Cascatelli, The World's Newest Pasta Shape

Cascatelli: new pasta shape

Cascatelli images by Scott Gordon Bleicher

The world's newest pasta shape is called cascatelli and is the result of a collaboration between Sporkful podcaster Dan Pashman and artisan pasta producer Sfoglini. Sadly, it is not currently available for purchase in the UK.

The ground rules
While there are plenty of companies churning out novelty pasta shapes based on all kinds of nonsense like butterflies, dinosaurs, and cartoon characters, we don't consider these to be new pasta shapes in the truest sense of the word. They are essentially just gimmicks aimed at kids, often garishly coloured with little regard for how well they cook, what sauce they pair well with, or even how good they taste.

Novelty pasta shapes

For us, a genuinely new and unique pasta shape must have purpose, integrity, and bring something new to the table.

2021 saw pasta lovers go crazy over a shape called cascatelli, the first new pasta shape to be launched in decades and one that had been three years in the making. The team behind it superseded cascatelli in 2022 with two even newer shapes, quattrotini and vesuvio, but they are both derivatives of pre-existing shapes, so we think cascatelli still deserves the "newest" title.

Cascatelli from different angles

Where it all began
It was in June 2018 at an event called The Bucatini Dialogues that Sporkful podcaster Dan Pashman first introduced his pet project, Mission ImPASTAble. The goal was to design, produce, and sell a brand new pasta shape. It was supposed to be a fun, leisurely, and enjoyable journey, but it wouldn't be long before Pashman realised it was going to be one hell of a rollercoaster. However, he never thought that it would end up consuming over three years of his life.

It wasn't as if fellow podcasters, pasta lovers, and even Pashman's wife and young daughters hadn't warned him against embarking on what could easily become a fool's errand. Some thought there were so many pasta shapes already that creating another one was pointless. Others were concerned that it would be far more complex and arduous than he realised. He forged ahead anyway, and thanks to his tenacity, the world is now home to what we think could be one of the best pasta shapes ever created.

There were three key criteria on which Pashman would judge his shape because he argued that all existing pasta shapes are flawed in one, two, or all three of these areas.

How easy it is to get on your fork and stay there.

How readily sauce clings to it.

How satisfying it is to sink your teeth into.

Now was the most important question of all: what sort of shape did he want to create? There's a myriad of ways pasta shapes can be categorised, but Pashman's main decision was whether the shape should be long or short.

An obvious approach would be to create a shape that was so attention grabbing and outlandish that it would demand intrigue. Better sense quickly kicked in. Pashman realised that going to the ends of the earth to create an extreme or outrageous gimmick was not what his project was all about. He figured it could simply be a different perspective on an existing shape.

He wanted people to see him as more of a perfecter than an inventor. He also wanted to keep in mind that pasta is inherently a comfort food, so a small sense of familiarity to the eater was an important quality in any new shape. There is already so much inspiration and knowledge in the pasta canon that it would be ludicrous not to use it to his advantage.

Research involved the not-unenviable task of trying as many pasta shapes as humanly possible and deciding what works and what doesn't. In particular, he was judging them on the three criteria that he set out at the start of the process.

Dried pasta shapes

Along with his professional taste testers (wife and daughters), he bought as many boxes of pasta as he could get his hands on and set up a workstation so the shapes could be tested on a level playing field. They would be cooked in the same water-to-salt ratio and eaten with identical sauces. Before long, there was one shape that stood out from all others: mafalde. He concluded that this fettuccine-style ribbon shape with ruffles down the edges performed well against his key criteria, particularly how well it held onto sauces and its interesting texture to chew on.

Mafalde pasta shape

So, there was the starting point. It was going to be a long shape, and it was going to have ruffles, but the shape's tooth-sinkability was going to be improved by adding a bucatini (essentially a fat spaghetti with a hole down the middle) ridge down the centre. He hoped this would increase the surface area, provide more opportunities for sauces to cling to it, and offer an intriguing mouthfeel.

Next up was a crash course in the technicalities of pasta-making. Pashman travelled to North Dakota State University, home to the rather sober-sounding Durum Wheat Quality and Pasta Processing Laboratory. Here, different varieties of wheat are created to improve flavour and increase yield.

He learned how finely ground semolina is easier to work with than its coarsely ground counterpart. Big pasta companies prefer it because it's also cheaper. Where it falls down, though, is flavour. Flour that is milled into a fine powder has a huge surface area, which means flavourful volatiles can escape, resulting in a less tasty product. The decision was made; it was going to be the expensive, coarsely ground stuff all the way.

Durum wheat semolina

Now, Pashman had to get up to speed with the basics of how pasta shapes are produced. Almost all dried pasta shapes are made by extruding dough through a die, which is essentially the mould that creates the shape. Teflon dies (made from the same stuff as your non-stick frying pan) are great for companies that produce thousands of tons of pasta every day because their smooth surface results in very little dust.

