In the 1960s, pasta on our Italian family dinner table came in one variety: spaghetti. Macaroni and cheese was "American food" and never considered Italian cuisine. The next glimpse of a variation in pasta was alphabet soup in a can. All of this horrified my nonna, a native of Naples.
I was about 7 years old when my mother prepared rotelle or rotelli (little wheels of pasta) for the first time. It was a delight to see a new shape on my plate. It was quickly gobbled down with her red sauce and meatballs. As a child, the visual was far more interesting than the taste, but the texture was fun. Those little wagon wheels got caught in my teeth and it was a game to slide them around in my mouth.
Unless there was a neighborhood Italian delicatessen close by, you relied on what the local grocery store carried on its pasta shelves. And in those days, it wasn’t much.
The secret to pasta is in the shape, and there are now plenty of varieties to choose from.
Pick pasta carefully. What might be perfect for a thin sauce could be lost in a recipe loaded with meat. For instance, a cheese sauce hugs campanelle (little fluted bells), hiding in its hollow places and melding to the pasta in the baking process, where as orzo (risoni or big rice) in a cheese sauce merely swims in it.
Next time you head to the grocery store and are brave enough to have your children accompany you, get them involved in the shopping experience. Let them choose the pasta. Pasta comes in a variety of shapes, with many available in gluten-free and wheat versions. Here’s a few that might add a flavor of fun into your selecting process.
Tortellini looks like little cakes and pies and might get your family to the table faster than plain, thin pasta. It's great with an Alfredo sauce.
Fiori is worth a try, shaped like little flowers. Add cooked sausage to complete this dish.
Mostaccioli looks like little mustaches. Pour a pink sauce and add mushrooms. What child wouldn’t enjoy eating mini-mustaches?
Radiatore, as you might guess from the name, is the visual of tiny car radiators and really soaks up the sauce. Make that link with a little boy and you should have no problem steering him to the kitchen table.
Farfalle, my personal favorite, looks like butterflies and is also called bow-tie pasta. Mix in Parmesan cheese and chicken, and you’ll be a hero at the dinner table with all but the most fussy of eaters.
The combinations are endless, and it’s great fun just to experiment — in this case, it’s OK to play with your food. Price per pound, pasta is still a bargain, so pile it on the plate. Enjoy those oodles of options, stretching the food budget while creating a new twist on your serving platter. Why settle for traditional spaghetti when you can enjoy little wheels, fluted bells, butterflies, baby radiators or even tiny mustaches? Especially since National Pasta Day is coming up on Oct. 17.
Pasta has come a long way since my childhood. Keep it visually interesting and your family just may ask for seconds.
Shannon M. Smurthwaite is a Southern California native and lives in Meridian, Idaho, with her husband, Donald, and their four children. She is the author of "Mormon Mama Italian Cookbook" and blogs at www.myitalianmama.com.