The ultimate pasta shapes and sauces pairing guide

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Joey Skladany is an In The Know cooking contributor. Follow him on Instagram and visit his website for more.

One thing the world can actually agree on is that everyone loves pasta, as well as the many sauces that go with it. But it’s likely that most of the world is not well-versed on which pastas work best with different sauces — and vice versa. Insert the ma che vuoi emoji. 

I recently took a trip to Italy to dive headfirst (quite literally) into plates and plates of the country’s most beloved export, twirling and stabbing my way through starchy pasta bliss until the seams of my shirt could no longer withstand the pressure. While this wasn’t my first time in magical Bel Paese, it was my first time visiting two of its Tuscan regions: Barga and Lucca. 

Of course, it only made sense to stay at these regions’ most revered and luxurious hotels, the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa and Grand Universe Lucca. The sister properties contrast in overall feel and vibe (the first sits on a hill with panoramic mountain views of Serchio Valley, while the second is smack-dab in the hustle and bustle of the city center). But both boast pasta-forward culinary programs at their respective restaurants to celebrate noodles in all their carb-coma-inducing glory. 

However, it wasn’t until I took a cooking class at the Renaissance that I gained a deeper appreciation and respect for the humble dish and the mechanics of its components. 

Lorenzo Venanzi, head chef of the resort, led the course to share parcels — or ravioli, if you will — of wisdom. 

“Choosing the right pasta shape for your pasta and sauce recipe is imperative,” he says. “It makes all the difference in the dish. When choosing what shape to use in a pasta dish, think about the nature of the sauce, and choose pasta that will complement it.” 

He also claims there are two quick and easy tips to keep in mind while selecting appropriate pasta shapes and accompanying sauces: 

  1. Larger shapes generally work better with thick, more robust sauces.

“While spaghetti bolognese is one of the world’s most well-known pasta dishes, it is fundamentally inauthentic when cooked with thin pasta. Italian cooks would seldom serve a thick, saucy ragu with thin pasta ribbons — they’re far more likely to pair such a sauce with large shells or tubes to capture the sauce, or thicker long pasta, like tagliatelle and pappardelle,” he says. 

  1. Skinny shapes suit light, creamy sauces.

“Like strands of delicate vermicelli,” he adds. It’s not something to overthink. 

While this guidance is great to keep in mind while shopping for or preparing your own Italian cuisine, we asked Chef Venanxi to run through some of the most popular pasta shapes here in the States (and we’re not talking about Olive Garden or Chef Boyardee) and pair them with the sauces that made the most sense. Here are his recommendations: 

Shape: Spaghetti
Sauce Recommendation: Cacio e Pepe

“Thin, long noodles like spaghetti, angel hair and capellini are best paired with lighter sauces, such as tomato or garlic and olive oil. Spaghetti cacio e pepe is a simple pasta dish that is filled with some of the best fresh ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese and freshly ground black pepper. The light sauce coats the strands of spaghetti evenly and won’t weigh the pasta down.”

Shape: Fettuccine
Sauce Recommendation: Alfredo

“Flat, long noodles like fettuccine, linguine and pappardelle are best paired with rich or creamy sauces, as the flat surface can hold heavier sauces. Keep in mind that the heartier meat sauces pair best with the wider noodles like pappardelle, while fettuccine and linguine pair better with simple cream sauces and seafood. Fettuccine alfredo is a very popular dish in America, but there are a few restaurants in Italy that serve the Italian version that is made with parmesan and butter.”

Shape: Tube or Ring-Shaped (Typically Pasta al Forno)
Sauce Recommendation: Vegetable or Meat to Be Baked 

“Short tube pasta like penne, rigatoni and ziti are very versatile and work well in soups, salads, casseroles and pasta dishes with creamy or heart sauces. The larger the tube, the better it will be for holding sauces with pieces of meat or vegetables. Pasta ‘al forno’ means that it is baked in the oven and is usually covered with delicious cheese and sauce. Our pasta al forno is baked ziti with a creamy four-cheese sauce.”

Pasta: Bucatini
Sauce Recommendation: Carbonara

“Bucatini is an interesting cut of pasta that is very popular with classic Roman dishes. At first glance, you may mistake it for spaghetti, but it is a bit thicker and has a hollow center. The hole that runs through the pasta is perfect for sauce-lovers [since it can serve as a vessel for it].”

Shape: Stuffed Pastas (Like Crespelle)
Sauce Recommendation: Fiorentina

“For stuffed pasta, crespelle alla fiorentina is a fan favorite. The noodle has a crepe-like consistency, which is ideal since you want the filling to be the star of the show. Tomato and creamy sauces are best here to complement the bold flavors of your filling (typically ricotta, pecorino and spinach) and its seasoning.”

Shape: Maltagliati Pasta
Sauce Recommendation: Olive Oil, Cheese and Larger Cuts of Meat and Vegetables

“Home cooks will love maltagliati pasta because you can’t mess up its presentation; the name itself means ‘poorly cut.’ Here, the pasta takes on more of a support profile, letting other vegetables and meats, like savoy cabbage, potatoes and bacon, be the lead in the flavor profile. Olive oil and grated cheese are the best for this since it evenly coats the pasta and other vegetables and meats in the dish.”

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