Pick Your Pasta

Marrying Shapes & Sauces to Achieve the Perfect Bite

By Mary Beth Wallace

Although its origins lie on the other side of the globe, there’s no question that pasta has become a staple in the American diet. In fact, enter into your local grocery store, and you’ll likely find an entire row dedicated to pasta essentials, from the dizzying number of pasta varieties to organic, gluten-free, and pre-cooked options. But when faced with an aisle of possibilities, how do you determine which pasta to select for your recipes? 

The short answer is, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind when marrying noodles and sauce. What follows is a quick study on pasta shapes and their ideal pairings. Buon appetito!

Short, tubular pasta – penne, rigatoni, ziti

Versatility is the name of the game when it comes to short, tubular pasta shapes. These noodles can hold their own in salads, casseroles, and just about any baked pasta dish, including – you guessed it – baked ziti. With its wide opening, rigatoni’s shape makes it a natural choice for heartier tomato and meat-based sauces. Cylinder-shaped penne can go light or hearty, but we’ll always be partial to penne alla vodka. 

Twisted pasta – fusilli, rotini, gemelli

The nooks and crannies found in this type of pasta are perfect for capturing an array of sauces laced with texture, such as crumbled meats or chopped vegetables. Pesto is a go-to sauce for fusilli, with optional mix-ins including chopped tomatoes, zucchini, peas, chicken, and shrimp. Rotini and marinara is another common pairing, and a number of pasta enthusiasts will tell you that gemelli is absolutely divine paired with butter and cheese.

Long, thin pasta –
angel hair, spaghetti, capellini

Pasta like angel hair and spaghetti is easily recognizable thanks to its thin, delicate strands. The key to pairing these pastas is simple: Don’t weigh them down. Light tomato, cream, or oil and garlic-based sauces, like a light seafood sauce or a pomodoro, will achieve an even coating on the strands. Dainty yet flavorful additions like fresh herbs, crisp pancetta, and thinly sliced vegetables can spruce up your dish without overpowering the pairing. 

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sketch of pasta twirled on a fork


Long, flat pasta –
fettuccine, linguine, pappardelle

Unlike their thin counterparts, long and flat ribbon-like noodles find a harmonious marriage with more substantial sauces. You’ll see fettuccine and linguine paired with sauces thickened with cream or cheese like Alfredo; pappardelle, on the other hand, is frequently served with rich, meaty sauces, such as a traditional Bolognese. Generally speaking, the wider the noodle, the heartier the sauce it can handle. 

Stuffed pasta – ravioli, tortellini, mezzelune

Stuffed pastas can hold a variety of fillings – tortellini is often loaded with cheese or sausage, while ravioli commonly holds everything from butternut squash and pumpkin, to spinach and mushroom, to lobster and crab. Because the filling already contributes so much flavor to the dish, the majority of stuffed pastas are served with lighter oil- or butter-based sauces (for example, a brown butter and sage sauce) or a simple marinara. Tortellini is also traditionally added to soups. 

Small pasta – orzo, rotelle, ditalini 

You’re likely to encounter most petite pasta varieties in either soups or pasta salads. Minestrone, a popular hearty Italian soup, usually calls for a pasta shape like ditalini – but really any pasta that’s small enough to fit on your spoon will work. Rotelle’s wheel-shaped design makes it a fun addition to pasta salad, as is orzo, although orzo can also replace rice or other small cooked grains in many recipes.

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