MY friend Ben's father doesn't do ''onies'' or ''eenies.'' As in no rigatoni, cannelloni, rotini, or tortellini. He's strictly a spaghetti man. For years, Italian food in America fit that definition: spaghetti and meatballs with cheese shaken from a green can. And we were happy.

But enter the high-flying '80s, when our Italian culinary innocence was lost forever. We were taught to say the word ''pasta'' without feeling pretentious. Adventuresome chefs introduced us to primavera, pesto, and pasta al dente. Things were no longer as simple as red sauce and white. Pasta appeared in a rainbow of colors and flavors - even chocolate for dessert.

From fast-food stops dedicated to pasta to the hautest of haute restaurants, creative pasta dishes are served everywhere now, and our love-hate relationship with pasta endures. Readers of a food magazine recently declared Italian cuisine their favorite, and at the same time disparaged the overabundance of restaurants serving pasta.

But unjaded eaters still appreciate this friend to carbo-loading athletes and cash-starved college students alike. What we've always known as an economical staple is today recognized as a creative outlet for both professionals and home cooks. As food writer Waverly Root declared, Italian cuisine is always home cooking, whether executed by amateurs or professionals. La cucina casalinga is ''human, light-hearted, informal,'' he wrote in his book ''The Foods of Italy.''

While garlic-flavored, beet-colored, and other specialty pastas have never truly taken off with consumers, Americans are getting into shapes. The familiar spaghetti and elbows are still favorites, but interest in unusual forms is growing. From lobsters to hearts, pasta is assuming many whimsical guises.

The hottest cuts are the respectable Italian ones, such as penne (''quills'' in Italian). Americans bought 66 percent more penne by autumn of 1995 than during the same period in 1994. Sales of dry pasta alone totaled more than 1.3 billion pounds in 1994, which doesn't even include that handy elbows-and-orange-cheese-in-a-box.

Variations in size help account for the hundreds of different shapes made today. For example, farfalloni, farfalle, farfalette, and farfalline are not only an Italian diction exercise, but the names for bona-fide sizes of the same bow-tie shape.

The basic formulas for pasta are simpler than a bread recipe: Commercially made pasta is hard durum wheat flour and water mixed, kneaded, extruded, and dried into hundreds of different shapes. Traditional fresh homemade pasta is made with softer (all-purpose in the United States) flour, eggs, and a rolling pin.

Varying growing conditions in northern and southern Italy result in a predominance of dry pasta in the south and egg noodles northward. The southern Italian Campania region, of which Naples is part, grows a harder, higher-protein wheat that dries well as spaghetti or macaroni. (American knowledge of Italian food was first shaped by Neapolitan immigrants.) In the Emilia-Romagna region, softer wheat and plentiful eggs yielded a tradition of tagliatelle, tortellini, and lasagne.

Most of the 15 regions of Italy pride themselves on local pasta specialties, but the Bolognese of Emilia-Romagna make a strong case for being the most passionate about pasta. Their folklore includes stories of tortellini being invented as a tribute to the beauty of Venus's navel and tagliatelle modeled after Lucrezia Borgia's golden hair.

Dry, factory-made pasta is not inferior to fresh, it's just different, explains Marcella Hazan, doyenne of Italian cooking and author of ''The Classic Italian Cookbook.'' The resulting contrast in consistency, texture, and shape dictates what sauce is appropriately served with each. Delicate cream-and-butter mixtures complement fresh egg noodles, which absorb the sauce. Stuffed pastas such as ravioli and baked lasagnes are also made with egg-pasta doughs.

In general, oil-based sauces (including many variations of tomato) combine well with dry pasta. Shapes that have some added texture to them, such as rigatoni, shells, or penne, have the nooks and crannies to complement chunkier meat or vegetable sauces.

While today some Italian restaurants promote pasta as a first course, others persist in serving gargantuan proportions clearly meant as a main dish. Historically, Italians practiced pasta-eating many ways. At formal dinners today, the pasta course is omitted, perhaps making an appearance in soup. And some dishes, such as lasagne, are always served as a main dish.

Pasta will always be one of the easiest dishes to cook, but there are a few ground rules to follow:

r Always boil pasta in plenty of water to prevent it from sticking together and becoming gummy. Most cooks recommend at least one gallon of water per pound of pasta. For two people, you'll need about 1/3 to 1/2 pound of pasta.

r Add 1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons of salt per gallon of water after it has boiled, unless your sauce is particularly salty. The pasta will absorb the salt from the water.

r Drop in the pasta, stirring immediately so that it doesn't stick. Cover to quickly bring it back to a boil, then uncover and stir occasionally until pasta is al dente (literal translation is ''to the teeth''). At this point, the pasta will no longer have a visible whiteness and floury taste when you bite into a piece, and it tastes cooked without being overdone and too soft.

r Don't make your pasta wait for your sauce. Drain the hot pasta into a colander and move it to a warmed serving dish. Toss with your hot sauce and serve.

Pasta is highly versatile. It can be prepared in four basic ways: boiled and sauced, baked, stuffed, or cooked in soup. A wide variety of tiny shapes are made just for soups, from stars to cartoon characters.

One more thing: If you've heard that Marco Polo was responsible for introducing the Italians to pasta from China, it's not true. There, I said it, and at the risk of an affront to my own Chinese heritage. However, here is my contribution to world peace: Pasta-like foods most likely developed in a handful of cultures including China and Italy.

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