A Visual Guide to 35 Popular Pasta Shapes — Plus the Best Sauce to Serve with Each
For home cooks all over the world, pasta is a dinner-saving super ingredient. It’s versatile, easy to cook, and — of course! — incredibly delicious. But if you’ve ever had decision paralysis when facing a wall of options at the grocery store, you probably understand that choosing the best pasta for your recipes can be confusing. What are the most common types of pasta? What sauces should you serve with them? Does pasta shape matter?
As a curious pasta enthusiast, I had the same questions. To get to the bottom of this macaroni mystery, I spoke with Dino Borri, a bonafide pasta expert. Borri, who is the global vice president at the Italian superstore Eataly, was born in Northern Italy. To say he’s passionate about pasta is an understatement. When asked what his favorite pasta shape is, he’ll deadpan and say, “The one I just ate.” (Actually, it’s Vesuvio, a rare shape that mimics the volcano it’s named for. “Every bite has a bit of sauce,” he explains.)
On a phone call, Borri explained the major differences in pasta types and pasta shapes commonly found in America. He also shared the best sauce for each variety. Here’s everything you need to know about pasta shapes and how to serve them.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What Is the Difference Between Fresh and Dried Pasta?
In America, we tend to focus on the different pasta shapes available, but Borri explains that there’s actually a better way to categorize pasta: fresh pasta versus dried pasta. “Fresh is common in stuffed pastas,” Borri explains, due to the malleable texture and workability of the dough. Dried pasta is much more popular because of its long shelf-life and transportability. (You’ve got two, three days max with fresh pasta, Borri explains.)
The grain used to make each type is different, too. “In dried pasta, you use durum wheat,” Borri says. Fresh pasta is typically made with a softer variety of wheat.
Is fresh pasta better than dried? Although that’s a common belief, it’s a misconception. The quality of the grain used is what makes a pasta “good,” so you’re just as likely to encounter an outstanding dried pasta as you are a fresh one. (Psst: If you’re on the hunt for stellar dried pasta varieties, look for pasta that has been “bronze dyed” or “bronze cut.” These noodles have a slightly rough texture that sauce loves to cling to.)
How Do You Pair Pasta Shapes with Sauce?
The shape of pasta, the grain used to make it, and the sauce it’s served with all vary as you travel across Italy. As a general rule, Borri explains that in northern Italy sauces are made with butter and tend to be a little heartier. Southern Italian pasta dishes tend to be cooked with olive oil, and often feature seafood.
One commonality all Italian pasta destinations share, Borri says, is a dedication to fresh, local produce. “Each place will have preparations to honor seasonal produce,” he explains. Despite all of these variables, Borri says there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when pairing sauces with pasta shapes.
- Tubular pasta is ideal when paired with chunky and thick or creamy sauces. The larger the tube, the chunkier the sauce you can use.
- Twisted pasta pairs best with sauces that contain very finely chopped or crumbled ingredients (think: pesto).
- Long pasta varies in thickness, which means the sauce must vary, too. Thick long pasta (like fettuccine) can handle a hearty ragù. Thin long pasta (such as cappellini) should be paired with a lighter, more delicate sauce.
- Stuffed pasta should be sauced lightly, with a delicately flavored sauce. Keeping the sauce flavors on the minimal side will make sure the sauce doesn’t overpower what’s inside the pasta.
- Small pasta shapes, such as fregola and ditalini, are best in soups. If the pasta is small enough to fit on a spoon, you can add it to your minestrone (or any other brothy soup you have cooking).
What’s the Best Pasta Sauce for All Shapes?
“Pomodoro, pomodoro, pomodoro,” says Borri. Although there’s an infinite number of pasta-plus-sauce combinations, the one Italian home cooks have mastered, he says, is a simple tomato sauce. While classic marinaras tend to cook longer, this tomato-based pasta sauce comes together in minutes. And, according to Borri, all you need to make it are, “tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and garlic; maybe a little Parmigiano grated on top.” While it’s often made with fresh tomatoes — in both Italy and the United States — it’s just as delicious (and very acceptable!) to use canned tomatoes.
The most common pasta shape to use with pomodoro sauce is spaghetti because it’s easy to find here in America. But in Italy, Borri assures us, “You can serve pomodoro with any pasta shape.”
