“Every thing must have a beginning . . . and that beginning must be linked to something that went before . . . It must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos,” Mary Shelley wrote in the preface to the 1831 edition of “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus Invention,” her most notable work.
There are between 300 and 400 unique shapes of Italian pasta, mimicking everyday objects such as belly buttons and sea shells and clouds, but until this spring, there was not one called cascatelli.
Adapted from the Italian cascatelle, for “waterfalls,” the new shape is the brainchild of Dan Pashman, the creator and host of “The Sporkful,” an award-winning podcast that celebrated its 10th year in 2020. Fans of the show know Pashman as an especially opinionated journalist who is prone to bouts of laughter, usually at his own expense, and the occasional dad joke.
As he tells it in a five-part series on the podcast, Pashman first started thinking about creating a pasta shape three years ago. Especially at first, pretty much everyone thought he was nuts, including his kids, who, though excited to be test tasters, pointed out that he seemed to be living in a dreamland. “How are you actually going to get supermarkets to sell it?” was how his 9-year-old daughter Becky put it. “What if the supermarket people haven’t even heard of you?”
It’s nearly impossible to know how many people have listened to any episode of a podcast, but Pashman says “The Sporkful” is downloaded 6 million times a year. Would that, plus some marketing and public relations dollars, be enough to sell a few thousand boxes of a new shape of pasta?
After talking to friends, chefs, historians, at least one architect, pasta manufacturers and his team, Pashman’s pasta project eventually went from harebrained hobby to its current status as an actual product anyone in the U.S. can purchase and eat.
When his manufacturing partner, Sfoglini, put the shape up for sale on its website, at $4.99 for a one-pound box — it’s not available in stores — it sold out within two hours. Pashman recouped his initial investment of around $9,000, and is now trying to help troubleshoot packaging delays while figuring out how to best meet international demand.
When I got my hands on a box, I was dubious. The shape looks a little like creste di gallo (cockscombs), except it’s split instead of hollow. It curves into an attractive comma-like curl. Each piece seems a touch too big for a polite bite. I started boiling water and set to work making three sauces: an uncooked tomato sauce slick with olive oil and punchy with minced garlic; a chunky tuna and green olive mixture, with bits of lemon zest and Calabrian chiles; and a romesco-like puree, thick and velvety with toasted almonds and sweet roasted peppers and balsamic.
Here’s the thing: There’s no wrong sauce for this pasta. Every kind clings like Velcro.
“It’s like a Venus fly trap,” Pashman says, with a chuckle. “Anything that goes in there can’t get out.”
The pasta’s marketing materials refer to that grippy-ness as “sauceability.” Alongside “forkability” and “toothsinkability,” these goofy, made-up terms form Pashman’s trifecta of ideal pasta characteristics.
Echoing Shelley’s words on the lineage of invention, Pashman, whom I’d describe as an enthusiastic eater, dogged to a fault and a persistent journalist, points out that he’s really more of a tinkerer.
“The other day, I was reading an article about Thomas Edison,” he says in the second episode of the pasta series. “You know, he didn’t actually invent the lightbulb. He just made it better. In fact, he didn’t think of his work as inventing. He called it perfecting. That’s what I want to do. I want to bring the best features of pasta together in a way that’s never been done before. In a way that’s just better. So really, I’m not inventing a new pasta shape. I’m perfecting one.”
The thing I marvel at when I look at cascatelli is not that Pashman came up with a new, interesting pasta shape. It’s not even that he’s a clever marketer or entertaining storyteller. It’s that he didn’t give up. He stuck with it, weighing risk and reward, convincing dozens of skeptics along the way, until he came out the other side.
Perseverance is a hallmark of waterfalls, too, I think. They flow with a force that can be hard to stop. There’s no wrong sauce for cascatelli, but when thinking about the shape’s characteristics and namesake, I imagined something of the sea. In this recipe, bits of oil-packed tuna swim between its wavy ridges alongside chunky Castelvetrano olives and lots of lemon zest. Garlic, parsley and Calabrian chiles, slick with olive oil, get caught among the larger nubbins, like pebbles in a brook. Important note: You don’t need cascatelli to make this recipe! I also love it with fusilli, radiatori, creste di gallo or campanelle. It’s great with spaghetti or orzo, too. A topping of crunchy, Parmesan-coated breadcrumbs gives it more texture, whether you decide to serve it warm, at room temperature or pasta-salad cold on a summer’s day.
Cascatelli With Green Olives, Calabrian Chiles and Lemony Tuna
Active time: 20 minutes | Total time: 30 minutes
Makes: 2 to 3 servings
Inspired by the flavors and textures of gremolata, tapenade and tonnato aioli, this sauce is meant to be eaten with a pasta shape that has lots of texture, to grab onto all of the flavorful bits. Cascatelli, with its many ruffles and ridges, is ideal, but feel free to substitute any shape. We recommend fusilli, radiatori, cresto di gallo or campanelle. Olives and canned tuna play well with parsley, garlic and lots of lemon, plus a hit of Calabrian chile — feel free to use another chile paste such as harissa or sambal oelek, or omit the chiles if you don’t like the heat. Serve warm or at room temperature, like a pasta salad. A sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs on top just before serving adds a nice crunch.
Storage Notes: Leftovers may be refrigerated in a covered container for up to 3 days.
- Fine sea salt
- 8 ounces dried pasta, preferably a ruffled shape such as cascatelli, fusilli or radiatori
- One (5-ounce) can or jar tuna packed in oil
- 1/2 cup (1 ounce) chopped fresh parsley leaves and tender stems, divided
- 1/3 cup (2 1/2 ounces) pitted green olives, preferably Castelvetrano, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced or finely grated, divided
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- Finely grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon
- Finely grated zest and juice of 1 small orange
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed Calabrian chiles in oil, or to taste (optional)
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- 1/3 cup dried unseasoned breadcrumbs
- 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add two large pinches of salt and the pasta. Cook it according to package instructions, stirring occasionally, until al dente.
- In a large bowl, combine the tuna and its oil, 1/3 cup of parsley, the olives, 2 cloves of garlic, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the zest and juice of both the lemon and the orange, and the Calabrian chiles, if using. Using a spatula or tongs, stir to combine, breaking up the tuna into smaller bits as you mix. Taste, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- In a small skillet over medium heat, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the remaining garlic and the breadcrumbs. Using a wooden spoon, stir to ensure the crumbs are evenly coated in oil, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the crumbs turn golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the remaining parsley, and let cool before stirring in the Parmesan, if using.
- Once the pasta is cooked, drain well and toss with the sauce, allowing the sauce to get stuck in the pasta’s ridges or ruffles. Divide the pasta among plates or shallow bowls and serve warm or at room temperature, topped with the garlicky breadcrumbs.
Nutrition: Per serving (about 1 3/4 cups of cooked pasta), based on 3: Calories: 568; Total Fat: 24 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 21 mg; Sodium: 484 mg; Carbohydrates: 69 g; Dietary Fiber: 5 g; Sugars: 6 g; Protein: 20 g.