Italy must be the ultimate foodie paradise. With a culinary tradition that dates back literally thousands of years and enriched by gastronomic influences and innovations from throughout the world, it is a veritable cornucopia of incredible cuisine. Combine that with an equally old and innovative winemaking tradition, and you are left with a dizzying combination of food and wine pairings.
Nowhere is this truer then when it comes to Italian pasta. There are more than 350 different varieties of pasta in Italy, made with a range of different flours. Each region has its own particular style and shape of pasta and the perfect local sauce and wine to match it to.
Recently I sat down with Benedetta Bianchini, co-founder, with her sister Valeria, of Local Aromas, one of Rome’s most prestigious cooking schools, to talk about the ultimate guide to pasta and wine pairings. Benedetta is ideally suited for that task. She is both a professional chef and a Master Sommelier, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Italian food and wine scene.
JM: There are over 350 different varieties of pasta in Italy and even more names for them. Is there any pasta type that is truly ubiquitous the length of Italy?
BB: Every time we run a cooking class, a food tour, or any of our wine and olive oil tastings, we always break the ice with “there is no such thing as Italian food.” And each and every time we get baffled and perplexed looks. But it’s the truth. Italian food does not exist. We are a patchwork of regions with hundreds – if not thousands – of years of history that we refashioned into a country only a century and a half ago. How can you expect our food to be the same? Impossible.
And even if nothing says Italian food like pasta, the fact that there are over 350 different varieties of pasta in Italy should underscore the incredible diversity!
If I had to pick a pasta type that is truly ubiquitous to all of Italy…. I would say spaghetti. Yes, definitely spaghetti.
JM: Where did all these different styles come from?
BB: The various climates between the north and the south of Italy played a very important role is what grain grew where, and what shapes to make with that grain.
Hard wheat loves warm and dry climates and hates humidity. This is why it has happily grown in Italy’s sunny south for centuries. As a result, the pasta traditions in this area – center, south, and islands – are mainly based on hard-wheat flour and water. The production of dried pasta started off in locations where the warm winds and the mild sea breeze was ideal to ensure that the pasta would dry to perfection. First in Sicily and then, over centuries, it gradually extended to other parts of Italy like Sardinia, Naples, Puglia. For this reason, the heart of dried pasta production is and has always been the south of Italy.
Soft wheat, on the other hand, grows in humid areas, and the climate of northern Italy is perfect for it. This is why the pasta traditions of Italy’s north are based on soft-wheat flour. Fettuccine, tagliatelle, lasagna, maltagliati, pastina are traditional pastas from the north of Italy.
This pasta dough has a very particular characteristic that hard wheat flour + water doesn’t have: it can be rolled out into very thin sheets. This is why stuffed pasta shapes like tortellini, ravioli, cappelletti, cannelloni, agnolotti – are traditional to northern Italy, especially Emilia-Romagna. It’s the characteristics of the dough that shape the pasta.
JM: Did the pasta shapes evolve to match the sauces or did the sauces evolve to match the pasta?
BB: This is like asking, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Very difficult question to answer. Considering that tomato sauce didn’t become part of the Italian food scene until the late 1800s. The first recipe that featured pasta together with red tomato sauce only goes back to 1797. By Italian culinary traditions, tomato based dishes must be considered “modern.”
There are unwritten rules about the perfect pasta and sauce combination and, just so you know, to an Italian chef pairing a sauce to the wrong pasta is a sin because there is a perfect pasta for every sauce. Actually, pasta styles were created and shaped with a purpose and that purpose was to match the sauce, a soup, a meat, a texture. Nothing is random, and nothing left to chance.
JM: Looking at each major region, what styles of pasta and sauces are typical of each area. What about the wines? Are there regional wines that are ideal matches for each region’s pasta?
BB: Everything about Italian food is regional. The same goes for pasta shapes and sauces. Every region has its own particular shape that matches perfectly to a specific sauce and to the ingredients and the wines of the territory. It’s all about creating magic!
As you travel throughout and across the 20 Italian regions, from the colder north to the warmer south, you’ll be fascinated by how diversified and multicolored Italy is. Our particular boot-shaped country is a gastronomic paradise of diversity. Throughout the centuries, this diversity has had a huge impact on the cuisine, wine, history, dialect, culture and traditions of each region.