What Gluten-Free Pasta Shapes Are There?
Although they are less common in Italy, gluten-free pastas made from rice, corn, or legumes, like lentils and chickpeas, are all the rage in the United States. Gluten-free pastas are less likely to be made into intricate shapes, as without gluten they do not bend and stretch like gluten-containing counterparts. The most common are short, tubular shapes, like penne or ziti. You’ll also encounter GF spaghetti-like noodles and corkscrew shapes, like fusilli.
Other Alternative Pasta Types
Increasingly in Italy and America, you’ll also encounter pastas made with heirloom varieties of wheat and wheat-adjacent grains such as spelt, farro, and einkorn (these all contain gluten).
The Most Common Types of Pasta
We would need hundreds of pages and hours of your time to explain all of the pasta shapes. Just about every region in Italy has unique shapes that are hard to find outside of the local trattoria — let alone outside of the country. Specialty food shops that specialize in imported ingredients will expand your choices, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll discuss the most common pasta shapes you can find in American grocery stores.
The Most Common Short Pasta Shapes
Calamari: Calamari are so-called because they’re shaped similarly to squid. (The rings, not the tentacles.) These are commonly found in Southern Italy, likely due to its seafood-forward cuisine. And yes — they do taste delicious with actual calamari.
Casarecce: The exact shape of casarecce can be hard to nail down, because its rustic shape varies. (Casarecce literally translates to “homemade.”) If you can’t find casarecce, strozzapreti or gemelli make good substitutes. Try it with this eggplant Parm pesto.
Croxetti: These thin, wafer-like shapes, also known as corzetti, hail from Liguria and are intricately stamped with a cross that’s meant to represent a noble family’s wealth. The fact that they also resemble communion wafers speaks to the intersections of the noble and church classes throughout history. Although you may have to search a little harder to find these medallions, Borri explains a list of famous pastas wouldn’t be complete without them. Croxetti is traditionally served with a walnut-based pesto — be sure to keep it light, as a chunky, heavy sauce would weigh down the skinny disks.
Farfalle: Although you might call this pasta “bowties,” farfalle actually translates to “butterfly.” It’s a whimsical shape that’s made by pinching ruffly edged pasta rectangles together in the center. Farfalle’s great in pasta salad, but as many a kid can attest, it is also pretty perfect with butter and cheese. Or try it in the creamy bowtie pasta recipe pictured above.
Fregola: Fregola are medium-sized balls of toasted semolina pasta that most commonly appear in soups and salads. Fregola originated in the island of Sardinia and is traditionally formed by hand. Learn more about fregola and then try it in this recipe for fregola with verde sauce. If you can’t find fregola, you can substitute pearl couscous (also called Israeli couscous and ptitim) in many recipes.
Fusilli: Whether you call it fusilli, corkscrew, or rotini, this twisty pasta is a supermarket superstar. This commonly available pasta is one of the most versatile short shapes. It’s also a common choice for alternative-ingredient pastas (such as lentil or chickpea). Try it in any recipe calling for short pasta, like this caramelized cabbage pasta.
Gemelli: Directly translating to “twins,” gemelli are a spiraled pasta that’s similar to strozzapreti. Readily available in most supermarkets, gemelli are a good box to have on hand in case of “pasta emergencies,” thanks to their versatility. It’s hard to find a sauce that doesn’t go great with gemelli, although as many young pasta-enthusiasts will tell you, they’re simply divine with butter and cheese.
Gnocchi: Gnocchi are classified as pasta, but they’re much more at home in the “dumpling” category. Made with potato, flour, egg, and seasonings, these hearty little nuggets are more common in Northern Italy. (Also, American winters.) The sky — or rather, the skillet — is the limit when it comes to saucing gnocchi, although they’re frequently served with silky brown butter and herbs, or a hearty pomodoro-style sauce. Try your hand at making homemade gnocchi and serve them with a simple brown butter and sage sauce, or take the quick route and make a gnocchi sheet-pan supper.
Lumache: Sometimes referred to by the American translation of their name, “snails,” this shape is curved like a shell. Little compares to lumache when it comes to trapping and holding onto sauce, which makes lumache an ideal choice for any pasta dish where the sauce is the star. Try them with a chunky marinara or, in the case of larger lumache, stuffed with a creamy spinach sauce.
