Italian cuisine, down to the individual ingredients, is as diverse as the many city-states and regions that came together to form the Italian Republic. Italy hit the Powerball when it comes to climate, and its people have long known how to cultivate and create the best food from what nature gives them. For example, in the southern regions and islands of Italy, the hot, dry climate and well-draining, clay-like soils fostered growth of durum wheat, which was then used to produce durum wheat pasta. Italy’s finest dried pasta makers are still located in these regions, like Molise, Puglia and Campania.
Of course, pasta-making is not isolated to the south. The northern region of Emilia-Romagna is known for its fresh egg pasta using regular flour, and other various regions are known for making pasta with only flour and water. In stores, pasta is sold either fresh, made with flour and egg or sometimes only water and flour, or dried, made with durum wheat semolina.
Coming from a home where pasta was not even part of a monthly meal, when I first moved to Italy as a student, I viewed all pasta as, well, pasta. You had it fresh when you had time (or a nonna was making it for you), dried was the standard, and it was mostly spaghetti. I did not consider the possibility that the varieties in shape, texture and ingredients were intentional, not frivolous. I was oblivious to the fact that the pasta and sauce I was eating were paired together for a reason. It took time, purpose and buying and cooking my own food to learn that each type of pasta has particular attributes that lend themselves to particular types of sauce.
Fresh egg, extruded, bronze-cut and ridged pastas have a rough texture which helps sauces stick to them. Tubular, cupped and twisted shapes better trap pieces of meat, vegetables or sauce. Smooth, tubular pastas are best baked. And sometimes tradition dictates the pairing, like in spaghetti (or rigatoni) alla carbonara in Rome.
To help you decide which pasta shape you’d like to pair with your favorite sauces, we’ve compiled a short cheat sheet of our 29 favorite shapes, including their regions of origin (well, those that are undisputed, that is). Keep in mind that these are suggestions — not rules.
If you would like to delve even more into pasta shapes and sauce pairings, I highly recommend checking out the books "The Geometry of Pasta" by Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy, "An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes" by Rachel Roddy and "Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way" by Oretta Zanini de Vita and Maureen B. Fant.
Angel hair (aka capelli d’angelo) is a very thin, long, dried pasta shape sold in "nests." In Italy, it is used to prepare dishes for small children to get them used to solid foods, broken into broths or simply dressed with butter, sage and Parmesan or smoked ricotta. It can also be used for light, vegetable-driven summer dishes.
Bigoli (from the Venetian dialect "bigat," which means worm) are long, extruded, fresh pasta made from water and flour, originally from Padua in the Veneto region. Because the pasta is extruded, it has a rough texture, which makes it perfect for thick sauces and ragus.
Bucatini (referring to the hole, or "buco," in the middle) are a slightly thicker form of spaghetti with a hole in the center. Originally from Naples, this extruded pasta can be found on menus in Rome, paired with one of Rome’s classic pasta sauces, amatriciana.
Calamarata (from its resemblance to a slice of calamari) are an extruded pasta that can be ridged or smooth from the Campania region, and it's also very popular in and around Naples. This pasta is eaten with all types of sauces, but particularly fish-based sauces, such as its namesake Neapolitan dish, calamarata, which uses calamari cut the same width as the pasta.
Cavatappi (Italian for "corkscrew"; aka cellentani) are a ridged, tubular spiral pasta that can be considered the big brother to some versions of elbow macaroni. Similar to the hollow fusilli, this pasta goes well in sauces with small pieces of vegetables or meat. The hole of the spiral is big enough for sauce to get into while it also coats the ridges, and any pieces of vegetable or meat get trapped in the spiral. Cavatappi are also worth a try in mac and cheese.
Cavatelli (from the word "incavata," which refers to the indentation in the shape) are a small, shell-like pasta originally from the Molise region in Southern Italy, but is now eaten in many other regions. Along with lasagne, it is said to be one of the oldest shapes of fresh pasta. Made with durum wheat flour water and a pinch of salt, cavatelli are formed in the same dragging manner that orecchiette is formed, stopping short of turning it on the thumb to create the dome. Unlike orecchiette, however, these are traditionally made by hand and not with a knife. The rough surface formed by dragging and the indentation help make this shape a wonderful vessel for broccoli rabe, meat sauces and tomato sauces.
