Before we can begin to discuss pasta as a dish, the logical mind is moved to discuss pasta itself, pasta as pasta, i.e. its shape, because of all the determinants that influence the final composition of a meal of pasta, shape might be that which would best be characterized as “primary.”
The love of pasta, deep and abiding, derives from a certain intuitive sense of morality’s flexibility. This is the reason it is so clamored for by young children, bureaucrats and lovers. The beauty of pasta, the pastaness of pasta, lies in its power of allusion. Borgesian in its composition, pasta’s insistence is that it does not represent (lovers of pasta will reject definitively that ersatz pasta machine-made in the outline of rabbits, dollar signs, genitals...), it only alludes to a form. And in allusion, of course, because it allows the imagination free reign, there is always more force than in attempted representation. An ear, a helix, a snail, a funereal hanky cut to ribbons...all pastas.
The sauce, then, must in some way mediate and complement the allusion of the pasta, and if it doesn’t the consequences can be catastrophic. (Good marriages have ended over angel hair ragu.) Bucatini, for instance, whose vulgarity is only vague, wants clams and white wine and should be eaten in Portland with a widow and it should be raining. And the man who serves it to his mother-in-law for lunch is a cad and can’t be trusted. Mothers-in-law require fettuccine or, in tense conditions, a highly spiced ziti. Puttanesca wants a cavalier sort of pasta in general, but if the company is tolerant and the evening is warm enough for irony, it can stand a farfalle (an inclination towards puttanesca in a child indicates an unhealthy predisposition towards the poetry of Rimbaud; generally, parents concerned with lasciviousness should never serve pasta to children).