15 Italian Pasta Types (And Sauces They Go Best With)
15 Italian Pasta Types (And Sauces They Go Best With)
Pasta is one of the most universally beloved foods out there. Even the pickiest eaters would very likely put the pasta on the list of their favorite dishes. Okay, maybe not plain pasta (even the high-quality pasta from Italy) by itself, but at least one pasta dish, with the type of sauce and seasoning they like.
It can be argued many people don’t think of pasta as a complete dish but rather as a vehicle for a sauce. We can’t blame them for it. Pasta is like bread in this regard. You can enjoy it on its own, but not many do. With the right toppings, it can taste like the food of gods.
But same as bread, what pasta tastes like by itself still matters. Just as lousy bread can ruin a sandwich, bad pasta can destroy a dish even with the best sauce.
That’s why people like to buy pasta from Italy. Everybody knows that the best pasta comes from Italy. If a country with centuries’ worth of pasta-making traditions cannot be trusted with quality, who can?
And Italy sure does love (and respect!) its pasta. In fact, there are over 300 Italian pasta types, meaning most (if not all) basic pasta shapes we know are Italian. Begs the question: just why are there so many Italian pasta types, anyway?
Do pasta types affect the taste?
All classic Italian pasta types are made more or less the same way. Wheat flour is mixed with water or eggs (and sometimes a pinch of salt). Then it’s kneaded into unleavened dough and given shape.
So logic dictates that three factors should affect the taste of authentic Italian pasta:
- The type of flour used (gluten-free or protein pasta would taste different than classic wheat flour pasta).
- Whether it’s egg pasta or not.
- Whether it’s fresh pasta (pasta fresca) or dried (pasta secca).
But ask a pasta lover whether they have a favorite type, the one that tastes just a bit better than the others. Chances are, the answer will be yes.
A part of it probably has something to do with the placebo effect (we tend to find things we believe taste better, whatever the reason, to taste better), but it’s not out of the question for other factors to be at play. Accidentally striking luck when pairing a specific sauce with a particular type of pasta might be one. The difference between manufacturers might be another. People who buy Divella pasta claim they do so because it tastes better than De Cecco pasta.
15 Italian Pasta Types and Which Sauce to Pair Each of Them With
Whether it’s the childhood nostalgia, or you honestly find Divella or De Cecco pasta better or see no difference between how different Italian pasta types taste, there’s one thing most professional chefs agree on. Some pasta types pair better with certain sauces than others.
It’s less about the pasta itself and more about its thickness and exterior. The better the pasta balances out the sauce, the better the final dish.
Here’re some of the classical pairings (and a few modern twists) for the most famous Italian pasta types.
Spaghetti is undoubtedly the most popular and widely used type of pasta globally. Its origins can be traced back to 12th century Sicily and since then has pretty much become synonymous with the words “pasta from Italy” to the rest of the world.
Traditionally made with durum wheat semolina, these days, there are more twists on it (gluten-free, whole-wheat, multi-grain) than possibly all other Italian pasta types.
It’s not by accident that spaghetti is so famous. This long (the length can vary between 5 to 12 inches) rod-shaped pasta goes well with almost all types of sauces. Its medium thickness and slightly rigged exterior make it easy for sauces to set but don’t allow itself to be overpowered.
A classic way to enjoy spaghetti would be either with bolognese sauce or carbonara - simply because these are the most popular pasta dishes.
But to fully enjoy spaghetti pasta, try it with a lighter, meatless tomato sauce, like marinara, and an additional drizzle of olive oil.
Linguine is somewhere between spaghetti and another popular Italian pasta type, fettuccine. Linguine is flatter and broader than spaghetti, but rather than being fully flat, it’s elliptical in the midsection and not as wide as fettuccine.
As Italian pasta types go, linguine is one of the most versatile in theory. Still, it is typically served with either herby sauces (like pesto alla Genovese, a rather popular pairing) or lighter sauces and seafood. It’s partially due to the Sicilian tradition of serving it with tuna and capers, though the list of seafood it gets paired with has extended much further than that.
