From circular to scalloped, pasta can take many different shapes. Whether it’s itty-bitty orzo or giant papardelle, basic pastas are all made from the same few ingredients—flour, water, and sometimes eggs—but once the dough is made, the shape determines how it will be served, and that shape has a huge impact on the finished dish. There are over 150 kinds of pasta shapes, from short and stubby to long and lithe. There are pastas shaped like ears (orecchiette), and pastas shaped like stars (stelline). There are pastas that look like worms (vermicelli), and pastas shaped like wheels (rotelle). That’s a lot of variety, considering that they all pretty much taste the same.
Once you add a sauce, the shape of the pasta becomes crucial. You wouldn’t substitute lasagna noodles in your fettuccine alfredo, would you? While cooking recently, I substituted penne for orecchiette (the horror!) in a dish with sautéed peas, leeks, and cream sauce, and the dish was, sad to say, a letdown. As good as the sauce was, the veggies couldn’t fit into the holes in the penne, and the larger pasta just overwhelmed each bite with a mouthful of starch.
Pairing the pasta to the sauce is an art, and the right pasta shape can really make or break a dish. Some types of pasta are specifically designed for certain purposes and most pasta shapes can be divided into just a few categories. Knowing which goes with what is the first step to making every meal assolutamente deliziosa.
Long, Straight Pastas
The best ways to prepare the thinnest pastas are with thin sauces. Skinny noodles like capellini and linguine are best paired with light, oil-based sauces like pesto or a thin marinara. Tiny pastas just can’t stand up to cream sauces or Bolognese, which are better for larger noodles like fettuccine or spaghetti. The larger noodles are able to soak up and retain more sauce, so that every bite is balanced, and you don’t end up with all the noodles on your fork, but all the sauce left on your plate.
Stout, thicker pastas like rigatoni, ziti, penne, and the old standby, elbow macaroni, work best with chunkier sauces, because the pasta’s shape captures and holds onto the sauce as well as any delicious bits of meat, vegetables, or cheese. These are the perfect pastas to pair with thick meat sauces or sauces full of chopped vegetables like eggplant or onions. Some tube-shaped pasta is striated, like penne rigate or rigatoni. The ribs create more surface area, so that the noodles can hold onto even more sauce.
Molded or Shaped Pastas
These pastas aren’t tubular, but they have many of the same uses as the tubular pasta shapes, although they’re especially successful with the thickest, chunkiest sauces full of large pieces of vegetables or meat. Corkscrew-shaped fusilli, ear-like orecchiette, ridged and ruffled radiatore, and bowtie-shaped farfalle are great when paired with a cheesy or creamy sauce, and when baked, they hold a casserole’s shape well and provide perfectly-sized bites. The best part about these pastas is that their many crevices and crannies can hold onto tasty bits in the sauce. Many of these pastas can be served cold in pasta salads, too.
Noodles like manicotti, cannelloni, and conchiglioni (a.k.a. jumbo shells) are usually stuffed with meat or cheese, and then baked or boiled. Stuffed pastas pair well with milder tomato-based sauces that complement, rather than compete with, the pasta’s stuffing. Cream sauces can be a bit too rich and heavy. Pairing an Alfredo sauce with a cheese-stuffed pasta can be a dairy overload, unless you have a particular penchant for parmesan.
Some pasta are so tiny, you might mistake them for rice. Orzo, ditalini, stelline, and other tiny pastas are often used in soups like pasta e fagiole or minestrone. Their small size gives soups just the right amount of texture, while still allowing the eater to fit them properly on the spoon.
Mix and Match
Of course, just because most pasta has one perfect use doesn’t mean that substitutions aren’t possible. Take macaroni and cheese, for example. It’s traditionally made with elbow macaroni, but it’s also quite good with radiatore, cavatappi, or shells. The more intricately-formed shapes soak up differing amounts of the sauce, although they’re all similar enough to serve the same purpose. Experimenting with different pasta shapes in your favorite dishes can be fun for the cook as well as fresh for the diner.
A good general rule when it comes to pairing pastas—the bigger the pasta, or the thicker the hole in the center, the chunkier the sauce should be. The good news about pasta pairing is that even if a particular combination is unsuccessful, it will still be edible. My penne rigate with peas and leeks wasn’t transcendent, but it was still perfectly serviceable. Now, the next time I’m getting ready to make pasta for dinner, I’ll be more mindful of what shape I use with what sauce. And if all else fails, marinara sauce pretty much goes with everything.