Pasta A to Z: The Perfect Recipe for Every Shape

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Sure, pasta is super versatile — just about any sauce or toss-in will work — but knowing the right combo will bring out the best in both.

Wagon wheel pasta

Semolina Encyclopedia

Among pasta's many virtues – filling, fast-cooking – is that you can toss it with practically any ingredient and call it a dinner. But there are certain sauces and mix-ins that pair perfectly with specific pasta shapes. From light herb- and oil-based sauces that cling to delicate pasta strands to heartier meat, veg, and tomato mixtures that stand up to more substantial shapes, discover some matches made in pasta-lovers' heaven.

Angel Hair

Also called capellini, these superfine strands of pasta cook in a flash and absorb sauces quickly. At just 1/15 of an inch thick, angel hair is best paired with thinner broths and delicate cream sauces.

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Have leftover angel hair?
Make this Capellini Frittata


Commonly referred to by its bowlike shape, this dried semolina pasta is called farfalle in Italian, which means "butterflies." It's ideal with tomato sauces or mixed with peas and a cream sauce, and it stands up well in cold pasta salads.

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Literally meaning "large tubes," cannelloni is a fresh rectangular sheet of pasta that is rolled and boiled, then stuffed with substantial meat and/or cheese fillings and topped with a tomato or béchamel sauce. Cannelloni is often mistaken for manicotti (or "sleeves"), which are premade wide tubes of pasta.

Recipe: Pumpkin Cannelloni with Sage Brown-Butter Sauce

Elbow Macaroni

Elbow macaroni is actually a subset of a wide variety of short, dried, and hollow durum wheat pastas that fall under the term maccheroni. Beloved by kids and adults alike, elbow (or gomiti in Italian) is a versatile base for a wide variety of dishes, from baked pastas to cold pasta salads. It's typically combined with sauces that contain sausage, vegetables, and cheese (or if you're in the grade-school set, just plain old mac and cheese).

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Meaning "small ribbons," this fresh egg pasta cut into narrow strips is often served with ragu (traditionally, a thick sauce with ground beef) in Italy. However, this versatile noodle can be paired with a wide variety of vegetables and cheese- or cream-based sauces.

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This hearty spiral-shaped pasta, whose name means "little spindles," is often confused with rotini, which has a tighter coil and flatter edges — similar to the threads of a screw. In recipes, the two types are interchangeable, pairing perfectly with thick sauces and vegetables, which the coils catch and hold. The springy pasta also serves as a substantial counterpart to seafood and holds up well in cold salads. Fusilli can be hollow, short or long.

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According to The Silver Spoon Pasta, this type of flat, wide egg noodle was popular with the Greeks as early as the first millennium BC. Often found with ruffled edges, lasagna noodles come in boil and no-boil varieties and are traditionally served layered with tomato sauce, meat, and béchamel sauce and then baked, as in the classic Lasagna Bolognese, but the filling possibilities are endless.

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Meaning "little tongues," these flat, 1/8-inch-wide noodles are sometimes referred to as flat spaghetti. Traditionally, linguine is best served with oil- and herb-based sauces and is sometimes paired with seafood, but rarely mixed with meat.

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Italian for "little ears," this cup-shaped pasta is perfect for holding thick sauces and chunky mix-ins from veggies to nuts to meat and herbs. Originally from the Puglia region of Italy, orecchiette is made by pressing a thumb onto small balls of pasta, resulting in a smooth interior and rough exterior.


Made by cutting fresh sheets of pasta dough with a cutting wheel, pappardelle is wide, flat ribbons of fresh pasta ranging from 1 to 2 1/4 inches in width. It is sold dried or fresh, and is typically served with hearty meats like duck or wild boar and mushroom sauces.

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Pasta Shells

In Italian, they're called conchiglie, meaning "seashells," and this perennial kid favorite can be found in smooth or ridged varieties. The cuplike shape of the shells is ideal for holding sauces — from cheese to tomato to pesto — as well as small ingredients like capers and pine nuts.