Let’s take a food journey from north to south so that you can really get what I am talking about. Remember when you pair your Italian meals with wine from the same region, you cannot go wrong.
Tajarin (dialect for tagliatelle) is the most popular pasta in Piemonte. This smooth all-yolk-based pasta resembling tagliatelle pairs wonderfully with many sauces. However, since this region is the kingdom of white truffles, you can see how Tajarin al Tartufo makes for a rich and decadent pasta dish. The wine to pair to this amazing dish is the “king of wines,” Barolo. The complexity and elegance of this wine enhances the truffle making it an excellent choice. Want something more approachable, try also some of the Nebbiolo wines from Gattinara or the Langhe.
Lombardy is not as pasta-loving as other regions are. It is more about rice and polenta. However, something really worth mentioning is Pizzoccheri alla Valtellinese, a type of short looking tagliatelle-like pasta made from buckwheat flour and served with boiled vegetables and local cheese. Enjoy this local dish with a local wine from the Valtellina, a Valtellina Superiore or a powerfully concentrated Sforzato, both made from Nebbiolo grapes.
Liguria has very unique and traditional pastas, like Picagge, Croxetti and Trofie. Whichever you choose, Pesto Genovese is the sauce to use. The perfect combination of basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan and pecorino cheese will turn any pasta dish into a pleasure for the palate. Why not stick to another local wine that will enhance the herbaceous flavors of this dish like a Vermentino?
Valle d’Aosta, Italy’s tiniest region, boasts an incredible food scene, but pasta is not part of the picture. Polenta, gnocchi and big, hearty stews rule in this cold region. Since wines here are as extreme as Italian winemaking gets, try wines made from indigenous varieties like Petit Rouge, Fumin or even Prié Blanc.
Tortellini al brodo has Emilia-Romagna written all over them! These heart-warming, tiny meat filled pasta shapes served in a warm broth with grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Dilemma. White or red wine? Try a local classic, the dry red Lambrusco di Sorbara. This is not the “pop-Lambrusco” of your youth. You will be pleasantly surprised.
Friuli Venezia Giulia offers Cjarsons, which are very similar to ravioli, but often made with potato flour instead of wheat flour. They can be filled with wild herbs, ricotta, raisins, potatoes, cocoa, cinnamon, and other spices. Pair them with one of Italy’s most precious and prized dessert wines, the Picolit.
Trentino-Alto-Adige became Italian after World War I, so the cuisine here is a blend of central European, ancient Tyrolean, Austrian cuisine and Italian. Pasta dishes typical of this area are the Casunziei (ravioli stuffed with beetroot and dressed with poppy seeds) and Schlutzkrapfen (half-moon ravioli with spinach and ricotta). Serve any of these two dishes with Lagrein, a local ancient red grape variety that packs powerful aromas.
Bigoli are probably the most traditional pasta of Veneto, and they are usually served with duck or meat ragu, anchovies or salted sardines. For the duck or meat ragu a red Valpolicella Classico is exactly what you want. If you are having anchovies, then pick a Soave Classico. You cannot go wrong!
In Lazio, you cannot miss Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe. This pasta dish is ancient and it is considered one of the simplest and most satisfying Italian dishes. Choosing a wine for this dish is not easy, since the highlights are the creaminess of the cheese and the heat of the black pepper. If you want a red, then look for something light, like a Rosso di Montalcino. If it’s white you want, then you need something more structured like a local Gewürztraminer.
The Marche region has the only egg pasta in Italy to be granted EU protected status. The famous Maccheroncini di Campofilone date back to the 1400s. They are usually served with a creamy sauce made with chicken giblets, or with a rich meat or seafood ragu. A Rosso Piceno Superiore, a unique blend of Montepulciano and Sangiovese, is the perfect pairing.
In Tuscany, the pole position in pasta goes to pappardelle, served with a wild boar or hare ragu. Sauces made from porcini mushrooms are a great vegetarian option. Another essentially Tuscan pasta is ‘pici’ ‘all’aglione’ with tomato and garlic. You can go wild with the selection of wines this region offers. These dishes want red, so ask for a structured red with a great tannic backbone. A Chianti Classico or a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano will complement the tomato sauces or go for a powerful Super Tuscan from Bolgheri.
