Orecchiette: The Handmade Pasta Of Southern Italy

Pasta, an Italian culinary staple, has gained worldwide recognition for its versatility and ability to satisfy appetites of all kinds. Among the vast array of pasta shapes, orecchiette stands out as a true masterpiece of craftsmanship. Handmade with love and attention to detail, this little ear-shaped pasta has a rich history, undeniable importance, and a unique speciality that makes it a culinary delight.

Originating from the southern region of Italy, specifically Apulia (Puglia), orecchiette translates to "small ears" in English. The pasta's distinctive shape, resembling tiny cups or shells, is achieved by pressing small pieces of pasta dough against a wooden board using one's thumb. This method has been passed down through generations, ensuring the preservation of the pasta's traditional shape and authenticity.

The History Of Orecchiette

Orecchiette pasta's origin is a subject of culinary speculation, influenced by various historical eras. Some historians suggest it began taking shape in the 8th century under Norman-Swabian rule in Bari, Puglia. During this time, the pasta's resemblance to the cone-shaped huts called 'trulli' in the region may have emerged, forming a unique connection to the local architecture.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Bari's rich Jewish traditions possibly influenced the development of orecchiette. It is believed that the pasta's early versions resembled hamantaschen, a traditional Jewish dessert prepared during Purim. This connection to Jewish culinary culture may have contributed to the distinct shape of orecchiette.

Additionally, the pasta finds a link to ancient Rome, where writings mention a pasta called 'lixula', resembling orecchiette. Lixula featured a round and concave form and was made from simple ingredients like flour, water, and cheese. Overall, the origin of orecchiette pasta is a fascinating tapestry woven with threads from different historical periods.

Whether it was influenced by the Norman-Swabian era, the Jewish traditions of Purim, or the ancient Roman culinary heritage, orecchiette has become a beloved pasta with a unique shape and texture. Its history whispers tales of bygone eras, offering us a glimpse into the cultural and culinary evolution of this iconic dish.

What sets orecchiette apart is not just its shape but also its ability to capture sauces and flavours. The concave centre of each piece perfectly cradles the sauce, allowing it to cling to every bite. This characteristic makes orecchiette an ideal choice for hearty and robust sauces like ragù, meat-based sauces, or vegetable-based concoctions. The pasta's unique shape ensures that every mouthful is a harmonious blend of pasta and sauce, creating a truly satisfying experience.

Handcrafting orecchiette requires skill and patience. It starts with a simple mixture of durum wheat semolina and water, which is kneaded into a smooth dough. The dough is then rolled into long ropes, cut into small pieces, and shaped using the thumb and a swift rolling motion on a wooden board. This technique gives the pasta its signature ear-like shape. The handmade nature of orecchiette adds a personal touch, infusing each piece with the love and passion of the cook.

Orecchiette holds a significant place in the Apulian culinary tradition and has become a symbol of the region's gastronomic heritage. It is commonly prepared during festive occasions and family gatherings, where the process of making the pasta becomes a communal event, bringing loved ones together. The dish embodies the values of sharing, togetherness, and the celebration of food as an expression of love and culture.

Beyond its cultural significance, orecchiette's versatility allows it to be paired with a wide range of ingredients. In Pugalia, orecchiette is served with a simple tomato sauce and maybe some meatballs. However, it beautifully complements a variety of sauces, from the simplicity of garlic, olive oil, and chilli flakes to the complexity of seafood or vegetable medleys. It can be served as a main course with additions like sausage or broccoli rabe, or even as a base for pasta salads and baked dishes.

Here's a recipe to make homemade orecchiette pasta from scratch:

Orecchiette With Classic Tomato Sauce


For The Pasta:

2 cups durum wheat semolina flour

1 cup of water

Extra semolina flour for dusting

For The Sauce:

  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans of crushed tomatoes in puree
  • 3 tablespoons of tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (kosher or coarse), or more to taste
  • Fresh black pepper, to taste


For The Pasta:

  • In a large mixing bowl, place durum wheat semolina flour and create a well in the centre.
  • Gradually add water to the well while stirring with a fork or your fingers until the dough starts to come together.
  • Transfer the dough to a clean, lightly floured surface and knead it for about 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Adjust the consistency with more water or flour if needed.
  • Shape the dough into a ball and cover it with a clean kitchen towel. Let it rest for approximately 30 minutes.
  • After resting, divide the dough into smaller portions and roll one portion into a long rope, about ½ inches (1 cm) in diameter.
  • Cut the rope into small pieces, approximately ½ inches (1 cm) long.
  • Take one piece at a time and press it against a wooden board or the back of a fork with a butter knife or your thumb, rolling it slightly to form a concave shape.
  • Place the shaped orecchiette on a semolina-dusted baking sheet or tray in a single layer.
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the orecchiette. Cook for about 8–10 minutes or until al dente, adjusting the cooking time to your preference. Taste one to check for doneness.
  • Drain the cooked orecchiette and transfer it to a serving dish.

For The Sauce:

  • Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.
  • Add the onion and cook for about 7 minutes until tender.
  • Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute.
  • Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, basil, and red pepper flakes (if using).
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Bring the sauce to a simmer.
  • Reduce the heat to medium-low and let it simmer uncovered for approximately 20 minutes, allowing the sauce to thicken slightly.
  • Taste the sauce and add more salt if desired.
  • Combine the cooked pasta with the sauce and serve garnished with grated Parmesan cheese, fresh herbs, or any additional toppings you prefer.

Enjoy your delicious homemade orecchiette pasta! Remember, making pasta from scratch takes practise, so don’t be discouraged if your first batch doesn’t turn out perfectly. With time and experience, you’ll master the art of creating these delightful little ears of pasta.