Pasta has to be one of the best foods ever. Okay, so it’s got to share the bottom of the food pyramid with other things like bread and rice and potatoes (all of which are great, just not as amazing as pasta). But that’s beside the point. To date, there are over 350 different types of pasta known to mankind, and almost every culture in the world has some form or variation of this versatile and delicious carb.
Pasta can be broken down into five sauce-specific and recipe-specific categories. These are just guidelines, and experimentation is always a good thing (so don’t be afraid to think outside the pasta box). And there’s no judgment if you’re just sticking with spaghetti and meatballs or buttered noodles. You have to start somewhere, right?
For sanity’s sake, this in-depth guide to pasta shapes won’t be covering all 350 types. But it’ll give you a good grasp on how each noodle will work with the sauce you’re preparing.
First off, what’s up with the sauces?
Different noodle shapes hold sauces differently. The general rule of thumb is that lighter sauces go best with delicate noodles or stuffed pasta, while hearty and meaty sauces go best with big, burly OMG, how much longer do I have to cook this? noodles.
Meaty or heavier sauces—think of creamy or thick tomato—pair up perfectly with flat pastas (like fettuccine), noodles that have lots of nooks and crannies, etc. Thick sauces that have lots of chunky veggies or meats go well with big tubes, creamy sauces love shells (hullo macaroni and cheese), and smooth sauces prefer twisty noodles (because they soak up all that flavor). Soups and salads like those small, weird-shaped noodles…but they’ll basically take whatever because soup is all-encompassing.
Long Noodles: Long Live the Long Noodle
Capellini d’angelo, alias Angel Hair, is a super-fine, strand-like pasta reminiscent of a spaghetti noodle that went on a diet. It’s a thinner variant of Capellini, but it’s not the same. Angel Hair pasta can be sold in the standard rod-shaped form or in a nest-like shape. It pairs best with oil-based sauces and cream sauces. So you buttered noodle lovers will like this one.
If you really want to live a little, you can add some Parmesan cheese to your noodles and really impress your roommate.
Ok, everyone’s heard of spaghetti. It’s probably the most popular pasta in the world. Maybe because it goes well with, like, everything. Meat, cheese, cream, oil, butter, vegetable, soup—you name it, spaghetti has probably already graced that dish with its presence. Spaghetti is one of the oldest noodle “shapes” and showed up in Italy around the ninth or tenth centuries.
This noodle is thicker and more dense than the standard rod-shaped noodles. Actually, it looks like a flattened spaghetti noodle. Fettuccine likes to take on the hearty, get-all-over-the-place (and your face) sauces, like the meaty Bolognese. But it’s pretty famous for hanging with the cream-based circle, too (Fettuccine Alfredo, anyone?)
Traditionally, it’s eaten with a ragù—a meat-based sauce containing a small amount of tomato, not the other way around. Yes, folks. Those pasta sauce companies have been doing you wrong this entire time. Ragù’s alias is bolognese, and is generally made with any protein (think veal, beef, lamb, pork, fish, or fowl).
Also known as Reginette, Malfade (or Malfada) is Italian for “little queens.” That’s cute, huh? Well, it was named after a princess—a pretty tragic story—so the name kind of makes sense. Malfade is a small ribbon-shaped noodle with wavy edges. It measures about ½ an inch wide, and works best with delicate, light sauces. Cause, you know, royalty is supposed to be dainty.
It’s often served with vegetables, like mushrooms, spinach or broccoli. If you’re not into eating only vegetables with your pasta, this malfade with pancetta and zucchini pesto is something to try out (zucchini pesto? Delicious). Or if you’re looking for a meal meant for royalty, this creamy roasted red pepper and tomato dish is calling your name. Because remember: Princesses don’t eat big, meaty sauces that require copious amounts of napkin usage (actually, they probably do).
Tube Noodles: Like Straws But Better
Nope, it’s not macaroni. Cavatappi is like macaroni, except it’s double in length and has a nice extra curl. Cavatappi is the Italian word for “corkscrew” (not to be confused with corkscrew pasta, which is called Fusilli). This squiggly pasta noodle also goes by Cellentani, Amori, Spirali, and Tortiglione. But not Fusilli. Confusing? Kind of.
This pasta enjoys the creamy crowd, but also stands up to a bit of heft. For example, this Hatch Chili Bacon Mac n’ Cheese recipe illustrates just that point. It also makes a super refreshing Antipasto Salad.
Bucatini also looks like a traditional spaghetti noodle, albeit a bit thicker and more round. That’s because it has a hole in the middle, so it not only gets slathered with sauce on the outside, but on the inside, too. If bucatini had a superpower, it would be hoarding sauce.
Because of this amazing superpower, bucatini goes great in soups and basically has a love affair with cheese and creamy sauces. (But who doesn’t?) This Pecorino and Coarse Pepper recipe displays the noodle’s power quite well. Just make sure not to overdo it on the pepper—that wouldn’t be fun if you bit down into a pasta straw filled with pepper grounds.