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Literally meaning "quills" in Italian, this substantial pasta's name describes its hollow, diagonal-cut shape, similar to an old fashioned pen tip. Penne comes smooth or ridged and is best served with meat, fish, or hearty vegetable mix-ins. It can also be baked in a casserole and is suitable for frying.

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Perhaps the most popular type of filled pasta, ravioli is made by scooping small portions of cheese, meat, or vegetables at regular intervals onto a wide sheet of pasta, topping with another sheet, then cutting with a pasta wheel. While it can stand up to a tomato-based sauce, ravioli is traditionally served with a simple herb and butter sauce or in a light stock or cream sauce. It can be used interchangeably with agnolotti, anolini, cappellacci, and tortelli.

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Similar to macaroni, rigatoni is a dried pasta made of durum wheat that is short, tubular, and hollow. But, unlike macaroni, rigatoni is never smooth and always comes with grooves (the name itself means "ridged"), making it an ideal counterpart for meat and other chunky sauces. It is also a good choice for baked pasta dishes.

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Pasta Rotini

Similar to fusilli, but with a tighter spaces between the grooves (and never hollow), rotini is a hearty, spiral-shaped pasta that resembles the threads of a screw. Most often used with pesto or tomato-based sauces, rotini is also ideal for cold salads.

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According to Italian law, spaghetti can only be made with durum wheat semolina, though many variations exist. Meaning "little strings," this popular 1/12-inch-thick pasta is often served with tomato-based sauces, fish, and shellfish — though true Italians do not eat it with a Bolognese, or meat sauce (that's traditionally served with tagliatelle). According to The Silver Spoon Pasta, spaghetti should not be drained in a colander, but lifted from the water to keep it moist before sauce is added. Thinner versions of spaghetti are called vermicelli and spaghettini.

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A specialty in Bologna, tagliatelle is a fresh flour and egg pasta that's rolled into thin sheets and cut into strips, which can vary in width from 3/4 to 1/8 inch. (The name comes from the Italian word tagliare, or "to cut.") Tagliatelle is the classic accompaniment for Bolognese ragú sauce. It is sold both fresh and dried and can be found colored by different natural agents like spinach or squid ink.

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Tortellini's shape is said to be inspired by the navel of Venus. It is a ring-shaped, filled pasta that is made by folding squares of dough over a filling so the edges meet to make a triangle, then wrapping that around a finger to make a ring shape. Tortellini is traditionally stuffed with ground meat (though fillings can vary widely) and served in broth- or cream-based sauces or in casseroles. Larger versions are called called tortelloni.

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Wagon Wheel

Round and ridged on the outside and sectioned off on the inside, this type of pasta quite literally resembles a wagon wheel. A favorite of kids for its fun shape, this type is most often seen as a counterpart to vegetables or served in cold pasta salads. Also called rotelle, wagon wheels are usually sold dried. The individual pieces are about as big in diameter as a quarter.

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Sometimes also spelled zite, this dried pasta is originally from Naples. The word ziti comes from zita, which in the Neapolitan dialect means "wife." As such, it is often served as part of Neapolitan wedding feasts. Like spaghetti, but thicker, tubular, and hollow, ziti can be found ridged or smooth. They're made very long, but are most often broken or cut before cooking. Ziti is ideal for baked pasta dishes.

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Cooking Tips

  • To make perfect dried pasta, use 4 to 6 quarts water for 1 pound dried pasta. Boil water, add pasta, and stir. Return water to a boil, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
  • If you're using pasta in a recipe where it will be cooked further, undercook it in the pot by 1/3 of the recommended time.
  • Only rinse pasta if you'll be using it in a cold pasta dish.
  • Store leftover pasta in an airtight container, drizzled with a little olive oil to prevent sticking. Store separately from sauce, as pasta will continue to soak up liquid as it sits.