Pearl pasta is a shape of pasta that is made by rolling the dough in round balls, in a process similar to that used to make couscous, a famous Mediterranean pasta. The size of the pearls varies, with most companies producing those that are roughly pea-sized. There are a variety of ways to use this pasta in cooking, ranging from soups to risottos. Many markets carry pearl pasta, and it can also be ordered from companies that specialize in unusual pasta shapes.
The best pearl pasta is made from durum wheat, a particularly hard variety of wheat that is specifically cultivated for foods like pasta. Durum wheat withstands the cooking process very well, yielding pasta that will have a chewy texture even when it is slightly overdone. It also holds together better through the cooking process than softer wheats, and it will retain its shape rather than melting away during the cooking process.
Pearl pasta tends to be extremely filling because it is so dense. It goes very well in soups, where the pearls can be distributed among other ingredients rather than being concentrated in each serving. It can also be used in risotto and other dishes that are designed to be rich and filling, and it can serve as a vehicle for a variety of sauces. Because the pasta is so dense, however, rich sauces are not advised; a bowl of pearl pasta is far more filling than a bowl of some more airy pasta shape like a cylinder. It also works well in salads and cold pasta dishes.
Cooks may also hear this type of pasta referred to as piombi pasta or round pasta. A closely related product is acini di pepe pasta, another form of pasta that looks like tiny beads. Pearl pasta tends to be somewhat larger, however, with a more regular shape.
In addition to those made from wheat, it is also possible to find gluten-free alternatives like rice and corn pearl pasta. The cooked texture of these varieties is quite variable, so it is a good idea for a cook to make a small batch and test it before making a big meal. This will help ensure that the texture will work for the dish.