Pasta Portal: Orecchiette, My Favorite Pasta Shape

Gun to my head (why is there always a hypothetical gun to my head?), orecchiette is my favorite pasta shape. I love it for its unparalleled ability to hold sauce, the fact that it’s inherently vegan, and its status as an introductory level pasta for any aspiring pasta-maker. Overall, orecchiette is a delectable and approachable pasta option.

Orecchiette translates to “little ears,” and that’s exactly what it looks like—little ears with indentations, and even an outer lobe. This shape makes these pasta pieces incredible little sauce-cups. A food writer I love, Bill Buford, once described pastas as being either innies or outies (yes, like a belly button), meaning food either goes inside the pasta or outside of it. Examples of outies would be linguini, cavatappi, and tagliatelle. Innies are traditionally stuffed pastas like ravioli and tortellini, but also orecchiette. That’s because food gets trapped inside of it. Think about it: Orecchiette has the same type of indentation as your belly button, and I surmise would hold sauce equally well. If you don’t believe me, pour a little marinara in your belly button and a little into a piece of orecchiette and compare the two. Then, get the sauce out of your belly button, you miscreant. 

Orecchiette is also a traditionally eggless pasta, making it vegan. Pretty much all recipes for orecchiette call for warm water and semolina flour. Semolina flour has a higher protein content because it’s made from durum wheat, so pastas made with it are typically a bit chewier. Orecchiette is delightfully toothsome and pleasant in a savory, sort of brawny way. I’m always fascinated when a food completely shines without meat. It’s like playing the game on hard mode and winning. It’s also a celebration of simplicity, and a reminder that meat products are often just a needless addition to our meals. Orchiette being vegan makes it more inclusive and allows more people to appreciate it.

And yet, orecchiette’s greatest strength in my own personal experience is how well it does pair with meat. It’s my go-to with any meat sauce. When I sold pasta, the short rib bolognese was my best seller, and I always paired it with orecchiette. There was something about the combo of that hearty, rich sauce and those dense, chewy little ears that kept customers coming back. I would often stop to marvel, as food freaks often do, at a small piece of orecchiette holding some of that decadent sauce and a few shreds of braised beef short rib. That right there, partner, is a perfect bite of food. Orecchiette doesn’t simply hold sauce; it wraps sauce in its big strong arms and tells it everything is going to be okay.

Store-bought orecchiette is great too, although you do lose some of the chewiness when it’s not made fresh. I recommend De Cecco. Rustichella D Abruzzo is good, too. And if you find an artisanal pasta shop or a nice Italian deli, they might have a brand I’ve never heard of that’s nailing it. You can use these little ears as receptacles for meat sauce, marinara, primavera, or a traditional orecchiette alla pugliese. These happy little cups optimize your enjoyment of the sauce, making for a wonderful experience that may even make you gasp in delight.

Orecchiette is also the first pasta I made from scratch. We aren’t a cooking website, but if you have the inclination to make it yourself, I made a video tutorial here. What I like about orecchiette is that you don’t need a pasta machine (although companies certainly use one). You simply make the dough, roll it into ropes, and then cut and shape it into little ears with your hands, just like my nonna. If you’re curious about what my top five pasta shapes are, there’s a video for that too

Orecchiette isn’t available at every grocery store, but it should be. It’s wonderful, delicious, and practical. Use orecchiette the next time you make a pasta salad, mac and cheese, or a quick pasta dinner. Add it to your pasta rotation, and you’ll be happy that you did.

About the Author

Danny Palumbo

Danny is a comedian, cook, and food writer living in Los Angeles. He loves gas station eggs, canned sardines, and Easter candy. He also passionately believes that all the best chips come from Pennsylvania (Herr's!). If you can't understand Danny when he talks, it's because he's from Pittsburgh.

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