Bronze dies are much more expensive and less suited to mass production. They create dust, which means the production area needs to be cleaned down regularly, an expense that big companies don't want. Where bronze wins hands down, though, is texture. The metal’s surface causes each shape to come out with a rough texture, which is great at holding onto sauces. Bronze is it. A total no-brainer.

Bronze pasta die

The main problem, though, is that die-making is such a highly specialised service that only a handful of manufacturers in the western hemisphere can make them. $5000 would buy Pashman a prototype bronze die, which could then, in theory, be tweaked to perfection. The trouble was, COVID had increased dried pasta sales by 40%, so all the major pasta companies were fighting to get their hands on more dies. Unsurprisingly, they were at the front of the queue, and newbies who just wanted one die were very much at the back. Worse still, there was a worldwide shortage of bronze. Getting the die made was clearly going to be a challenge in itself.

By this point, the elephant in the room was that he didn't yet have a manufacturer, and believe us when we tell you it can take months of research, trials, and persuasion to find the right match. Pashman needed a manufacturer with small enough minimum order quantities to produce as few as 5000 boxes of pasta, but the ability to scale up if the shape was a commercial success. Over the years, huge international companies have bought up and consolidated dozens of small manufacturers dotted across the country, leaving them unwilling to spare a newbie the time to consider producing on such a small scale.

In the background, Pashman was getting increasingly concerned about the amount of investment that the project could need. When he approached his wife with the realisation that he may need up to $25,000 to get a few thousand boxes made, she was less than impressed.

By a stroke of luck, he stumbled across a small pasta company based in upstate New York called Sfoglini. It was able to churn out 500,000 kilograms of pasta per year, which may sound like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, they are a small player. Sfoglini's owners agreed to fund the ingredients and production costs of the first run and would co-brand the pasta "Sfoglini Pasta by The Sporkful" and share any profits.

In a gesture of goodwill, Sfoglini gave Pashman one of their old bronze dies, which could be repurposed. He found a company to work on the die, and three months later, it arrived at Sfoglini for testing. The shape looked great when it came out of the die, but the ruffles, the central ridge, and the length of the pasta made it a nightmare to package. It also produced a noodle so bulky and ungainly that it was simply no fun to eat.

Sfoglini calmly proposed a simple solution. Forget about it being a long shape and turn it into a short one. Naturally, that was incredibly jarring to Pashman. For almost two years, he had been working towards a long shape, so having to recalibrate his brain into thinking about it as a short shape was not an easy transition.

Cascatelli's unique comma shape

As it turned out, the switch from long to short was a win-win. Not only did it make the shape more manageable to eat, but in a beautiful bit of serendipity, the shortening of the shape made it extrude from the die with a slight twist, quite unlike anything Sfoglini had seen before. Rather than producing a perfectly straight shape like penne, or a perfectly curved shape like macaroni, the shape naturally curved somewhere in-between the two, almost in the shape of a comma, which is highly unusual in the world of pasta.

Not only that, but having the ruffles at a right angle to the centre of the shape is something that only one other shape in the world (trenne) can claim.

A few days later, Pashman took delivery of some samples, half of the long shape, and half of the short shape, for comparison. It was a moment he had been visualising for over two years, but his excitement quickly turned to disappointment. Having been cooked for just seven minutes, the ruffles were falling off, and the mouthful was unpleasantly mushy. It was a total failure in all three of his key criteria, but at the very least it cemented the idea that the shape works much better being short.

Cascatelli shape from above

The die was sent back for a rework, specifically to make it a fraction of an inch thicker to prevent it from overcooking. Version 2 was a disaster of equal proportions. The die maker had tried so hard to make the ruffles stick to the central part of the shape that he had managed to erase them completely.

Version 3 arrived within weeks, and it was a revelation. The shape passed all three metrics with flying colours. As far as Pashman was concerned, the shape was nailed. He set out to get the opinions of an all-star cast of foodie professionals, and their feedback didn't disappoint. Neither did the science. The shapes were sent off for textural analysis, and the results proved that in terms of tooth-sinkability, they were pretty much perfect.

The only thing needed now was a name. Pashman wanted it to be an Italian word, but also wanted it to be easily pronounced by, and memorable to, an American audience. He enlisted the help of fellow food nerds to help come up with a name. Stegosaurus, reptile, tyre tread, and millipede all cropped up in brainstorming sessions, but none of them hit the mark. Seemingly out of nowhere, the word "waterfall" was mentioned, and everyone instantly fell in love with it.

Cascatelli pasta at different angles

The name would later be on the receiving end of bibliophiles' wrath. The Italian word for waterfalls is "cascatelle," but Pashman decided that an American audience would be much more comfortable with "cascatelli." And anyway, it was his shape, so why shouldn't he be allowed a little poetic licence with the name?

