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Pasta Pairings: Shapes, Sauces & Secrets

Why are there so many different shapes of pasta? Does it matter which type of pasta is paired with which type of sauce? When is fresh pasta a better choice than dried and vice versa?

Throughout history, Italian chefs have followed a strict code of shape-sauce pairings. While we can look to their traditional matches as a guide, there are no hard-and-fast rules these days. The key is to familiarize yourself with the basics so that you are comfortable experimenting.


Long Strands

Long skinny strips of pasta should be tossed in smooth sauces that will coat them evenly. When plain, pasta is relatively bland, which is why it's important to pair it with a flavorful sauce. An adequate amount of sauce also moistens the strands, making them easier to eat.

Here is a list of basic long strand pasta shapes:

  • Spaghetti (strings) have round strands and can be thin, medium or thick

  • Bucatini (tiny holes) are like drinking straws with a hole running down their centers

  • Fettuccine (ribbons), also called tagliatelle, have strands that are ¼-inch wide and shaped like flat noodles

  • Linguine (little tongues) are narrow and flat

  • Capelli d'angelo (angel hair) are also called capellini and look like fine strings

Tube Shapes

The hollow centers of dried tube pasta are meant to catch the ingredients that make up chunkier sauces: meat, vegetables, beans, etc. The outer surface can be smooth or ridged. These shapes are thicker and chewier so they really pair well with zestier seasonings. Marinara, Arrabbiata, Vidalia Onion or Italian Sausage Sauces are excellent matches.

Tube shapes, like those below, are ideal for pasta salads, baked dishes and informal meals.

  • Penne (quills) have slant-cut edges

  • Elbow macaroni look like curved pipes

  • Rigatoni have blunt-cut edges

Other Short Shapes

These assorted dried pasta shapes have some nooks and crannies but they don't capture as much sauce as the tubes. Pair them with relatively smooth sauces such as Traditional Tomato & Basil, Olive Oil & Garlic and Four Cheese Rosa.

Short shapes are excellent in pasta salads, baked dishes and as a side to a simple meal because they just require a large spoon to serve.

  • Campanelle (bells)

  • Conchiligie (shells)

  • Farfalle (butterflies or bowties)

  • Gemelli (twins) are pairs of intertwined short strands

  • Radiatori (small radiators)

  • Rotelle (little wheels)

  • Rotini (twists) look like chunky spirals

Stuffed Shapes

Almost always made from fresh egg dough, these seasoned bundles are filled with cheese, meat, vegetables or seafood. Mellow sauces—such as Four Cheese Rosa and Alfredo—complement the rich stuffing.
  • Cappelletti (little hats)

  • Ravioli (squares)

  • Tortellini (little cakes)

Tiny Shapes

Diminutive dried pasta is most often added to broths or minestrone. Stir it into the hot soup and simmer until tender. It's also delicious boiled, drained and tossed with some butter and grated Parmesan for a quick, simple side dish.
  • Acini di pepe look like peppercorns

  • Ditalini (little fingers) are tiny tubes

  • Orzo have a barley shape

  • Stelline are nicknamed little stars

Fresh? Or Dry?

Dried pasta has a chewier texture than fresh, so they match well with zesty sauces such as Tomato & Basil or Olive Oil, Basil & Garlic.

Fresh egg pasta is more tender than dried and is luscious when enveloped in creamy Alfredo Sauces or Vodka Sauce.

Both dried and fresh shapes can be tossed with simple accompaniments such as garlic and extra virgin olive oil, butter, grated Parmesan or basil pesto to add more flavor.

Pulling It All Together

Choosing pasta and the right sauce may seem intimidating because there are so many options, but the key is that there's really no wrong answer. So, keep a variety of pasta types and Bertolli® Sauces in your pantry and experiment until you find the pairings that work for you—after all, that's what cooking is all about.

And for more information on serving restaurant-quality pasta meals at home, check out Perfectly Cooked Pasta and Plating Pasta.

If you like, add strips or thin slices of cooked veggies, meats, seafood or cheese to the sauce you choose to give it a more homemade feel.