapes represented on three different plates, with a corkscrew pasta with a red sauce in the top left, a penne-like pasta with pesto on the left, and a cheesy linguine pasta at the bottom with a side of bread, and in the middle are a salt and pepper shaker.

How many pasta shapes can you name? If you’re a noodle savant, you might be able to list into the dozens, but you might be surprised to learn that there are hundreds. A conservative estimate is that there are 350 pasta shapes in the world today, whereas some people put estimates as high as 1,300. With so much variety, learning about the pasta shapes can seem like a Sisyphean task. Yet with just a little studying, you’ll be able to build up a good amount of noodle knowledge.

Here, we’ll break down some of the most popular pasta shapes to help you decode what they mean. Fortunately, many pasta shapes are Italian words for the thing they resemble, which provides a pretty good way to remember which is which. This won’t give you the secrets to choosing the right noodle for any sauce, but it’s a good start.

Pasta Suffixes

Before we go into specific pasta shapes, there’s another hint that can help you figure out pastas: the suffixes. Italian has a number of affectionate suffixes that indicate something is small or large, and they’re used quite a bit in Italian. Here’s a few you’ll run into.

“Small” Suffixes: -ini-elli-illi, -etti, -ine-elle
“Large” Suffixes: -oni-one, –opti

To take an example, let’s look at how various versions of one of the most popular noodles are named.

  • spaghettini — thin spaghetti
  • spaghetti  — medium, or “regular-sized” spaghetti
  • spaghettoni — larger, thicker spaghetti
  • spaghettacci — throwing in just one more, -acci is a more informal suffix that means “badly done.” If you leave the spaghetti in the boiling water for too long and make it too soft, you might get spaghettaci.

You might notice that spaghetti already has a “small” suffix in its name. That’s because spaghetti is the diminutive of spaghe (“strings”), meaning that spaghetti was named “small strings.”

It should also be noted that all of these suffixes are plural. After all, you never have “noodle” for dinner.

Translating Pasta Shapes

Now that you know the suffixes, let’s look at the most popular pasta shapes you might run into. Realizing what they’re named after, it’ll be more fun to go through your grocery store’s extensive noodle selection.

  • bucatini — this is a thick, long pasta that is most famous for having a hole that runs down its length. That’s why its name is the diminutive of buco (“hole”), making the name effectively “small holes.” In Neapolitan, it’s called perciatelli, which comes from perciato (“pierced”).
  • campanelle — this noodle is a rolled up piece of pasta dough with a ruffled edge that spirals along the outside. It looks a little bit like a bellflower, which is why the name is a diminutive of the Italian campana (“bell”).
  • capellini — this is a very thin, long noodle, sometimes called “angel hair pasta” by English speakers. It’s fitting, then, that it’s the diminutive for “hair” in Italian, capelli.
  • cencioni — this pasta, with an irregular, flat shape, has a rough texture on side, which clings to sauces well. It’s not very common in the United States, and its name doesn’t sound very appetizing either, meaning “little rag” in Italian.
  • conchiglie — this shape is the large seashell shape, with ridges on the outside. The name is a pretty straightforward one, meaning “shells.”
  • conchiglioni — regular seashell pasta not big enough for you? Then try conchiglioni, which are the “big shells.”
  • creste di galli — this pasta looks like a macaroni noodle with a ruffle running along the outside of it. It makes sense, then, that the name means “cockscombs,” which is the ruffled crest on a chicken’s head.
  • farfalle — sometimes called “bowtie pasta” by English speakers because of their resemblance to the menswear, the Italian name is based on something else they resemble: “butterflies.” You may also see larger (farfalloni) and smaller (farfalline) varieties.
  • fettuccine — this pasta is long and a little wide, apparently being a descendant of the much thinner cappelini pasta. The name means “little ribbons” in Italian, because they resemble the gift-wrapping material.
  • fiori — this type of pasta kind of looks like a honeycomb, with ridges on the outside and seven holes going through it. Its Italian name means “flowers.”
  • fusilli — this corkscrew pasta is likely a diminutive of the Italian word fuso, meaning “spindle.” It’s likely named because the traditional way of making fusilli involved spinning it to get the corkscrew shape.
  • gemelli — you can look to the stars for this pasta shape, because gemelli means “twins,” and it’s the equivalent of the astrological sign Gemini. It’s named this because the pasta looks like two hollow noodles twisted together. Actually, though, it’s a single pasta noodle twisted around itself.
  • girandole — this is another corkscrew pasta, very similar to fusilli but made slightly differently. It is technically a verb meaning “turning them,” a reference to the turning that happens during extrusion that gives this pasta its shape.
  • linguine — this long, thin noodle’s Italian name can seem a little weird at first: “little tongues.” Instead of a human tongue, though, it’s a snake tongue that looks a little like this pasta.
  • lumache — this pasta looks kind of like a piece of macaroni crossed with shell pasta, with two openings and a ridged outside. That’s why its name in Italian means “snail.” 
  • orecchiette — this pasta looks kind of like conchiglie, but its shape is rougher and less consistent. You might remember it better by learning the Italian translation, which is “little ears.” 
  • orzo — this pasta is very small and oblong, and its name translated to “barley” because it resembles a piece of grain. If you’re in Italy, though, you might hear it called risi (“rice”) or risoni (“big rice”).
  • pappardelle — this pasta is long and flat, a bit wider than fettuccine. Unlike most of the pastas on this list, it’s not named after a specific object. It comes from the Italian verb “to gobble up,” perhaps advertising how tasty it is.
  • penne — one of the most popular pasta shapes, penne means “quills” in Italian. If you’re confused as to why, you have to think about the time when feathers had hollow ends to hold ink with a pointed tip, which is kind of like this pasta. This also explains why penne looks so much like “pen” — they’re related words.
  • radiatori — this is one of the more complex pasta shapes, with a row of ruffles wrapping around an open tube. Fortunately, its Italian name pretty accurately describes what they look like: “radiators.”
  •  rotelle — English speakers often call this kind of pasta simply “wagon wheels,” which is exactly what the noodles look like. Rotelle simply means “little wheels” in Italian.
  • rotini — yet another corkscrew pasta, this name in Italian means “little twists.”
  • spaghetti — as mentioned in the last section, spaghetti means “little wires” or “little strings.”
  • strozzapreti — these little noodles are hand-rolled pieces of pasta, which are short and thick. The Italian name can be pretty shocking at first: “priest-choker” or “priest-strangler.” The friendly explanation is that they simply resemble the choker that priests wear, but the anticlerical sentiment in the parts of Italy where this pasta became popular suggests that they may have been named out of rage at the priests.
  • tortellini this pasta is ring-shaped and often stuffed with cheese, though it can also be filled with other things. While it’s not certain, the name might be a double diminutive. It first shrunk torte (“cakes”) to tortelli (“small cakes”), and then further shrunk that down to tortellini
  • vermicelli — this is another long pasta, which tends to be thinner than spaghetti in English-speaking countries, but thicker in Italy. The meaning isn’t too appetizing when translated, though: “little worms.”
  • ziti — this pasta is a long, hollow tube. The Italian version is much longer than the American version you might see in a baked ziti. The name is another one that isn’t based on its appearance. Rather, it comes from the word zitelle, meaning “single woman.” The name might sound weird, but it was chosen because ziti is a common pasta at weddings and other celebrations.

Parts of this article were adapted from an article on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.

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