Orecchiette: Orecchiette, the most delicious ear-shaped thing you’ll ever eat, hails from Liguria, which means it goes well with another Ligurian specialty: traditional basil pesto. The little pockets of the thumb-sized circular pasta hold sauce well, although, Borri admits, as long as you’re ordering pesto in Liguria, it matters less what pasta shape you choose.
Orzo: Orzo is a small pasta (one of many “pastinas”) that works well in any recipe where you’d use rice or cooked grains, like farro or barley. It’s great in soup, but even better in cold salads. Try it in this chicken-orzo soup or orzo salad with red peppers, olives, cucumbers, and feta.
Paccheri: Paccheri are wide and thick, with a generous opening — pure magic for creamy, ricotta-based sauces. Naples is their region of origin, and although they are sometimes compared to rigatoni, these impressive-looking noodles are in a class all their own.
Penne: Whether smooth (lisce) or ridged (rigate), penne is a great choice for a variety of dishes. It’s common in casseroles and baked recipes, as well as lighter sauces (go for the lisce) and meaty ones, too (grab a box of rigate!). Try it in this penne with acorn squash and pancetta.
Rigatoni: Tube-shaped with a wide opening and generously ridged edges, this shape is a sauce hog. It’s excellent with chunky tomato and meat sauces. Use them in this rigatoni with broccoli and sausage.
Rotelle: Rotelle are wheely, wheely good. Puns aside, these gently ridged wheel-shaped pastas are often called wagon-wheel pasta and are often found rolling around in pasta salads. They’re also kid-friendly, thanks to their fun design and easy-to-spear shape. Try rotelle in this easy pasta salad.
Strozzapreti: This twisted pasta literally translates to “priest strangler,” because, as legend has it, a holy man once choked on this pasta shape. But don’t worry: The shape is way more fun than that. It’s in the cavatelli family, and although it looks like two separate pieces of pasta, it’s made with the aid of a wire for twisting. If you find squid ink strozzapreti, like the ones pictured above, pair them with seafood, like this shrimp pasta with white wine sauce.
Ziti: Ziti, a tubular 2-inch(ish) pasta, is smooth. It’s similar to penne, but without the ridges and with a straight cut rather than an angled one. It’s a star of baked ziti, but you probably already knew that.
The Most Common Long Pasta Shapes
Busiate: Busiate can be found in both short and long varieties; most fall somewhere in the middle. Dramatically spiraled (historically around a blade of grass), these are truly magical sauce-trappers. Try them with pesto.
Capellini: Capellini is a thin and delicate long noodle that tastes best with lighter sauces. It’s great with springy sauces (think: primavera) and seafood, but doesn’t stand up well to ragù. If you’ve heard that capellini is the same angel hair, you’re almost correct. Technically, angel hair is a bit thinner — although we’re talking tenths of a millimeter, here. As far as recipes go, you can swap the two varieties with no problems. Keep a close watch on the pot as it boils: It’s easy to overcook capellini. Try it in this curried chicken pasta.
Fettuccine: Made famous by Alfredo, this flat, wide-ish noodle is good with so much more than just creamy white sauce (although we do love that). It’s wider and flatter than linguine, and skinnier and thinner than pappardelle. And it will happily soak up just about any sauce you want to introduce it to. Try it with this creamy zucchini sauce.
Linguine: Flatter than spaghetti and thinner than fettuccine, linguine is a happy middle ground for simple sauces. It excels with seafood — clams or shrimp, for example — and can even shine with just a splash of olive oil and some chopped garlic. Use it in this one-pot linguine with clams recipe.
Pici: Pici pasta is less common in America, due to its handmade nature, but if you spot this rustic Tuscan pasta, snap it up. It’s slightly thicker than spaghetti, with a satisfyingly chewy texture, and is often sold in nest-like bundles. What kind of sauce goes with this not-too-fussy pasta? Why, it’s another pomodoro appearance! The point here is to keep things simple, so any common “pantry sauce” (hi, cacio e pepe) would work.
