Endless Pastabilities | Sophie Sills
Updated: Feb 16
Quite truthfully, I sat down today to write an entirely different article than the one you are now reading. I had devised a topic, written the introduction, and planned the structure; however, while scrolling through my Instagram feed, I encountered a video of a woman educating about different pasta shapes and their correct uses. I was fascinated. Learning about different pastas and their pairings was so utterly interesting to me, and after watching, I simply yearned to learn more. Moreover, I felt a sudden inspiration to share this small but intriguing (and tasty!) topic with the world. From penne, to fusilli, to orecchiette, pasta can be found in so many different shapes and sizes, each one with their own unique origins and sauce pairings. Although there are a seemingly endless number of different types of pasta noodles, this article will focus on eight of the more common shapes. So without further ado, I present, “Endless Pastabilities”!
Before we discuss the shapes however, we must first do a brief overview of the history of pasta. Surprisingly, the Italians were not the first to eat pasta, but rather, the dish originated in China during the Shang Dynasty as early as 1700 BC. People in China and various other Asian countries would typically enjoy noodles made from rice flour, but once the concept made its way to Italy, the Italians put their own spin on it, creating what we now typically think of as Italian pasta. Legend has it that Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, brought the delectable dish overseas from China to Italy during the 13th century, and since then, it is safe to say that pasta has flourished in Italy, taking on numerous shapes and sizes and becoming a staple in many European diets.
And now for the shapes…
Spaghetti consists of long, thin pasta strands which are best suited to smooth, thin sauces. Spaghetti’s lack of surface area makes it hard for it to hold heavy cream based sauces, so it is often paired with thin broth or oil based sauces like pesto or aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil). Although not as traditional, spaghetti also is a great pick to use when concocting the tried and true comfort food, buttered noodles.
A flat, slightly thicker version of spaghetti, this ribbon-shaped noodle pairs delightfully with seafood and wine and broth based sauces. Similar to spaghetti, its lack of surface area causes it to pair better with thin sauces that can lightly coat the noodles.
Although fettuccine and linguine may seem almost identical, the slight differences in their width and cross sections make a world of difference. While linguine consists of thinner, more delicate strands with slightly rounded cross sections, fettuccine is wider, heartier, and almost completely flat. This allows fettuccine to hold thicker, more substantial sauces, such as alfredo or meat sauce.
It is no surprise that “farfalle” is the Italian word for “butterfly”, as this is exactly what the pasta shape resembles. The two ends of bowtie shape serve almost as little spoons, with the ability to scoop up chunkier sauces as well as small vegetables. As a result, this farfalle pairs nicely with meat sauces, and especially works well in pasta salads.
These spiral shaped noodles are great for holding heartier sauces in their deep grooves. Similar to farfalle, fusilli pairs tastily with meat and tomato sauces, as well as being a good option for pasta salads.
Orecchiette, or “little ears” pasta is a shell-shaped pasta containing indents that are able to catch sauce and even small vegetables, such as peas. Therefore, this shape pairs well with hearty or creamy sauces, and works wonderfully in dishes that contain small, rustic vegetables or bits of meat.
My personal favorite, rigatoni, can be paired with almost any sauce due to its wide, tubular shape and ridged exterior. The large inner area of the tube allows sauce to flow through the noodle, resulting in a juicy, flavor packed bite. Arguably the most scrumptious pairing for this versatile shape is a creamy sauce, such as vodka sauce, as it coats the entirety of the tube beautifully. However, rigatoni also pairs divinely with a ragu or egg-based sauce (ex: carbonara).
Finally, the fan favorite, Penne. Penne is a thinner tube pasta, and a staple for many. As the ridges of the tube are able to retain sauces well, this shape pairs exquisitely with tomato sauces and works well in dishes that contain small, bite sized pieces of meat and vegetables.
Although this list simply scratches the surface of the vast shapes and pairings of the world of pasta, I hope that this can serve as a fun and educational guide to my readers and fellow pasta lovers alike. Next time you take to the kitchen, ready to create your latest pasta concoction, think carefully about the pairings you may want to make, as this will likely take your dish from good to great.