Umbria, the green heart of Italy, is well known for its Pasta alla Norcina. It’s a super short pasta combined with sausage from the town of Norcia, onions, white wine, cream and a generous amount of grated pecorino. A local red Sangiovese or a Grechetto will be a perfect match for this succulent dish.
One of the Abruzzo’s most popular dishes is maccheroni alla chitarra. This shape is made by pressing the dough through a chitarra, a rectangular wooden frame with parallel wires running across it from top to bottom, sort of like a guitar! They are usually served with a simple, spicy tomato sauce or with pesto Abruzzese (made with chili pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, pecorino and anchovies). The wine will have to match the dressing you picked. Abruzzo has amazing wines and you cannot leave without tasting a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. It would be a sin!
Molise is home not only of cavatelli pasta but also of the fusilli pasta. The first is usually served with spicy broccoli, while the second is a match made in heaven when served with a lamb ragù. Play local and order a bottle of Tintilia, a red Italian wine grape variety that is indigenous in this region.
Campania is home to the most famous pasta producing town in Italy: Gragnano. The many varieties of dried pasta that originate here are considered among the best of Italy. Of the many pasta dishes of the region, the ziti napoletani lardiati is probably the best known. Imagine local Pomodorino Vesuviano tomatoes, pork belly fat, a clove of garlic, chili, and a generous amount of grated pecorino all combined in one dish! Pure poetry! Try pairing a unique local Ischia Piedirosso, a red variety grown on the stunning island of Ischia.
Nothing says Puglia more than orecchiette alle cime di rapa. It’s their signature dish and it’s simple perfection. These “little ears,” the literal translation of orecchiette, are usually made by hand and then simply paired with broccoli rabe (Cime di Rapa), garlic, chili pepper, anchovies and optional pecorino cheese. Dare to serve this with a local Salentino rosé wine made from the Negroamaro grape. You will be pleasantly surprised by the result of this unusual match.
Basilicata has numerous amazing pasta dishes. Lagane made just with water and durum wheat flour are a larger, thicker and wider version of pappardelle and are often seasoned with legumes like chickpeas. Aglianico, one of the three greatest Italian grape varieties, is indigenous to this region. If you’re unfamiliar with it, its powerful concentrated wines are a must try.
Calabria is famous for a very particular pasta shape called Fileja. They are usually made by hand with just flour and water and resemble a long hollow tube. This shape is designed to capture thick, heavy, spicy sauces and also meat based sauces. The region boasts two unique grape varieties; the red Gaglioppo and the white Greco Bianco.
It’s difficult to pick just one pasta type in Sicily. There is no signature dish, but Pasta alla Norma would be at the top of the list. Fried eggplant, tomatoes, salted ricotta cheese and basil make this recipe incredibly satisfying and offer an explosion of Mediterranean aromas. Sicily is a haven for wines. A superb region with exceptional wine varieties that you can only find here. Try a Sicilian white wine like a varietal Grillo bottling or a Grillo/Chardonnay blend.
Last but not least, there is the stunning island of Sardinia. Here you can find dishes that you would not find anywhere else, unless you learn to master them at home. Malloredus, also known as Sardinian gnocchi, is the most popular type of pasta of this region. They are usually served with a sauce made with saffron, tomato and sausage or lamb ragu. This island is home to Cannonau, the local name for Grenache, as well as Vermentino and Carignano.
The list could go on and on. This diversity is what makes our boot-shaped country an all-time favorite for foodies. Simplicity, genuine local ingredients, superlative pasta and cheese, amazing wines, not to mention incredible extra virgin olive oil allow Italian cuisine to stand the test of time!
JM: What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn how to make and cook pasta. Are their particular shapes or regional styles that are easier to start with?
BB: Italian homemade pasta is the heart of Italian cooking, the key ingredient of Italy’s cuisine from north to south. There are many different dough recipes, hundreds of pasta shapes, traditional pasta-making tools, not to mention the local stories behind each.
This is why we have created Fresh Homemade Pasta: The Complete Guide, an online cooking course, so that foodies and pasta lovers can learn everything there is to know on this fascinating topic.
It’s not as intimidating as you might think, but do start simple. Fettuccine, tagliatelle, malloreddus, cavatelli are personally what I would start with. Each is made with a different dough and then once you master the texture, the resting time, the consistency, you can move on to other shapes.
JM: Thank you