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How to Choose the Right Pasta Shape For Your Sauce

This guide will help you choose the best shells for your pasta dishes, plus delicious recipes to impress your dinner guests

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By House & Garden South Africa | September 23, 2023 | Recipes

Choosing the right shape for your pasta is similar to the centuries-old chicken versus the egg debate: Do you decide your pasta shape based on your sauce? Or do you decide what sauce to make based on the shape you want to cook? With over 300 different pasta shapes out there it can be daunting to choose just one.

A good place to start is looking at what ingredients you have on hand, consider how many people your pasta is serving, and what sauce consistency you are craving. There is an art to choosing the right pasta shape because these shells have been created with care for centuries by Italian families and chefs for delicious feast days. The last thing you want is your dish falling flat because the pasta shell and sauce do not work together.

Tubular Pasta: Rigatoni, Calamarata, Ditali, and Penne

Tubular pastas are some of the most versatile pasta shapes of them all. Tubed pasta shapes work well with chunky ragù sauces that sneak inside the tube, creamy sauces, and bright pasta salads. But there is a trick to choosing the best tubed pasta. When scanning the pasta aisle of a supermarket, look for the word, “rigate’ on the packaging, which means the pasta is cut with a ridged surface. Sauces will cling better to pasta shapes with these ridged edges than smoother pasta shells, ensuring a flavourful bite of pasta every time. Rigatoni pasta works best with a ragu, while calamarata is great for a more soup-like dish like pasta e ceci, and tiny Ditalini pasta works great in cheese-based dishes.

Try this recipe: Rigatoni with Creamy Mushroom Ragù

The key to serving a great tubed pasta dish is ensuring your pasta shape is rigate. Image via unsplash

Textured Pasta: Fusilli, Conchiglie, Orzo, and Gemelli

Just like tubular pastas, textured pasta help sauces cling to the shell for a flavourful bite. These more miscellaneous pasta shapes like Fusilli, Conchiglie, Orzo, and Gemelli are funky shapes that add a unique texture and appearence to any pasta dish. But of all these pasta shells, fusilli us the most versatile and widely-available shape that catches a lot of sauce in every nook and cranny of this corkscrew shape. Another unique pasta shape is Orzo, which can resemble rice, but cooks like pasta (making it perfect for a lazy risotto). Orzo works great with any buttery and cheesy pasta for a light summer lunch. Conchiglie are the seashell-like pasta shapes that are great for a cacio e pepe, making it feel like an elevated macaroni and cheese.

Try this recipe: Lazy Weeknight Tomato and Feta Pasta made with fusilli.

Textured pasta shapes like fusilli and orzo add a unique textural element to your pasta, and work with almost any sauce.

Long Pastas: Spaghetti, Fettuccine, Tagliatelle, and pappardelle

Many people grew up eating the classic spaghetti bolognese, but there are many more exciting long pasta shapes to choose from. The thing about long pastas is their ubiquitous fork-twirling abilities, but it’s up to you to decide what sauce you want to pair it with. If you have a pack of spaghetti on hand, but don’t want to serve a bolognese dish, rather opt for a lighter seafood pasta, where spaghetti and shellfish mingle. Remember that seafood pasta does not get served with any cheese on top.

Long noodles are also the easiest pasta shape to make fresh of you don’t have a fancy at-home pasta extruder or roller. Simply make a quick flour, water, and egg pasta dough that you roll out on the counter and slice into long strips to form your delicious fresh pasta. On the other side of the spectrum of long-shaped pastas is pappardelle, which is the thickest of these long noodles, and pairs well with luxurious ragù sauces.

Try this recipe: Creamy Red Curry Pasta made with spaghetti.

Long pastas like fetuccine and pappardelle are the easiest pastas to make fresh at home if you don’t own a pasta extruder. Image via unsplash

In My Fillings: Ravioli, cappalletti, and tortellini

Filled pastas are a lot of fun because there is an extra layer of flavour in addition to the pasta sauce. While ravioli or a baked canneloni are the most popular stuffed pasta dishes, there are a variety of stuffed pastas to choose from. Tortellini — Italian for ‘little pies’ — is typically served swimming in a broth rather than a sauce. These little pies can be served with a variety of fillings like a simple Parmesan cheese, or ground meats like prosciutto and mortadella. Another small filled pasta, cappalletti — Italian for ‘little cap’ — is actually more of a pasta dumpling and than a filled pasta. Typically containing a ricotta or Parmesan cheese, cappalletti is also most commonly served in a broth.

Try this recipe: Baked Spinach and Tomato Ravioli

cappalletti is Italian for ‘little cap’, and is actually more of a pasta dumpling and than a filled pasta that is best served in a broth. Image via Unsplash.