Pasta al ceppo
Pasta a ceppo literally means “pasta rolled by a stick.” Sounds a bit violent and definitely not that romantic, huh? But it’s ability to be an awesome sauce vessel makes up for the name. The Pasta al ceppo noodle is about the same size and shape as a cinnamon stick, and works well with finely ground vegetable or meat ragùs. It’s chewier and considered a “meaty” pasta (.i.e. heavy-duty).
Serve this hearty noodle with a fine-ground meat or vegetable sauce so that all the tasty fun stuff gets stuck in its little pasta folds. It also holds up well when it’s baked or served alongside sausage and cheese…mmmm.
This is macaroni. It’s about time, right? In Italy, it’s actually called Gomiti (or Gomiti Rigati—Rigati means “ridges”). In the USA, it’s known as elbow macaroni, which really doesn’t sound as cool. While Gomiti looks more like a half circle over here in America, in Europe, this tubular pasta actually looks more like a small snail, which also doesn’t sound that appetizing. Elbows or snails. Your choice.
Gomiti-elbow-snail pasta goes great with hearty sauces (like this Broccoli Rabe, Chickpea, and Prosciutto dish), soups, salads, and of course, macaroni and cheese. For everyone that was waiting for the beloved macaroni noodle to show up on this list, you’re allowed to get up and dance a little to show how excited you are. Or go make some mac n’ cheese.
Soup Noodles: They’re All Really Souper Noodles
The word “Pastina” refers to a most basic, miniscule spherical shaped pasta that is commonly fed to kids and infants. You can just think of it as the gateway pasta for Italian infants. Pastina is also an umbrella term used to describe all micro-pastas. There are at least 25 variations of petite pastas, including Funghini (little mushrooms), Stelline (little stars), Alfabeto (alphabet shaped), and Quadrettini (little squares). They all sound super adorable. Who doesn’t like tiny food?
If you want a perfect example of proper use of pastina, look no further than the quintessential American comfort soup, chicken and stars. If you’re looking more down the traditional Italian comfort food route, then this Classic Italian Pastina recipe is your calling (and also less time-consuming because it’s basically pastina, butter, and milk…oh yeah, and cheese).
These “little ear” shaped noodles hold up exceedingly well in creamy sauces and soups. Maybe it’s because they’re reminiscent of little tiny scoopers, or little bowls that tiny critters would use for food. You could totally see a mouse using one as a soup bowl.
On that note, orecchiette is traditionally served with pork and wilted greens. Broccoli or cauliflower are common substitutes. Orechiette also likes to go swimming in cheesy tomato sauce with mini meatballs, and if that last dish doesn’t make you want to scoot your patootie to the nearest grocery store for a delicious and easy to make meal, then who knows what will.
You know how kids get to make all sorts of artsy crafts using dried pasta? Rotelli (also known as Ruote) is one of those fun shapes that was usually glued to paper and represented the wheels of a car, or sometimes made into a necklace. You’ll also find it in boxed macaroni and cheese. Have any idea what shape it is? It’s the wagon wheel (also called “cartwheel” pasta).
Rotelli has so many little crevices that it holds its own in chunky sauces and vegetables. It also works well in salads and makes a nice picnic statement dish. The best thing about Rotelli is its fun, bite-sized shape—kids have no problem noshing down on this noodle because, quite frankly, it looks cool. It’s just a blissful little pasta shape rolling into sauce-town and making your mouth (and tummy) happy.
Ditalini—meaning “little thimbles”— is a smaller pasta, but not as miniscule as its cousin, pastina. It basically looks like you took a ziti noodle and sliced it into a bunch of smaller pieces. These “little thimbles” are most commonly used in soups, stews, or salads. They’re like little inner tubes that hold all the flavor.
Minestrone soup is one of the more prominent soups that you’ll find these guys, as well as pasta e fagioli. They also work exceedingly well in pasta salads. It would be weird to not see ditalini hanging out in the salad bowl at your next barbecue.
Stuffed Noodles: Little Pillows of Love
Everyone knows what a ravioli is: A tasty little pasta pillow filled with meat, cheese, or veggies. Its usual form is a square or circle, but sometimes it takes on a half-moon shape known as Mezzaluna. A solo ravioli is called “raviolo,” but who’s ever only had one of these guys? The ravioli dates back to the 14th century and is formed by placing a flat layer of pasta on top of another layer that’s been topped with a filling. It’s pressed into a pillow shape and then lightly simmered in a broth or sauce. They’re available in fresh or dried form, just like their unstuffed relatives.
While it varies from region to region, cheese remains the most traditional filling of choice. You know what makes a cheesy dish even better? Yes, bacon would make it better. But how about more cheese? How about making a four-cheese ravioli meal in 15 minutes? It’s quick, tasty, and traditional. But why stick with tradition? Go get a little crazy and try these dessert churro raviolis. Ravioli for dinner and dessert. Bacon optional.