Now Pashman had a shape, a die, a name, and a manufacturer. Showtime. Sfoglini fired up their pasta-making machinery, and cascatelli became a reality. The shapes were left to dry overnight, and 3700 boxes of pasta were ready to be sold.

The launch couldn't have gone better. All boxes sold out within 2 hours, and it was an instant viral sensation. TIME magazine would even go on to name it one of the year's best inventions and feature it on their cover.

A pile of cascatelli pasta shapes

The excitement had to be contained a little because COVID meant there was a worldwide shortage of paper, meaning it would take at least a month before more boxes could be printed. Sfoglini found a supplier, and much to Pashman's amazement, he ordered no fewer than 100,000 boxes. If that isn't faith in a client's product, we don't know what is.

The next question was, well, what's next? Slightly bizarrely, Pashman hadn't really given it much thought. He was so consumed with getting the shape made that he hadn't stopped to think about which direction the project should go next.

There were three main options. The first was to start a pasta company, but does he really want the financial risk and sleepless nights that are associated with that? It could be a profitable venture, but in all realism, he would no longer have time to keep his podcast going, and that was one of his main loves. His life would simply change too much. Plus, he has two young daughters and wants a healthy work-life balance so he can enjoy seeing them grow up.

Cascatelli packaging

He could licence the shape to other pasta companies, but that would come with the risk of poor-quality versions ruining cascatelli's reputation. The other option was to private label the shape, meaning he and Sfoglini would still oversee the making of the pasta, but other companies would be able to sell it under their own name.

Despite initial reticence, he landed on the licencing option. It's the least profitable but also has the least risk and is far less time-consuming than the other two options. The issue of quality was a major concern, but he concluded that if he chose companies wisely, fastidiously vetted their production, and supplied them with the die, that risk could be minimised. It also meant he could offer exclusive licences to a particular style of cascatelli to different companies; an organic version or a gluten-free version, for example.

As it happened, the issue of whether cascatelli could be gluten-free cropped up time and time again when Pashman talked to people about where his project should go next. Coeliac disease is thought to affect around 1% of the world's population, but many more people choose a gluten-free diet thanks to its claimed health benefits. Also, because pasta is a comfort food that is almost always eaten with friends and family, just having one celiac in the group can ruin things for everyone.

Because of the risk of cross-contamination, Sfoglini is unable to make gluten-free pasta, so Pashman had no choice other than to find another production partner. Now that he had some sales data and proof of concept, pasta manufacturers who once wouldn't answer the phone to him are now very happy to talk.

A taste test of existing gluten-free pasta saw Pashman side on pasta made from chickpeas, specifically one made by Banza, the country's biggest producer of gluten free pasta. Interestingly, they don't make a big deal about their products being free from gluten on their packaging. Experience has shown them that non-celiacs are put off by that kind of messaging, similar to how labelling something "vegan" can be off-putting to meat eaters. Instead, they simply say "pasta made from chickpeas." It's far better to say what the product contains than what it doesn’t, right?

As Pashman expected, switching from a regular dough to a gluten-free dough came with a shedload more headaches. Chickpea dough behaves completely differently from semolina, so it quickly became clear that this was not going to be an exact replica of Sfoglini's cascatelli, but a slightly different cascatelli shape in its own right.

On receipt of the first test batch, Pashman's wife describes it as looking like the rejects from Sfoglini's first attempts. That's a problem, because by this point Banza had negotiated an exclusive deal with Whole Foods, and time was fast running out to fulfil the initial order.

A few last-minute tweaks to the die meant the Whole Foods deadline was met, and although everyone felt that there was still room for improvement, it was good enough to go nationwide.

Banza gluten-free cascatelli pasta packaging

While all that was going on, Pashman was constantly being asked if he had another shape in him. Was now the time to hang up his pasta-perfecting boots, or should he strike while the iron's hot? At first, he was lukewarm about the idea. Going through such a rollercoaster ride again would be mentally draining, plus the last thing he wanted to do was potentially damage his legacy by succumbing to the dreaded difficult second album syndrome.

He made a compromise. He will develop two more shapes, but rather than being completely new, they will be improvements on existing shapes that are either underperforming in the three key criteria or are so rare that hardly anyone has heard of them.

Riffling through bronze die brochures containing literally hundreds of pasta shapes led him to discover cinque buchi (five tubes), a little-known Sicilian shape that is generally only eaten once a year during carnival season. The shape is so rare that Pashman and Sfoglini couldn't even get their hands on some before committing to its production.

On a trip to Naples, Pashman fell in love with nodini (knots), also called vesuvio, which we think is equally as close in design to trottole (spinning top). The Sfoglini/Sporkful trilogy was born and, within months, had become a reality.

While the two new shapes never quite managed the same viral acclaim as cascatelli, they make an attractive lineup, and we don't think we've heard the end of Misson ImPASTAble just yet. We're pretty sure this story might need a few more pages.

The newest pasta shapes from Sfoglini