What Is Orecchiette?

Cooking and Recipes

Homemade orecchiette

Westend61 / Getty Images

Orecchiette (pronounced oh-reck-ee-ET-tay) is a distinctive type of pasta from Puglia (Apulia), the southeastern region of Italy that forms the heel of Italy's boot. The pasta is shaped roughly like small ears, hence the name "orecchiette" which means "little ears." Orecchiette is mostly sold dried but is best when fresh; however, they need to be shaped by hand and are challenging to make. In Puglia, this pasta is most often served with a simple tomato sauce, but orecchiette can also be paired with a variety of ingredients and works well with chunky sauces.

Fast Facts

Category: Short cut pasta

Meaning: "Little ears"

Cook Time: 9 to 12 minutes

Main Ingredient: Durum wheat semolina

Substitutes: Penne, farfalle, fusilli

What Is Orecchiette?

This small, round pasta is less than an inch across and concaves with a slight dome shape. The center is thinner than its rims, a characteristic that gives the pasta an interesting, variable texture: soft in the middle and somewhat chewier around the edges.

Making orecchiette at home will require lots of practice as it takes some experience to master the shape of the pasta. Once the dough is rolled out into finger-thick snakes, it is cut into thumbnail-sized pieces and simultaneously spread out across the work surface with the knife (the cutting and spreading should be one motion). The pasta is then flipped with a flick of the thumb and joined, creating the signature dome shape. Fresh orecchiette has a more homemade look than extruded pasta thanks to individual hand-forming.

Orecchiette can also be purchased dried and is sold by most major pasta brands. It is offered in both small- and large-size "ears." Before buying, check the expiration date to be sure they're still fresh, as older orecchiette can be problematic to cook. This type of pasta is not especially expensive, priced similarly to more familiar shapes. It is often served with broccoli rabe (orecchiette con cime de rapa) and Italian sausage and topped with Parmesan or a similar cheese. It also pairs well with other bulky sauces made of meat and other vegetables such as asparagus and peas.

How to Cook Orecchiette

To cook both fresh and dried orecchiette, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a pinch of salt. For fresh pasta, add the orecchiette and give it a stir. The amount of time to boil fresh orecchiette will depend on how dry the pasta is. It is done when the pasta rises to the top, which can be in five to seven minutes. Dried orecchiette should be added to the boiling, salted water and left to cook for nine to 12 minutes, the shorter cooking time resulting in an al dente pasta. Read the packaging for the pasta for a more exact cook time. Once cooked, drain both fresh and dried orecchiette and immediately top with sauce.

Varieties

The most common form of orecchiette is made with durum wheat semolina. In some cases, whole wheat varieties are available, which take longer to cook and are more common in dried form. Organic orecchiette can sometimes be found as well. Although not as popular, fresh orecchiette can be found at some specialty markets and Italian grocers and should be enjoyed as soon as possible. All varieties are available online.

Substitutes

Although orecchiette is a unique shape, there are other types of pasta that will suffice as substitutes. The cup-like structure of orecchiette allows for sauce and vegetables or meat to nestle inside and cling to the pasta, so choosing something that will act similarly is ideal. Penne (preferably the mezze variety which is smaller), farfalle (bowties), and fusilli (corkscrews) are good choices, as well as conchiglie, which are small shells.

Orecchiette Recipes

Orecchiette is often served in Puglia in a simple tomato sauce or with the addition of small meatballs. This pasta also works well with vegetables (particularly broccoli and broccoli rabe) or any type of chunky sauce. Try substituting it for penne in the recipe below and topping with asparagus, pancetta or bacon, and juicy tomatoes.