Tortelloni is a larger version of tortellini. The two pastas share a similar shape, except tortellini are larger and traditionally stuffed with veggies, like spinach or mushrooms…and of course, cheese. Tortellini (the Tortelloni mini-me) is a bit more dainty and generally filled with meat and cheese, and less of the veg.
Tortelloni is mainly served in a tomato-based meat sauce or a butter sauce. If you want to enjoy two sauces in one, this creamy tomato-based vodka sauce embraces both the tomato and the buttery side of the sauce world. You also get your veggies with added spinach. If that’s too much foliage for you, then simply add some crispy pancetta once the dish is done.
Like most of these pastas, there’s almost always some type of alias. Agnolotti is no different, and is sometimes called Agnolotti del plin—the word “plin” means “pinched,” as in how to seal the dough when you fold it over. Basically, this lengthy name is more like instructions on how to make the actual raviolo.
While the typical raviolo is made from two sheets of pasta pressed together to form a pasta pillow, Agnolotti is actually one sheet folded over on itself and sealed in a rectangle shape. It’s not so much into the cheesy fillings—this guy is hearty and is typically stuffed with meat or veggies, like butternut squash. Kind of like an Italian version of meat pie.
Casunziei (or Casonciei) hails from a small town called Cortina d’Ampezzo. They’re generally half-moon shaped, but the dough is rolled incredibly thin. The fillings are based on the local seasonal produce of that area, which means that recipes are incredibly different from region to region. Because these are super dainty and fragile pasta pillows, the fillings are usually finely ground to prevent the raviolo from breaking.
Typical fillings for this incredibly difficult to pronounce pasta are vegetables like beets (this is pretty much the main ingredient), spinach, herbs, mushrooms, potatoes, turnips, and pumpkin. Ricotta cheese is also mixed in to give it a bit of structure and flavor. It’s incredibly colorful and also incredibly hard to make. But why not make it a night and try to roll out some Casunziei at home? This beetroot and poppy seed dish is a bit difficult, but at least the sauce is easy: It’s just butter.
Weird Noodles: There’s One (or More) in Every Family
Notice how the first part of this pasta’s name is conch? What might this pasta look like, then? You guessed it—a shell (or “shells” if you want to get technical). Conchiglie is perfect in both creamy and tomato-based sauces. It also does pretty darn well in salads.
What’s super awesome about this oceanic-looking noodle is that it comes in different colors. This coloring is achieved by using different natural dyes like spinach, tomato extract, or squid ink. (Uh…yikes). Your next step is to get super creative and buy a bunch of rainbow conchiglie pasta and make yourself a seascape of tastiness.
If you’ve ever had SpaghettiO’s, you know what these are. Anellini—alias anelli—basically looks like tiny Lifesavers. The name actually translates to “little rings,” which seems like it would be blatantly obvious, but you really never know with food names that need translating. Anellini is mainly used in soups and salads, but don’t limit yourself. These rings also hold up incredibly well in chunky veggie dishes and traditional Sicilian casseroles.
If you’re big on SpaghettiO’s—absolutely no judgment because they’re delicious—you’ll love this copycat recipe. If you really want to try something new, the traditional Sicilian recipe Timballo (Baked Anelletti) will test your taste buds…in a good way, not, like, a Vizzini way.
Gigli—the pasta, not the 2003 Rom Com with JLo—is a small, flute-shaped pasta rolled into the shape of a flower. That’s mildly romantic. Could you imagine a floral arrangement made with little pasta flowers? The name (as the shape suggests) means “lily.” It’s a sturdy noodle that holds up well in thicker sauces and baked dishes, like casseroles.
If you like the smell of baked tomatoes and cheesy goodness, you should look into making this lazy lasagna. Apparently, it’s a Trader Joe’s copycat that tastes just like the real thing. So when your S.O. (or roomie) comes home and says, “Whoa, what’s that smell? Is that the Trader Joe’s lazy lasagna?” You can say, “No. This is the real deal, and it’s even better because it’s made with love.”
For the auto-mechanics of the world, this pasta is for you. Radiatore means “radiator”, and that’s what these noodles are meant to look like. This funky-shaped pasta was created somewhere in between the first and second World War, and is modeled after old-skool industrial heating fixtures. They’re a little chunky and have tiny little ridges on them, which allows them the maximum surface area for soaking up saucy flavors. Radiatore goes well with pretty much everything—soups, stews, creamy sauces, tomato-based toppings, butter, oil…you name it, Radiatore goes in it.
Just like the Conchiglie, these little radiators come in different colors made with vegetable dyes. Try it with a homemade pesto or toss it with Italian sausage and a spicy tomato sauce. Your tummy will thank you.