Mafaldine mania is sweeping Australia. The satisfyingly ruffled ribbons of pasta are being twirled and slurped from plates and bowls from Sydney Harbour to the Swan River. But just a couple of years ago this pretty pasta shape was relatively unknown in Australia – so what’s behind its popularity? And what makes it so good?
Like so many great things – pizza, sfogliatelle, buffalo mozzarella – mafaldine is a Naples native. And, like so many Italian standards, it’s had numerous names over the years. Until 1902 it was widely known as “manfredine” or “fettucce ricce”, but the shape was renamed to mark the birth of Princess Mafalda of Savoy, the second daughter of the then-king of Italy. You might also see it on menus and in stores labelled as mafalda, mafalde or reginette, which aptly means “little queens”, and it can come in a shorter version as well.
Shape-wise, it’s like a glorious hybrid of long pastas like pappardelle and linguine, and shorter, more robust shapes designed for catching sauces. Its wavy edges aren’t just pretty, they also effectively cradle silky sauces and chunky ragouts, while their length offers all the satisfaction of slurping spaghetti, with bucketloads more texture – especially when cooked to an al dente chew.
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How it’s served is region-specific. On home turf in Naples, smooth, light sauces are typical, while in other areas you might find it with a heavier ragout, to take full advantage of the scoop-y nature of the pasta’s curly edges. In Sicily, it’s often used in pasta bakes such as timballos.
“It is a pretty versatile shape, but it really loves anything saucy or even chunky,” Scott McComas-Williams, executive chef of Sydney’s Love Tilly Group tells Broadsheet. He serves mafaldine at multiple venues, including Ragazzi, Fabbrica and Palazzo Salato, where a version tossed in sea urchin butter sauce and folded through with picked spanner crab is the most popular dish on the menu.
“At Ragazzi we’ve had a number of different iterations on the menu over the years,” he says. “Some of the highlights have been prawn, tomato and kombu butter, or tripe and borlotti beans – we would cut the tripe into strips so as to resemble the pasta shape. But my all-time favourite was from the very first Ragazzi menu. Mafaldine, blue mackerel, fermented chilli. It was a take on an Andalusian way of cooking oily fish, and we came up with it the night before our first service.”
Daniel Migliaccio, head chef of Melbourne’s Studio Amaro, reckons there are multiple layers to mafaldine’s powers and popularity. At the time of writing, it’s on the Studio Amaro menu with citrus bisque and prawn.
“It’s fun,” he tells Broadsheet. “With its ribbons and curls it has a lot of texture and randomness to it, so the sauce clings to it really well. Its versatility is great in all combinations of flavours.”
McComas-Williams says he had rarely seen the shape in the wild before he opened Ragazzi in 2019, and had struggled to find it to the extent that he bought a mafaldine die and added the shape to the menu.
“It is absolutely having a moment in the sun,” he says. “It’s somehow gone from a relatively obscure shape to something that the waiters no longer need to explain to customers regularly. I think aside from its practicality in a dish, the reason it has emerged is because of its looks. It’s very attractive! From the cooked pasta, tossed in a buttery sauce, to its raw state where it resembles curly, blonde tentacles, even to the extruding process, where it dances and jiggles itself through the bronze die.”
Some say the shape’s popularity has trickled Down Under from Lilia, an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, New York City, run by Missy Robbins, one of Barack Obama’s favourite chefs. Lilia’s signature mafaldine is similar to a cacio e pepe, made with melted butter and Parmigiano Reggiano, but with pink peppercorns in place of black, bringing what the New York Times’s Pete Wells deemed a “peppermint tickle”.
Whatever the reason, the shape has gained such traction in Sydney that Fabbrica’s pasta factory, which supplies hand-made pasta to local restaurants, says mafaldine has been outselling spaghetti – which makes up two-thirds of the world’s pasta production – by almost two to one.
Finally, we get to the eating of mafaldine – and the important question: do we cut, or do we twirl?
“I think the only neg anyone could dare put on maf is its semi-tricky eating [and] plating nature,” says McComas-Williams. “Twirl! Don’t even think about cutting it! They’ll feel it in Naples! Twirl and slurp away, it could be a bit messy but that’s half the fun.”
Here’s where to eat mafaldine in Australia’s cities: