You likely have a box of pasta somewhere in the back of your pantry you can coat in olive oil and cheese and call it a day. Pasta is filling, versatile, and almost always a great option. You might not be aware of how many different types of pasta there are out there. Pasta comes in a variety of different shapes and sizes, but the pasta itself is a vessel for your sauce. Pasta is delicious on its own, but its versatility allows it to be paired with a never-ending amount of different sauces. Whether the sauce you’re craving is light, heavy, or just your childhood favorite, buttered noodles, you can never go wrong. Pasta goes well with all of it.
And while nearly any shape of pasta will be delicious with any type of sauce, there are some types and categories of noodles that were created for specific types of sauces and toppings.
Basic categories of pasta types and shapes are long pasta, short pasta, dumpling pasta, stuffed pasta, and sheet pasta. Long noodles, such as spaghetti, were made for thinner olive oil or tomato-based sauces. Short pasta is typically made into different shapes and is perfect for chunkier sauces. The different ridges and indentations on the short pasta shapes are perfects for catching pieces of meat, vegetables, and sauce. The shapes weren’t just made to be creative or add variety but were made for practical purposes as well.
Types of Pasta
While you can certainly use any pasta shape you have for whatever sauce you are making, there are advantages to using a specific type of pasta for different types of sauces. Let’s break down some classic and unique pasta shapes to help you decide what to use next time you’re whipping up a fresh pasta dish:
This shape is best used for thin sauces based on either olive oil or tomato. You can have chunks of vegetables or meat in them as well, but these shapes were created for smooth sauces or those with tiny pieces of ingredients mixed in.
This is often the first noodle used to introduce someone to pasta. This first introduction is often paired with a tomato-based Marinara or meat sauce and has always been a classic in households across the world. It’s in the shape of a cylinder —like angel hair and bucatini but is slightly larger than angel hair and slightly smaller than bucatini and without a hole in the middle. It is often paired with meatballs or other protein placed on top, but is best served with a thinner, tomato-based sauce since it is a long, thin noodle.
2. Angel Hair
This noodle is almost exactly like spaghetti, just a bit thinner. This one is great with your basic tomato or Marinara sauce. But also works well with a creamy Alfredo or silky olive oil-based sauce. These noodles are often topped with a protein like shrimp for something like shrimp scampi but are not typically mixed with chunky sauces as they can overpower the thin pasta. It can be substituted for spaghetti if you are looking for an alternative. Take advantage of this noodle with a thin, silky, and smooth sauce for optimal performance and enjoyment.
This pasta is very similar to spaghetti noodles as well. Some would say it lies somewhere in between spaghetti and spaghettini which is a larger, thicker spaghetti noodle. Bucatini has a hole running straight through the middle that is ideal for catching and holding on to a variety of sauces. While long pasta is often best served with creamier, thinner sauces, bucatini is slightly larger than spaghetti and can handle a thicker sauce. The hole in the middle is one advantage for using thick sauces as well. The sauce gets inside and helps ensure every bite has an optimal amount of sauce.
Linguini is a pretty common noodle and easy to find in your nearest grocery store. It looks very similar to fettuccini but is not as wide. It is commonly paired with seafood dishes, such as shrimp scampi. Linguini with cream sauce and topped with clams and mussels is a common occurrence on many Italian menus. It is thin enough that it pairs well with creamy sauces, but has enough surface area that it can handle seafood placed on top of the dish.
This noodle is slightly less common than spaghetti, angel hair, bucatini, or fettuccini, but it’s an extremely useful and versatile noodle. It’s wider than fettuccine, so it can handle chunkier meatier sauces. It is often paired with beefy ragu or bolognese sauces and is sturdy and wide enough to handle any amount of meat or chunky vegetables. This wide pasta is perfect for your heartier sauces and can handle all the weight.
Another slightly less common noodle, Tagliatelle is wider than fettuccini, but not nearly as wide as pappardelle. It is also slightly thicker than fettuccini or pappardelle, so it is another wide, flat, and long pasta that is great for your thin olive oil or tomato-based sauces, but also sturdy enough to handle sauces with a few chunky vegetables or meat.
While a long noodle, fettuccini is a flatter, wider noodle. It originated from Roman and Tuscan cuisine and has been a staple noodle in Italian cooking since the 20th century. It can handle chunky, meaty sauces, but also does well with smooth sauces like Alfredo. Fettuccini means “small ribbons” in Italian and is typically denser than a spaghetti or angel’s hair noodle. Fettuccini is a fine substitution for spaghetti noodles if you are looking for an alternative.
Short pasta is just what it sounds like – they’re shorter than long pasta, but that’s not all. They are not simply shorter versions of spaghetti noodles. They come in a variety of shapes, intended to carry and hold hearty, chunky, and meaty sauces. Whatever sauce you have made and whatever ingredients it has inside can get caught up in the nooks and crannies of whatever pasta shape you are using.
Very often the pasta used in homemade macaroni and cheese or first grade craft projects, elbow pasta is a common shape perfect for a variety of different sauces and toppings. It’s half circle shape almost resembles a C, and the hole in the middle makes this a tube — perfect for hoarding away your favorite sauce. Its a sturdy noodle, often used in casseroles because its density keeps it from getting soggy after being cooked in the oven. Any cheesy, chunky, or meaty sauce will go well with this shape.