Mafalde: Although mafalde looks like sheet pasta on a diet, it’s generally grouped with long noodles, due to its most common preparations (sauced, rather than baked). Think of mafalde as wide fettuccine with ruffles. These thick, scalloped-edge noodles make for an attractive presentation, and do a good job at holding onto sauce. Mafalde loves cream, so this is a blush pink alla vodka’s time to shine.
Pappardelle: Pappardelle noodles are flat and wide, like ribbons. It’s common to serve this hearty pasta with slow-cooked meaty sauces, like ragù (If you’re looking for an “authentic” ragù however, you won’t find a simple answer. Borri explains that there are as many versions of this meat sauce as there are Italian households. But commonly, it is made with a combination of pork and beef.) Try pappardelle with this lamb ragù.
Spaghetti: Spaghetti — ever heard of her? The most basic and common of pasta shapes, there’s a lot to love about spaghetti. Not only is it found in most grocery stores, but it can also stand up to just about any sauce you pair with it. (That said, it is truly excellent in the Italian American specialty of spaghetti and meatballs.)
Tagliatele: Tagliatele is slightly thinner and wider than fettuccine. It’s also more frequently hand-cut and sold fresh — but the two pastas are interchangeable in most recipes. Also, tagliatele and Bolognese go together like red wine and cozy Italian bistros.
Vermicelli: Vermicelli, which translates to “little worms,” is a curious case. In Italy, it’s traditionally thicker than spaghetti noodles, but in the States it’s thinner (closer in size to cappellini). If cooking with American vermicelli, use a lighter sauce, or toss the noodles in a cold salad. (The wheat-based Italian vermicelli is not to be confused with the thin rice noodles sometimes called vermicelli that are found in some Southeast Asian dishes, such as Vietnamese bún xào.)
The Most Common Stuffed and Sheet Pasta Shapes
Here we’ve gathered the most common pasta shapes that are stuffed — as in, they either come stuffed (like ravioli) or you stuff them (like shells), as well as sheet pastas that are used in dishes like lasagna.
Agnolotti: There are countless varieties of agnolotti, according to Borri. What ties all of these filled pastas together is the type of soft wheat they are made with and the technique used for sealing them (one single piece of dough, folded or pinched). Agnolotti are often sold fresh or frozen, and you can also make homemade agnolotti from scratch. Agnolotti is flavorful and rich (when done right, anyway), so it needs little in the way of sauce. A drizzle of olive oil or melted butter, and a sprinkle of chopped fresh herbs will do the trick — go for the leafy, tender herbs, like parsley or basil.
Cannelloni: Smooth, cylindrical cannelloni are sometimes referred to as manicotti, but the truth is these two pasta varieties are a bit different. Manicotti is often ridged, thicker, and larger — it’s more common in Italian American preparations than Italian cannelloni. Either way, they’re typically stuffed with cheese, doused in sauce, and then baked.
Conchiglioni: Conchiglioni look like large shells, which is exactly what their name means. (If you encounter “conchiglie,” it’s the same shape in medium-size; conchigliette are smaller and frequently added to soup.) Stuff these with creamy cheese and bake them in the oven for an easy, satisfying dinner. See our stuffed shells recipe showdown for a few delicious ideas.
Lasagne: Lasagne noodles are wide, flat sheets meant to be layered and baked. (In America, we call that dish lasagna, which also happens to be the Italian word for a singular noodle of this style — note the subtle spelling difference.) Lasagne noodles can have scalloped or straight edges, but either way, they taste best when layered with a hearty ragù, either meaty or vegetable-forward.
Ravioli: Ravioli is one of the most common Italian American pastas, and there is no shortage of stuffing options. These filled pastas are stuffed with all sorts of tasty things: cheese, puréed squash, spinach, pancetta, and much more. What differentiates them in the myriad of stuffed pasta options is the fact they’re made from two pieces of dough, then sealed shut — with a pinch, fork, and/or egg wash. You can buy shelf-stable, refrigerated, and frozen ravioli or you can make your own homemade ravioli.
Tortellini: Tortellini are a stuffed pasta made from one piece of dough. Unlike agnolotti, which are typically rectangular or tubular, tortellini are twisted into a circular shape. The fillings vary, but sausage or meat is often included. They’re commonly added to soup. Use them in this tomato and tortellini soup or this fresh take on tortellini en brodo. Tortelloni is a larger version of tortellini.