Bucatini resembles spaghetti in that it, too, is traditionally quite long, narrow, and rod-shaped. The significant distinction between the two is that bucatini is tubular - it has a relatively wide hole (for a narrow pasta) in the middle.
Being hollow in the middle allows bucatini to suck up a lot of flavors, while its dense and chewy texture tends to carry the pasta flavor through. It makes bucatini an ideal pairing with hearty, flavorful sauces that could otherwise easily overpower pasta. Bolognese goes well with it, but the classic pairing for bucatini is considered to be amatriciana (chunky tomato sauce with pieces of guanciale).
Tagliatelle is one of the famous flat egg pasta types, similar to the more popular fettuccine and oft-ignored pappardelle. The main difference between tagliatelle and fettuccine is that the former is slightly thinner and a bit narrower than the latter (though an untrained eye may have trouble differentiating between the two).
Tagliatelle has a porous texture which allows it to suck the sauces up very well and makes it a great pairing with traditional bolognese, carbonara, and other meat-based sauces. That said, its thinner shape allows it to pair well with flavorful lighter sauces as well. Tomato and basil is a classic pairing for vegetarians and vegans.
The most classic, well-known, and arguably beloved among Italian egg pasta types, fettuccine is similar to tagliatelle. It’s flat and wide but a bit larger (though not so critically that a person not in the know wouldn’t mix them up with each other). If we want to get overly technical, then fettuccine is around 0.5 millimeters wider, not that it would help an untrained eye.
The most significant difference between the two is their place of origin. Fettuccine is from Rome, while tagliatelle is from Bologna.
Since they’re so similar, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the fettuccine sauce selection is identical to tagliatelle. Its rich flavor and rough texture go well with hearty, flavorful sauces, and it’s often paired with meat-based ones. That said, the US has done the lion’s share of work to give fettuccine a distinct identity by pairing it with cream-based sauces and chicken far more often than traditional pork and veal.
As egg pasta from Italy goes, pappardelle is possibly the least well known, though its popularity seems to have skyrocketed in recent years.
Its most prominent distinct feature is its width. It’s usually somewhere between ¾ and 1 inch. To put things in perspective, that’s four times the width of classic fettuccine.
Its wide and thick shape and the dense, chewy texture characteristic of egg pasta make pappardelle ideal for thick meaty ragu sauces. Pappardelle is often garnished with additional meat chunks just to balance out the flavors further.
(If you’ve never had pappardelle before, try the one from the De Cecco pasta selection).
On the downside, it’s not nearly as versatile as tagliatelle and fettuccine. Lighter sauces get easily overpowered. Better stick to the classics with this one.
Penne, or penne rigate as they’re often called, are thin, short, and tubular-shaped (with the hole wider than bucatini). While its rigged surface makes it a good fit for most types of sauces, it’s traditionally served with lighter, herby sauces, with no meat - like pesto and marinara.
(Though it could arguably be well-suited for bolognese or amatriciana, as well).
Arguably the most popular spiral-shaped Italian pasta, fusilli is medium-length (not nearly as long as spaghetti, not as short as penne) twisty pasta with broad ridges. If there’s a pasta type that can be argued was created to be a vehicle for sauce and nothing else, it’s fusilli.
Its shape hands itself perfectly both to hearty meat-based sauces and lighter or creamier sauces. It’s also the pasta most often used in pasta salads, its chewy texture and well-expressed flavor holding its own well against multiple other ingredients.
Have you ever wondered what that butterfly (or bow-tie) shaped pasta was called as a kid? It’s farfalle.
Farfalle was born in 16th century Lombardy and has only grown in popularity from year to year due to its fun shape and versatility in use.
Typically farfalle is served with either a light herby sauce or olive oil and seafood. It’s chewy and thick, making it a good ingredient for pasta salads, similar to fusilli.
Rigatoni is large tube-shaped pasta with thick ridges and a wide hole. While it’s common to have it served with chunky tomato-based sauces, its exterior lends itself well to most heavy flavorful sauces like bolognese, sugo di carne, or amatriciana. The lighter and olive oil sauces (like aglio and olio) and seafood are typically not considered strong enough for rigatoni.
