Pasta comes in a tongue-twisting variety of shapes and sizes, from huge to tiny, skinny to fat, curvy to blocky. Why? Because pasta sauces also come in many varieties as well. The key to matching shape to sauce is in the shape itself. The basic principle? Like goes with like.
Thin pastas, are best with thin sauces; the sauces slide easily over the smooth pasta surfaces. Hollow or twisty shapes, on the other hand, are great with chunkier sauces, because the saucy bits can nest inside or get caught in the ridges. And thick pastas go best with thick sauces.
Remember if you are using semolina based pasta (recommended) you will not need to rinse your pasta or add oil to the water before cooking. Be certain to add a couple of tablespoons of sat to the boiling water prior to cooking. Here are a few favorite pasta shapes and ways to serve them.
Ridged tubes (penne, rigatoni, ziti rigate). This has to be my family’s favorite pasta, a versatile shape that’s a nice medium size and holds lots of sauce in its external ridges and internal hollows. It’s also great in pasta salads.
Corkscrews (fusilli, rotini, cavatappi). Fantastic with pesto sauces, tomato sauces, or meat sauces. Like the ridged pastas, the corkscrew shape “catches” and holds the sauce.
Hollow spaghetti (bucatini, perciatelli). These are essentially very long, thin straws. The classic sauce for these hearty pastas is all’Amatriciana, a spicy sauce featuring tomato and pancetta (or bacon). David Anderson, a chef at Portland’s Vindaloo restaurant, says that bucatini is the only pasta appropriate with carbonara, a classic egg-and-bacon sauce.
Spaghetti. The all-American favorite, spaghetti is perfect with tomato-based marinara and Bolognese sauces. Coat the pasta with your favorite tomato sauce and let it sit for a few minutes before serving. Flattened forms of spaghetti — pappardelle, fettuccine, and linguine — come a close second. Skinny spaghetti — aka capellini or angel-hair pasta — does best with thinner sauces, such as puttanesca.
Butterflies (farfalle, bow-tie pasta). This is perhaps the most fanciful of pasta shapes, best with a light-to-medium sauce or soup where the shape can stand out. I also like this pasta in pasta salads, combined with green vegetables and crumbled cheeses.
Macaroni. Though macaroni has a lowbrow image, this is perhaps the most versatile of pastas, good with sauces, baked in casseroles, or tossed with dressing and vegetables in pasta salads.
Stuffed pasta (ravioli, tortellini). Usually filled with cheese, meat, vegetables, or a combination thereof, in their best incarnations these are like little pillows. Stuffed pastas are usually served with a broth or cream sauce so the pasta fillings can stand out. Tiny pasta (orzo, couscous). Frequently seen in pasta salads, orzo is small, rice-shaped pasta often found in the Greek lemon-egg soup called avgolemono. Couscous originated in North Africa (it’s made by pressing pasta dough through a fine sieve) and can be prepared in a number of ways: in a couscoussière, in a simple pan of hot water, or simmered in broth. Israeli or pearl couscous is simply a large-sized couscous with a satisfyingly chewy texture. Serve either couscous with stews or simple fish and vegetables.