It's all about size and shape
The different forms of pasta were not created just to make the dish look better, but for the express purpose of pairing them with a particular sauce. If this may seem silly at times, every proper Italian has known the basics about which pasta goes with which sauce from childhood. Various pasta shapes have emerged from different regions of Italy, even specific towns, and to suit a particular sauce. This is, as I said, because the main job is to have the pasta and sauce go together well, to suit each other, as it were. Italians says that there are as many types of sauce as there are types of pasta. And there really are so many! If you want to feel like an Italian, then remember – a real Italian prepares the sauce to suit the pasta, not the other way around (unless you have shelves full of numerous types of pasta).
While we’re on the subject, I cannot forget to mention that there are two basic types of pasta – fresh and dried. The Emilia-Romagna region is famous for its fresh pasta, where (as is befitting of the north) it is served with cream sauces or just plain butter and sage sauce in the winter, or a light tomato sauce in the summer. In Piedmont, butter and black truffle sauce rules. The most important thing is to use local and seasonal ingredients. Pasta that is dried is shaped before drying – this is more traditional in the south where the hot sun helps dry pasta to perfection.
All the forms of pasta, from A to Z, are not easy to list, because there are so many. You may end up not having tried some of them during your lifetime, but there are definite favorites that are available in most stores around the world. Just to give you any idea, there are about 350 (!) hard pasta forms, some of which are characteristic of particular regions or town. But when you go into a restaurant, remember that large pasta has the ending -oni, but little pasta -ini.
KEEP in MIND
The thinner and smoother the pasta, the better it will hold sauce.
Thicker, ridged pasta will hold heavier sauces – they have the edges to hold them.
Simple pasta – simple sauce; complicated pasta– complicated sauce.
Spaghetti (13) or “little strings”. The thinnest are spaghettini, and the fattest – spaghettone. Traditional spaghetti should be between 1,92–2 mm in diametre. It goes well with mild sauces, tomato-based marinara, garlic and chili, and the famous carbonara.
Linguine (14) – long, thin, but not very wide pasta (like flattened spaghetti). Ideal with pesto, seafood, plain tomato, and oil-based sauces.
Vermicelli (3) – very thin spaghetti-type pasta. Suits very light oil-based sauces.
Bucatini () – hollow spaghetti-length pasta. Suits butter, ham, vegetable, cheese, or nut sauces. Will do well for pasta carbonara.
Penne (28) – the most famous hollow pasta. It can be smooth or ridged and is usually 2.5 cm long. It’s ideal with pesto or runny sauces, because the pasta acts as a sauce sponge, sucking the sauce into the middle. Penne rigate, thanks to its ridges, holds more sauce than the smooth penne.
Rigatoni (27) – medium size tubes with a ridged surface. Goes well with cream, meat, or mushroom sauces.
Cornetti rigati, chifferi (9) – hollow shell-shaped pasta. Suits creamy sauces that seep into the hollow centre, but they can’t be too thick, because the holes are small. It makes great macaroni and cheese and goes well in soups.
Gnocchi (17) – suits runny sauces, not heavy ones (both tomato and cream) and can also be baked.
Fusilli (19) – spirals that, just like other spiral-type pasta, are best with various types of pesto, tomato-based sauces, or meat sauces – the sauce catches in the spaces.
Fusilli bucati (20) – goes well with pesto, tomato sauces, ragout, and other sauces based on tomatoes or oil.
Lumache (26) – shell-shaped pasta in various sizes, but traditionally, it is thumb-sized. Universal pasta that suits heavy sauces that get caught in the middle.
Farfalle (15) or bow pasta can be small and ridged or large with, or without, ridges. It is best suited to light or medium-weight cream or tomato sauces and light vegetable or oil-based sauces. It looks beautiful in salads. Little bows are called farfalline, large ones –farfallone.
Orecchiette (25) – “ears” that are ideally suited for thick vegetarian sauces or light meat sauces, because there is space for the sauce to fall into.
Casarecce (29) – pasta rods that roll towards the centre. Suits fresh or mild and oil-based sauces that are roughly chopped, such as Trapanese or sugo di coda, as well as with sautéed bacon and peas or broad beans.
Conchiglie rigate (16) – shell-shaped pasta with ridges on the surface and smooth on the inside. They suck up much sauce, but it should be light, such as a tomato sauce or arrabiata, which is made from canned tomatoes, chili, and garlic, or sauces with large chunks of vegetables.
Tagliatelle (4) – long strips that suit Bolognese sauce, because it can hold the sauce and meat. Fettuccine – tine, smooth strips. Great for creamy sauces – the lack of ridges means they absorb little sauce.
Pappardelle (8) – 2–3 cm wide strips. Most frequently it is egg pasta with a smooth surface. Suits oil-based sauces with large pieces of other ingredients, because it does not absorb sauce. It is also good with ragout, chicken liver sauce, and zucchini sauce. It is important to have an oily sauce with big pieces.
Ravioli (22) basically is square with filling, and it is always fresh pasta. The sauce suits the filling, but is best served with butter and sage sauce or a very light tomato sauce.
Tortelli, tortellini, tortelloni (23) – specially folded pasta rounds with filling. Suits soups, tomato or cream sauces, or sauces that are oil-based.
Lasagne (12) – wide pasta sheets meant for baked dishes and lasagna. They can also be rolled and filled with anything your heart desires. The main thing is that it be topped with sauce and cheese.
Cannelloni (7) – large diameter cylindrical pasta that is usually filled and then covered with sauce. Cannelloni is filled with vegetarian fillings, such as ricotta or spinach, as well as various meats. It’s usually paired with tomato-based sauces or Béchamel that can be supplemented as desired.
Maltagliati (18) – wide pasta cut into irregular shapes. Suits soups, thick creamy sauces, or oil-based sauces. Or almost anything.
Orzo/riso (11) – rice-shaped pasta that goes well in soups and salads, as well as thick, hearty sauces, such as sauce with meatballs.
Alfabeto (10) – this pasta was developed to appeal to children, and alphabet pasta is best in soups, particularly the Tuscan soup acquacotta, or served simply with butter.
Volanti/dischi violanti (1) – goes well with creamy and light sauces that can suck into the middle from all its edges.
Fregola (2) – small, round balls that are a base for most dishes from Sardinia. Best added to soups, sautés, or sauces. It is rarely boiled on its own, but if done so, it can be put in salads.
Text and pictures from my book: Time to Cook
Pictures: Armands Meirans