Orzo is the Italian word for barley, and this pasta resembles, in both size and shape, either a grain of barley or a grain of rice. While Italian in origin, orzo is especially popular in Greece, where it is called kritharaki. It is used throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, and in some parts of Germany as well. Other names for it include manestra, rosa marina, reiskornpasta, or pasta gallo pion.
In Israel, orzo is sometimes called Ben-Gurion’s rice, after Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, asked the Osem food company to devise a wheat-based substitute for rice during Israel’s austerity period (1949 to 1959). The company developed ptitim from hard wheat flour roasted in an oven, and it was an instant success, especially with children. Later ptitim also was manufactured in small dense balls that the company called couscous.
Look for orzo made with durum semolina wheat, an especially hard variety of wheat. When softer wheats are used in orzo, it can become mushy when cooked. This is particularly important when orzo is used in casseroles, stuffed peppers or soups that require extended baking or simmering. Orzo also is a staple ingredient of cold summer pasta salads; many recipes written for rice also can be made with orzo.