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What is Orecchiette?

By Tracey Parece
Updated May 16, 2024
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Orecchiette literally means "little ears" in Italian. It is also a type of pasta named for its small size and ear-like shape. When cooked, this pasta tends to be softer in the center and chewier on the inside. The consistency of this pasta comes from its ingredients and its design — thinner in the center and thicker around the edges.

This type of pasta is typical of Puglia, Apulia, which is a region of Southern Italy. Wheat flourishes in the region, making pasta and bread both important parts of the local cuisine. Widely available throughout Italy, orecchiette are gaining popularity in other countries as well.

Although the Italians may have given the pasta its name, its origins could potentially have roots in the Provence region of France. A similarly shaped pasta has been made there since Medieval times. By some accounts, this pasta was brought into Italy by the French dynasty known as the Anjous, circa 1200 A.D.

In Southern Italy, orecchiette are traditionally made by hand from durum wheat semolina flour, and the characteristic shape of the small ear pasta is formed by pressing the thumb into cubes of pasta dough. While the pasta may ordinarily be handmade, there are several commercial manufacturers of orecchiette as well. There are many recipes that call for orecchiette, including multiple dishes that pair the pasta with broccoli or other vegetables.

There are other different types of pasta that closely resemble orecchiette. In Taranto, this pasta is called chiancarelle. Strascinate are made from the same ingredients, but lack its characteristic dome shape. In Chinese cuisine, there is a similar noodle called Maoerduo whose name translates to "cats' ears."

The ingredients used in the preparation of these types of pasta include durum wheat semolina, water, and salt. There are also variations that use flour in addition to the durum wheat semolina. Some recipes even call for eggs and potatoes, but these ingredients are not traditionally used in orecchiette. The lack of eggs in the traditional recipe is what lends the pasta its chewy consistency as compared to pastas that contain eggs.

Traditionally, the dome shape of the pasta is ideal for holding rich or chunky sauces with meats or vegetables. Smooth or creamy sauces are less popular choices for pairing with this pasta. Sausage and broccoli raab are often used in Southern Italy's regional dishes that contain orecchiette. Cooking time for this pasta can take up to 20 minutes.

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Discussion Comments
By kentuckycat — On Jan 08, 2012

@cardsfan27 - Does anyone have any recipes out there for using orecchiette in pasta?

I see this particular type of pasta as being ideal for people to use in order to exhibit the rice goodness of the flavor of the sauce they make.

I think that is some sort of cooking contest this pasta would be the best type to use in order to exhibit someone's sauce and impress the judges.

I am just wondering because I am having a pasta potluck and am trying to come up with good recipes for sauces to use using orecchiette because it will trap the great taste of the pasta so my guests will enjoy it.

By cardsfan27 — On Jan 08, 2012

@matthewc23 - I have to disagree simply because of the fact that the shape of orecchiette does matter to a high degree for one big reason. Its unique shape traps the flavor and allows for the flavor created by the pasta to be further exploited with every taste.

I have always thought that one major aspect of flavor in any pasta dish is the consistency of the pasta. Orecchiette is unique because it causes more of the sauce to be trapped and allows for the person to enjoy even more of the rich taste of the pasta in every bite of the dish.

I will have to say I prefer using orecchiette over most other pastas simply because it traps the flavor and makes for pasta to taste like it should instead of all the sauce being trapped in the bottom of the bowl.

By matthewc23 — On Jan 07, 2012

@jcraig - That is quite a great story and definitely a rare positive experience of college cafeterias.

I once used orecchiette for my pasta and I have found that it is no different than any other pasta besides the way it is shaped.

The key to creating a good pasta is to use the appropriate sauces and spices that go together to create a good concoction. It is rather meaningless to experiment with various other types of pasta and just settle on one that will get the job done.

By jcraig — On Jan 07, 2012

I have always enjoyed using orecchiette in various pasta concoctions I have created and it has turned into my choice of pasta to use in many dishes.

I originally came across orecchiette while I was a freshman in college and they were cooking some type of pasta in the cafeteria. Seeing my options very limited I decided to try this fresh dish that had bacon and alfredo sauce in it and I have to say it was one of the greatest dishes I have ever had and definitely the best I ever had in the cafeteria in college.

I always remember they would do this once a month with orecchiette and it was always a big deal when they did as the student body would show up in greater numbers each time they made it know that they would serve this dish with orecchiette pasta.

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