Conchiglie (Italian for "shells"), the easily recognized shell-shaped pasta, come from the Campania region. This pasta is found in three shapes: the small size (conchigliette), which is commonly used in soups, the standard size, which works well with thick sauces, and the large size (conchiglioni), which is typically stuffed and baked in the oven. All shapes are smooth on the inside and ridged on the outside; however, some pasta makers produce them without ridges on the outside. Baked shells may be filled with spinach and ricotta, or ragu and béchamel, and the smaller shells are perfect with any sauce that can hide inside the shell, like pestos, chunky sauces in cooler months, and light, vegetable-driven pastas in warmer months.
Farfalle (Italian for "butterflies"; aka bowtie pasta) were originally produced in Northern Italy regions of Lombardy and the Emilia-Romagna, as early as the 16th century and are now eaten all over the country. They're made fresh with egg or with durum wheat semolina as a dried pasta. Farfalle are usually paired with light simple sauces, such as thinly sliced sautéed vegetables, pumpkin and amaretti when it's cooler out, or with cherry tomatoes and mozzarella in the summer.
Fettuccine, tagliatelle and pappardelle are all flat, fresh egg pastas of varying widths. Fettuccine are between 3 and 5 millimeters wide, tagliatelle are between 7 and 8 millimeters wide and pappardelle are between 1.3 and 3 centimeters wide. Though all three are eaten all over Italy, tagliatelle and fettuccine are most often associated with Emilia-Romagna and pappardelle with Tuscany. The rough surface of the fresh egg pasta make these shapes wonderful for any condiment that coats the pasta: Roasted tomatoes, sautéed porcini mushrooms, sautéed leafy greens and roasted pumpkin, or the traditional Bolognese, duck or wild boar ragus in winter.
Fusilli take their name from "fuso," the spindle used to form the spiral. In many places in Southern Italy, the pasta is still hand-formed this way. But there also exist extruded fusilli which are the flat sided-spiral shape we are most familiar with in the US, which you will find with a tighter or looser twist, depending on the pasta maker. Fusilli also come in a version that is hollow, like bucatini, and resembles a spring. This version is either long or short and has a tighter or looser spiral, again, depending on the pasta maker. The handmade type likes to be in sauce: Pesto alla Trapanese made from cherry tomatoes, red garlic, basil, almonds and pecorino cheese is a great example. The short, extruded forms go well in cold pasta dishes, as well as saucy or cheesy (or both!) dishes and dishes with vegetables or meat pieces that will get stuck in between the spirals along with the sauce. The longer versions go well with simpler sauces such as the aforementioned pesto.
Gnocchi (which may be from the Italian word "nocchio," meaning "wood knot," or from "nocca," meaning "knuckle") exist in several forms, but we're focusing on the most popular form, which is made with potatoes. Most sources cite the Italian Renaissance as when the first recipes were published for a version of gnocchi with breadcrumbs, flour, water and egg. The version we are most familiar with today, dumplings made simply with grated boiled potato and flour, was made popular in Italy in 1891, when the recipe was published by Italian businessman and writer Pellegrino Artusi. It takes the right potatoes (floury) and the magic touch to make feather-light gnocchi, which go well with just about any sauce, especially cheesy ones. They are best served hot (don’t even try to eat these in a cold dish!).
Lasagne, wide sheets of pasta typically layered with meat and cheese, have been documented on the Italian peninsula as early as 4th century B.C. In both dried and fresh forms, this egg pasta is eaten in various ways throughout the country: baked with meat and cheese then served in broth or with a tomato-based ragu, among others. The most well-known version outside of Italy is the one with layers of pasta, béchamel and ragu. There are no rules about what you can layer with your pasta — be it vegetables or meat — just make sure you remove any excess moisture from the ingredients before cooking or your dish will end up watery.
Linguine (Italian for "little tongues") are a long, thin, slightly convex, extruded pasta, similar to flattened spaghetti, from the Liguria region. The typical condiment to accompany linguine is pesto with green beans and potatoes. But, of course, with its rough texture, it is the perfect shape for any saucy pasta, especially with large pieces of vegetables or seafood (like a clam sauce), or both.
Maccheroni means different things to different people. In one place, maccheroni means ridged tubular spirals; in another, they're thin, straight, short noodles that come from that blue Kraft box; in yet another, they're a ridged elbow pasta. Take your pick! One thing these extruded pastas all have in common is that they're perfect for lighter, cold pasta dishes or, of course, your best mac and cheese recipe.
Manicotti (Italian for "sleeves") are the Italian American version of cannelloni. There are few differences between the two: Manicotti are ridged and slightly larger than the smooth, thinner cannelloni shell. Manicotti were traditionally made with crepes, as are cannelloni (made with crespelle) in some areas of Italy. Both egg pastas are prepared in the same way, by stuffing them with whatever your heart desires. They're commonly filled with ricotta and cheese, covered in tomato sauce or ragu and baked, though you can really find them in pasta shops and restaurants filled with just about anything.
