There’s a reason why gnocchi and Pinocchio sound so similar…
My favourite thing about pasta (aside from eating it) is the wonderful history, tradition and craftsmanship that lies behind the creation and naming of every shape.
With over 350 different shapes, and nearly four times as many names for these, the etymology of different pasta shapes has a little-known but fascinating history.
The word “pasta” itself derives from the Italian word for the dough from which pasta shapes are made, whilst the names for these usually trace back to the process of creating them or the objects they resemble. “Spaghetti”, for example, derives from the Italian word spago, meaning string, resembling its long, straggly shape, whilst “ravioli” derives from the Italian riavvolgere – “to wrap”– in reference to the process of “wrapping” the dough around the filling before cutting into squares.
Amongst so much choice, we’ve managed to pick out five of our favourite pasta anecdotes to share with all you pasta-lovers to help brush up your pasta knowledge (it’s also great trivia for the next time you’re stuck in an awkward conversation at a dinner party).
Literally translated as “priest-stranglers” or “priest-chokers”, there are a few theories surrounding the naming of this pasta shape, although it certainly reflects the historic resentment of the Church in Emilia & Toscana, from which this pasta originates.
One theory behind the name is that it made fun of corrupt priests, suggesting they were so greedy that they would literally choke themselves by stuffing their mouths with pasta.
Another theory is that wives would often make this pasta for priests as a way of paying off land debt. The husbands, aggrieved that the priests were feasting on their wives’ cooking, would secretly wish that they choked to death on it!
Malloreddus “Fat little bulls”
Malloreddus, also known as gnochetti sardi -“Sardinian gnocchi” – is a staple in Sardinian cuisine. Literally translated as “fat little bulls” in Sardinian dialect, this pasta is traditionally made by rolling the dough onto a wicker basket, impressing its distinctive deep ridges.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these “fat little bulls” is the Sardinian tradition for newlywed brides to parade through the streets carrying a basket of these to her husband’s door. Once she arrives, the couple must then eat the malloreddus off the same plate to cement their new roles as husband and wife.
Mafalde “Named after princess Mafalda of Savoy”
Also known as “reginette” meaning “little queens” in Italian, mafalde were created to commemorate Princess Mafalda of Savoy, the daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. Princess Mafalda sadly lived a tragic life, having been deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp after being considered a threat to the Third Reich and later killed by the Allied bombing of the camp’s ammunition factory in 1944. The ruffled edges of mafalde pasta is said to remind of the princess’ curls and remains an enduring commemoration of her tragic life.
Orecchiette literally translates to “little ears”, no doubt referring to its small ear-like shape.
Orecchiette are known as a pasta bianca or “white pasta” since they are made without eggs, created by rolling small pieces of dough with a knife and stretched with the base of the thumb.
As a historically poorer region of Italy, white pastas typically derive from the South, since many were unable to afford expensive ingredients such as eggs to use in their pasta dough. Thus, sfogline would have to innovate with the limited resources they had, using only flour and water to create this beautifully delicate shape.
The word “gnocchi” most likely derives from the Italian word “nocchio” meaning, “knot in the wood”, hence the connection between Pinocchio, the famous protagonist of Carlo Collodi’s children’s novel. Another theory is that the name derives from the word “nocca”, meaning knuckle, in reference to its stubby, ridged shape.
Tortelloni originates from Modena, a city in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. The exact origin of the shape is widely disputed, but the most likely theory is that tortelloni were meant to replicate the shape of a turtle shell, which is famously displayed throughout Modena’s 17th century architecture. Our preferred version of the story however is the popular legend that the innkeeper of a tavern in Bologna created it to resemble Venus’ belly button, having caught a glimpse of its splendour after spying on her and Jupitus through the keyhole of their bedroom.
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