It seems Americans have developed a newfound appreciation for a variety of pasta shapes. Unsatisfied with the spaghetti-or-penne binary, home cooks are discovering the pleasures of fusilli corti bucati, the fun of mafaldine, and the innovations behind new shapes like Cascatelli or Vesuvio, from The Sporkful and Sfoglini, respectively.
But in our chaotic moment, when chefs are more willing than ever to shed expectations and get weird with it, I’m always sort of disappointed when a restaurant acts like agnolotti is the wildest shit out there. As a child, it felt like my life was full of fun and ridiculous pasta shapes. There were wagon wheels and hearts and letters. There were dinosaurs and all sorts of other animals in Chef Boyardee. But as I got older the options dwindled. Sure, as an adult you can occasionally find tennis rackets or, if you are going to a bachelorette party, penises, but outside of that the market for whimsy in adult pasta is basically nonexistent. Do these chefs even know what’s possible? If we’re getting weird, then answer me: Why aren’t more restaurants cooking with silly pasta shapes?
Much of the fuss over pasta varieties is about pairing shapes to sauces. Flat noodles are supposedly best for light cream sauces, while meat sauces go well with penne. And when Dan Pashman developed the Cascatelli, his goal was to create a shape ideal for holding sauces, while also providing different textures. The whole point is creating an optimized bite, a perfect experience in a world in which the pressure is increasingly on to make every experience perfect.
It’s a little exhausting, and why I think I’ve been drawn to the idea of making meat sauce and penis noodles. Whoever invented pasta shaped like a zebra was probably not thinking of mouthfeel. They were just thinking of making dinner a little more appealing, likely for kids, but honestly who wouldn’t be delighted with a pesto zebra? It feels like there’s a whole untapped world of pasta shapes dying to be explored. Imagine a Via Carota-quality cacio e pepe around tennis racket pasta, or slow-simmered ragu served over miniature New Jerseys. Cynically, it would absolutely blow up on TikTok as everyone scrambles to find the latest trend. But also it just sounds so fun!
Some restaurants are starting to get on board. At Cafe Mars, Brooklyn’s newest destination for delicious and slightly goofy Italian-esque food, the penne is shaped like a triangle. Jupiter at one point had an alphabet in brodo. And it looks like chef Eric Rivera has been experimenting with bat-shaped pasta. But honestly, there should be more. So please call me when you put wagon wheel carbonara on the menu.