Maltagliati (from the two words "mal" and "tagliati" which mean "poorly cut") are irregular shapes of pasta cut from sheets of fresh egg pasta like tagliatelle or pappardelle — a task the kids can handle with a pastry wheel! The pieces are boiled the same as other pasta and can be served with creamier sauces, such as codfish and chickpea cream, or even with sauces as substantial as a ragu.
Orecchiette (from their resemblance to small ears or "orecchie") are a type of pasta from Puglia made by dragging a small piece of pasta with a butter knife then flipping it inside out with your thumb. This creates an indentation on one side and ridges on the other, both of which help sauce stick to it. They can be found across Puglia in three sizes: The smallest size is perfect for ragu; the middle size, almost 2 centimeters across, pairs well with its traditional accompaniment of broccoli rabe and sausage, but are equally delicious with any vegetable-driven sauce that doesn’t drown the pasta; and the largest size is generally stuffed and baked in the oven.
Paccheri (from the Neapolitan word "paccharia," which means "slaps," a reference to the slapping sound they may make when eaten or mixed with sauce) are a tubular pasta, ridged or smooth, that are similar to larger-diameter rigatoni and come from Naples. This extruded pasta is perfect with thick sauces studded with seafood, vegetables or meat. The sauce clings to the rough external surface and the large pieces get trapped inside. Don’t waste this on a sauce that isn’t chunky — you’ll miss all the fun!
Ravioli refers to the family of fresh stuffed pasta of different shapes, depending on the region of origin. We could actually do an entirely separate list for all the different types of ravioli. What distinguishes one from the other is the dimension, shape and how they are closed. They can be filled with cheese, ricotta and spinach, meat (as in the case of tortellini), or vegetables and served in broth, a condiment as simple as melted butter or tomato sauce or as rich as ragu.
Rigatoni and penne rigate (from "rigato," which means "ridged") are extruded tubular pastas of different diameters. The former is cut straight, giving it a cylindrical shape, while the latter is cut diagonally, giving it an oblique shape. The ridges, like roughness on the fresh pastas, help sauces adhere. These shapes are perfect for pestos or sauces with pieces of vegetables or meat that you can stack on your fork in one bite. They also lend themselves well to cold, summery pasta dishes.
Rotini are a non-tubular, extruded, screw-shaped pasta similar to some forms of fusilli. Depending on the pasta maker, they can have a tighter or looser spiral. The anatomy of rotini make them the perfect pasta for every kind of sauce. Think of it as your universal donor: Cold or hot pasta, dressed any way you wish — you really can’t go wrong.
Spaghetti (from "spago," meaning "string"), the most easily recognized shape of pasta, is an extruded shape that originated in a small town near Palermo, called Trabia. You can eat spaghetti with anything! A sauce made with the best tomatoes, raw or cooked, with basil or your favorite herbs will always work with this pasta.
Strozzapreti (which literally translates to "priest stranglers") exist in different forms all over Italy and are made in different ways, some as fresh pasta made with egg or only with water and flour, others as dried pasta made with durum wheat semolina. The shape is achieved by delicately rubbing a small piece of pasta between two palms until it resembles a partially opened scroll. This is a substantial pasta and goes well with chunky sauces made with roasted vegetables or seafood.
Tortellini (a diminutive of "torta," meaning "small cake") are originally from Bologna, a city in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. The traditional filling for tortellini is made with various types of pork (loin or shoulder, prosciutto crudo and mortadella), Parmesan cheese, eggs and nutmeg. The traditional way of serving this fresh egg pasta is in broth (chicken or mixed meats), though you can also find them filled with myriad alternatives and served with as many different sauces.
Trofie are originally from the Ligurian Riviera. Between 3 and 4 centimeters long, they are a short, thin, twisted pasta made with durum wheat semolina, water and a little bit of salt. They're made by rolling small pieces of dough on a flat surface to form a short, round length of pasta with tapered ends, then, finally, twisting it. The origin of the word "trofie" in Genovese dialect is uncertain, but the traditional pairing for trofie is clear: Genovese pesto. But, really, any pesto or sauce would go well with it.
Ziti (from the Neapolitan word "zita," meaning "unmarried woman") are a long, extruded, tubular form of pasta from the Campania region of Italy. The pasta is sold long and later broken into palm-sized pieces right before cooking. It is traditionally used in baked pasta dishes: A rich slow-cooked tomato sauce with a blend of your favorite cheeses would make a perfect gooey-on-the-inside and crispy-on-top ziti dish.