Another common childhood favorite, farfalle, is also called “bow-tie pasta”. It resembles the accessory so often worn with suits and because of its nooks, crannies and crevices, it works well with almost any type of sauce. It is also commonly used in pasta salads because of its ability to hold chunks of meat, veggies, and cheese. Need a noodle for an arts n’ crafts project? This one works as well as elbow pasta does.
This pasta shape is likely a staple in your pantry. It is another hollow shape that can hold sauce and meat through the middle. Additionally, penne also has ridges around the entire noodle. This is perfect for catching and holding sauce. This is another sturdy noodle perfect for holding heavy sauces, meats, and chunky vegetables or cheeses.
Rigatoni is extremely similar to penne. It is a cylindrical tube with ridges perfect for holding sauce. However, it’s a larger noodle, not as narrow, and does not have the pointed edges that penne does. It’s another common pasta shape most have heard of and it is sturdy and perfect for holding sauce, meat, cheese and other toppings.
In Italian, Orecchiette means “little ear”. This pasta shape is like a flat circle of pasta that has been curved upwards to resemble a shallow bowl. It’s a slightly less common noodle, but because of the scooped shape, it is absolutely ideal for holdings sauces and cheese. Orecchiette is a thick pasta and is therefore sturdy enough for even your thickest of sauces.
You have probably heard of baked ziti. This is the pasta shape used in that classic baked pasta recipe. It’s almost a perfect cylinder. It does not have ridges like penne or rigatoni and is completely smooth all the way around. It looks like a miniature paper towel roll. Its tubular, perfect for catching sauce throughout the middle, so don’t be afraid of throwing your thick, chunky sauces at this pasta shape. It can handle them and can even handle the heat of an oven should you go the baked ziti route.
Orzo is a tiny pasta. It looks like flat, slightly larger grains of rice. It can be used for thinner olive oil or butter based sauces, but is commonly used as the noodle for a pasta salad. If you are making a soup or stew, it adds a nice texture and carbohydrates to keep you sustained.
Another noodle perfect for your soups and broths, ditalini is a tiny, short tube. It’s as if you were to divide a ziti noodle in to 8 or 10 different sections. Its tiny, but does have a hole in the middle, just large enough to hold some broth. It is commonly used in minestrone soup and pasta fagioli. Many Italians use it in a cozy, broth made with butter and chicken broth for cold and flu season.
Ever heard of a conch shell? This noodle almost resembles that and Conchiglie is an Italian word for sea shell. This is another pasta shape that almost resembles a uniquely shaped bowl and is perfect for holding sauces, meats, and cheeses. It may not be as common in grocery stores, but is perfect for holding your hearty, thick sauces.
This pasta shape perfectly resembles a tiny wheel. It has ridges along the outside and openings between the “spokes” that are perfect for catching sauces and vegetables. It is a noodle often found in soups or stew made for children, but is delicious whether you’re young or old.
This pasta shape looks like two, thick strands or hair twisted together and around each other. The ridges from the twists collect sauce and meat really well, but it is also often used in pasta salads. It is a sturdy, thick noodle, so it can handle time in the oven if you wish to use it in a casserole.
This shape resembles a curly Q. Some may call it a corkscrew pasta. Either way, the ridges provided by the twisted shape are another perfect way to catch any sauce, meat, or cheese. It is also often used in Macaroni and cheese or chicken noodle soup.
This shape is another twisted corkscrew pasta, but has a looser spiral that rotini. Another pasta shape perfect for catching any sauce or ingredients you decide to mix it with.
Very often used in homemade macaroni, this shape looked like an extremely large and loosely twisted version of rotini or fusilli, but also has ridges along the sides for catching sauce. Many people refer to it as a double elbow pasta. It is hollow through the middle and perfect for holdings sauce, meat, herbs, and cheese.
The most common filled pasta, ravioli is often large enough to fill it with whatever your heart desires. It is usually square shaped and can range in sizes depending on where you buy or order it. The edges usually have a ruffled texture and the surface area is perfect for holding the sauce you have decided to pair with the filling.
Often used in soups, but also perfect alone, tortellini is often filled with meat or cheese. Ravioli and tortellini are perfect with sauces, but are great on their own or with a simple olive oil sauce if they are filled with something extremely flavorful.
These are large, ridged tubes. Like massive penne noodles. These are large enough to be stuffed with any variety of meat or cheese and baked in a casserole
A common stuffed pasta for the home cook, try this pasta stuffed with ricotta and spinach. It’s delicious. These are shaped like shells and the minimal opening means they hold a filling extremely well and can be baked till warm in an oven.
Everyone has had lasagne. This shape is a flat, wide sheet of pasta with ruffles along the edge. It is most commonly used in lasagne and other casseroles as a layer between meats, cheeses, sauce, and herbs.
Made from potatoes, this may not be as common as other pasta shapes, but the different ingredients give it a softer, fluffier texture compared to other noodles. They are often rolled by hand, but you can buy them in packages and they cook much quicker than regular flour and egg based noodles. They are sturdy, thick, and perfect with a variety of thick sauces and toppings.