Best pasta shape? Geometry debunks a popular food myth
“I wanted to try to create a shape that would be great across the board.”
If you walk down the pasta aisle of any American grocery store, you’ll find a formidable wall of golden options. From lasagna sheets to angel hair pasta, rigatoni to “bow ties,” and of course the childhood staple — spaghetti.
But for all their various forms, how much of a difference does pasta shape really make to the dish you’re eating, and is there one choice that shines above the rest? That’s the question Dan Pashman, award-winning host of the food podcast “The Sporkful”, spent the last three years digging into.
After consuming innumerable bowls of pasta and poring over pages of pasta lore, Pashman tells Inverse he’s designed a new type of pasta shape to give the entire pasta aisle a run for its money: cascatelli.
CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.
What is cascatelli?
Italian for “little waterfalls,” Pashman says that the inspiration for cascatelli came from the desire for his pasta noodles to capture three key attributes:
- Sauceability (how well they hold sauce)
- Formability (how easy they are to get on the fork)
- Toothsinkability (how satisfying it is to bite into them)
“A lot of shapes are great at one or two of these, but very few nail all three,” explains Pashman. “I wanted to try to create a shape that would be great across the board.”
In his quest to satisfy these three criteria, Pashman was primarily inspired by existing pasta shapes like mafalde and bucatini (which famously experienced a pandemic-influenced shortage in 2020).
“Does this scientific approach result in tastier pasta? Absolutely.”
Mafalde looks a little like miniature lasagna sheets — flat with wavy edges — while bucatini is a thick, ever-so-slightly hollow spaghetti-shaped pasta. Combined, these pasta work to combat what Pashman describes as the “monotextural” nature of most pasta. In opposition to something like spaghetti — which is a smooth tube with little bite resistance — mafalde and bucatini offer more bite and playful texture.
Pashman says it would have been easy to create such a dynamic pasta shape using a 3D printer to go viral on social media, but he wanted to make something that pasta lovers could (literally) dig their teeth into.
“I did not want a gimmick,” says Pashman. “My goal was to create a legitimately great shape that would stand the test of time -- and that could be mass-produced and sold... I wanted a pasta that would not only look great but also be great to eat.”
Does pasta shape matter?
If you’re anything like me, maybe you’ve substituted the penne in your “Penne alla vodka” with rigatoni — or God forbid, linguine — in a pinch and not thought much of it. And while most any noodle will do the trick to transport sauce into your mouth, any foodie or Italian will tell you that some do it better than others.
Rigatoni for example — with its squat shape, wide hollow interior, and textured exterior — is typically recommended for carrying thick sauces. Capellini — a long, thin pasta commonly known as “angel hair” — is more delicate and better for lighter oil-based sauces.
These designations may seem trivial but they actually stem from two fundamental considerations: form factor (aka, pasta shape) and surface area (aka, real-estate for sauce.)
This is the kind of ratio that you could figure out by eye (e.g. a textured tube has more visible area than a thin tube), or if you’re mathematically inclined you could turn to geometry instead. That’s exactly what George Legendre, Associate Professor in Practice of Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, explored in his book Pasta by Design.
How do you mathematically describe pasta?
In a Financial Times essay penned by Legendre, he says that the inspiration behind Pasta by Design came from sharing a meal (of pasta, naturally) with his Italian architect friend Marco Guarnieri. Legendre writes that the premise of the book was simple:
“To work out the mathematical formulas of pasta and use the results to produce a culinary resource that is both beautiful and useful,” using the same mathematics knowledge that helps build pedestrian bridges or childrens’ playgrounds.
“If other people want to call it perfect, I won't argue.”
The book’s approach was inspired by the science of phylogeny (the study of relatedness between natural forms) to narrow down the entire cannon of pasta shapes to just 92 unique types. These were further divided according to morphological features (e.g. frilly edges) and each pasta variety was 3D modeled using parametric equations — the same kind of equations you might use when graphing the curve of a thrown baseball.
“Does this scientific approach result in tastier pasta? Absolutely,” writes Legendre. “The topological properties of each shape impacts how it absorbs heat and water, cooks, soaks in liquids, and retains a sauce – a shape may even be designed for a given sauce.”
This kind of precision is exactly what Pashman was after when designing his cascatelli. He wanted a semi-hollow tunnel for sauce, a forkable curve, and a right-angle built into the shape itself for extra bite.
“There are very few pasta shapes where two walls of pasta intersect at a right angle, and that provides resistance to the bite from all angles,” Pashman says. “Then you have the edges will are a bit softer than those intersection points. All this comes together to create what sensory scientists call dynamic contrast -- the combination of different textures in the same bite.”
Is cascatelli the best pasta shape?
Many would argue that there can be no true pasta shape to rule them all — and the math would support that — but Pashman says that cascatelli’s dynamic shape has the potential to serve as a multi-purpose pasta shape, capable of capturing sauce in 75 percent of pasta dish scenarios.
“I would never say it's perfect — I think everything can be improved,” says Pashman. “That being said, if other people want to call it perfect, I won't argue!”
The first 3,700 boxes of cascatelli have already sold out, but new orders can be placed on Sfoglini Pasta Factory’s website and shipped in a 10-week period. Pashman’s pasta odyssey is cataloged in a five-part Sporkful series called “Mission: ImPASTAble.”