On the other hand, due to its texture and shape, rigatoni has become one of the most popular shapes used in bakes, especially with lots of meat and hearty cheese combos.
Yes, lasagne sheets are a type of pasta. It’s not up for the debate.
A standard lasagne sheet is around 3 inches in width, a bit over 7 inches in length, and approximately 2 millimeters thick.
While lasagna is typically considered a meat-based dish, you can stuff pretty much anything between the sheets. The one consensus is that it can easily overpower weaker flavors, so make sure to include at least one ingredient that can balance out the pasta (it’s typically considered to be cheese or meat).
While we’re on pasta bakes - cannelloni is possibly the most popular Italian pasta used for bakes.
Cannelloni is pretty much a cylindrical lasagne. Basically, a very large tube. It’s around 4-5 inches long and approximately 3 inches wide. On the other hand, its “walls” aren’t quite as thick, only about 1 millimeter.
Typically it’s stuffed with flavorful, hearty ingredients like minced meat or ricotta cheese and then covered in sauce and more cheese on the outside. The stuffing and sauce can vary on the chef’s desire. It works well with pretty much all ingredients.
A short, corkscrew-shaped pasta, in texture similar to fusilli but somewhat thicker, makes a good pair with chunky, tomato-based sauces.
Like fusilli and farfalle, its thick texture and short shape make it a good ingredient for pasta salads since its flavor is hard to overpower, even when the chef has to balance multiple components.
Macaroni is a bucatini-style pasta - tubular but with thick walls and smaller holes. It’s much shorter and slightly rounded ends.
Macaroni is a universal word for “pasta” in many parts of the world, referring to different shapes and sizes. It’s apparently in line with the Italian tradition of referring to multiple types of pasta with the name (though when commercially packaged, the term tends to denote this one only).
Unsurprisingly, macaroni is traditionally served with creamy and cheesy sauces and is often used for bakes. The original recipe can be traced back to the 14th century, though it doesn’t denote the shape of the pasta specifically.
These days it’s usually associated with American “mac and cheese” and is sometimes looked down upon for it. Rather unfortunate since it’s a perfect pairing with cream-based sauces.
Whether gnocchi is a type of pasta or dumplings is STILL up for debate, though the majority seem to agree that it is pasta.
The big hubbub is because gnocchi is made with potato-based dough, unlike most traditional pasta recipes.
It has a chewy, delicate texture and, unlike the other pasta types, can be fried right away in oil without being boiled first.
While gnocchi can be served with all kinds of sauces, from the lightest to the heartiest, its delicate texture makes it a better fit for lighter, creamier sauces.
How to choose between Italian pasta types?
As you see, a lot depends on which sauces you prefer. For lighter sauces, thinner pasta with a smooth exterior works best.
For example, most Italian pasta types fit traditional tomato sauce or classic carbonara sauce (the Italian no-cream version) well. Still, cavatappi or linguine might get a little “lost” if paired with bolognese or American-style creamy bacon carbonara sauce.
On the other hand, chunky and hearty sauces work best with thick and large pasta types with a rigged exterior. Say bucatini or papardelle.
A wider exterior will ensure that the sauce will attach better. The distribution of sauce to pasta ratio will be more even. The pasta flavor itself will cut through easier, not leaving you feeling that you’re eating sauce by itself.
Not that those who consider pasta nothing but a vehicle for the sauce would be much opposed to the idea.
Some Italian pasta types, like spaghetti or fettuccine, are considered to be nigh-universal in use. They’re neither too thick to overpower lighter sauces nor thick enough to get lost in heartier ones. If you don’t like thinking about which sauce goes best with which Italian pasta types, keep them (along with fusilli and cavatappi) in your pantry. Most dishes will turn out okay.
Whether you’re planning to follow the rules or be a rebel and experiment, you can find a large selection of high-quality pasta from Italy on our website to help you up the ante in the kitchen. Take your pick among Di Martino, Giuseppe Cocco, or De Cecco pasta products, among many other premier Italian manufacturers - you’re bound to find at least one that has what you’ve been looking for.