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Do the different pasta shapes serve any purpose, or are they just for fun? Some difference appear to be cultural (lo mein vs spaghetti), but there are so many different syles of Italian pasta, is there a reason for this?

Clearly there need to be differences for stuffed / not stuffed, but why do we have penne and ziti?

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Read "Heat" by Bill Buford. There's a great discussion of this exact topic. But what it comes down to is Old Italian women, with lots of time on their hands being creative. In other cultures, they did elaborate quilts, or needlepoint. In Italy, they made slow food. –  Chris Cudmore Sep 30 '10 at 23:07
    
I wouldn't consider a lo mein (or any other Chinese noodles) a pasta. Spaghetti is a type of noodles, not vice versa. –  Lie Ryan Oct 1 '10 at 17:36
    
This isn't really an answer, but i find the way you phrased your question very interesting as it has, in part, to do with the very different understanding of 'pasta' in the USA to much of the rest of the world. In the US the words "pasta" and "noodles" are pretty much interchangeable, perhaps noodles are the individual pieces of pasta, but essentially the same thing. To me, the two are totally different. Lo Mein is an Asian dish made with noodles, which are exclusively Asian, and are always long and thin, for instance egg noodles, rice noodles, udon or soba. You could NEVER call lasagne 'noodl –  user20606 Oct 6 '13 at 19:59
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6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

One answer to this is that Americans have a reversed understanding of the relationship of pasta to sauce compared to Italians. In Italy, the sauce is called the condimento, meaning literally it is a condiment to the noodles, which are intended to be the main source of enjoyment in the dish. When you begin to understand it that way, it makes sense that you would want to have a wide variety of sizes, shapes and textures. (What Taeraresh said is also true, there are functional differences in how the different shapes hold sauces.)

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I really like the idea that sauce is a condiment. So a lot of this is about exploring texture in the mouth as much as the mechanical aspect of what sauce works best with which noodle. Funny, after some poking around I found a link to a book on this subject: The Geometry of Pasta. –  DaveParillo Sep 30 '10 at 22:00
    
Yes, that is a neat book! I was just browsing it at a bookstore a few weeks ago. –  Michael at Herbivoracious Sep 30 '10 at 22:26
    
Be sure to check out their clickable shapes. –  Dennis Williamson Oct 2 '10 at 18:30
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One thing that varies is how much of the sauce adheres to the pasta, especially for pasta shapes that have ridges or hollow areas. Sometimes you'll have a sauce where you'll want chunks of it to stick to the pasta, and sometimes you just want the pasta to be flavored by the sauce, but eaten more by itself.

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It's regional varieties -- just as there's different cheeses and olives, different types of pastas have evolved.

Now, you might think at first that it doesn't make sense, as we could produce the same pasta everywhere, you have to remember that Italians will pair specific sauces with specific pasta to get a specific balance of sauce to pasta. As different things are grown / raised / etc in different areas, we end up with different pastas preferred for different sauces. Some are better for oil (eg, thin strands, light and delicate), some for cream sauces (wider strands, tubes), some for tomato sauces (wider strands, anything with good ridges on it), some for soups (smaller shapes), etc.

Now, I know, there's lots of tubes, and there's lots of strands ... but others could ask why Americans need Coke, Pepsi and RC Cola (although, in that case, there's commercial interest, but there's still some heavy regional preferences out there, particularly for smaller local varieties)

As for the difference between penne vs. ziti -- the angle of the cut on the end can affect how much sauce gets inside the pasta, as the angled cut of the penne will grab some as you're stirring the pasta in the sauce. (or so I've been told ... I've never done a side-by-side comparison of two with the same diameter / thickness / length, etc.)

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Mainly that different shapes serve different purposes. You should pair the right kind of pasta with the right kind of sauce. Depending on sauce thickness or what's in it etc.

Some shapes are also designed to allow for different textures like farfale where the core cooks less than the edges, making for a richer texture.

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Whilst there may be pasta shapes designed to be decorative rather than functional most pasta shapes serve a clear purpose. Spaghetti, for example holds a pesto or a finely ground beef sauce very well, whereas if you used a thicker pasta noodle for something like pesto or just a simple olive oil and garlic dressing there would be too much pasta per forkful to flavouring. Yet a thick tagliatelle would be very suited to a game pasta sauce made with chunks of rabbit or hare. Chunky vegetable sauces work very well with large pasta shells, as the shells catch the vegetable pieces in the sauce, making it easier to eat. Tubular pasta works very well with creamy sauces (such as macaroni and cheese) because it is very satisfying to bite into the tube and feel the sauce releases within. You could also say that so many shapes exist to satisfy the individual's personal taste and sense of fun.

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The pasta cooks differently based on the shape. It will have a different feel in the mouth, and as you chew, as well as holding the sauce differently.

You will notice the difference most if you aim to cook the pasta perfectly al dente.

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