How-To: Match The Pasta To The Sauce

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pastashapes You might raise your eyebrows at this how-to post…matching pasta shapes with sauce.  Isn’t it basically pick your favorite shape, your favorite sauce, toss and eat?  Well as much as my lazier chef half would love to agree, there actually is a method and a madness to perfect pasta and sauce pairings.  And as Marcella Hazan (Queen of Italian cooking) has so beautifully put it, “The principles that bring pasta and sauce together cannot be ignored by anyone who wants to achieve the full and harmonious expression of flavor of which Italian cooking is capable.”  Well…that’s a little intense, but I’ll share an example to explain.

Dario and I were out to dinner at one of our favorite Italian restaurants and I ordered my usual – Spaghetti alla Bolognese (this was prior to the whole vegetarian movement).  You know…the chunky and creamy meat ragu sauce?  After I finished off all the pasta noodles, I noticed a large amount of the crumbled meat laying in the bottom of the bowl.  The pieces were too big to stick to the pasta or be twirled up with the noodles around my fork.  Very annoying!  I basically had to eat most of the sauce separate from the pasta…which defeats the whole purpose!  I guess Marcella was right!
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Considering how many different pasta shapes there are (and I know considering I have an entire cabinet dedicated to my pasta shape collection) it might seem overwhelming to remember which shape goes with which sauce.  But I’ve come up with a simple list of pasta shapes and the types of sauces they are best suited for.  Now the next time you whip up a delicious pasta sauce you’ll achieve the “full and harmonious expression of flavor” by correctly choosing the most appropriate pasta shape.  🙂

  • Spaghetti & linguine– best with oil based sauces and those containing full shellfish.  Spaghetti and linguine do not cling to sauces all that well so sticking with thinner oil based sauces works the best.
  • Fettucine – A longer and thicker spaghetti-like noodle that’s suited to thick cream based sauces.  The wide noodles cling to sauces such as alfredo.
  • Conchiglie (shells) –  chunky sauces or those containing small peas or beans.  The natural cup shape of these noodles makes them great little scoops for a chunkier sauce, albeit smaller pieces.
  • Fusilli (corkscrews) – great with thick creamy and cheese sauces.  The twists and curls of this particular pasta shape are meant to be paired with thick creamy sauces.  Think alfredo or mac and cheese!
  • Penne & Ziti – Sauces with sliced veggies – like pasta primavera – go great with these shapes.  The ridges on these shapes also provide great hold on tomato based sauces.
  • Rigatoni – heavy meat or other large chunky sauces.  I love rigatoni the most and its great with these thicker sauces.  You bite down and bunch of yummy sauce squirts out into your mouth!
  • Vermicellini (angel hair) – I have to say, I’m not a fan of angel hair pasta.  In fact, I despise it.  It tears, its frequently mushy and clumps up like crazy.  However, if you enjoy this particular thin spaghetti, pair it with a very thin tomato or olive oil based sauces.  No pieces of vegetables or meat will work will here.
  • Fresh Pasta – do not use with olive oil based sauces as it makes it very heavy and dense.  Also nothing with strong flavors due to the very light and delicate flavor that it naturally possesses.  Sauces made from butter or light cream work best with fresh pasta.

If you have a shape not listed here, feel free to email me any questions about it.  But try to think of the type of sauce first, and then match it with a good pasta shape.  You’ll be happily surprised to see the difference in your dish.  No sauce on the bottom of the bowl!  It works perfectly every time!

You tell me!  What’s your favorite pasta shape?  What’s your favorite pasta dish?  Do you prefer fresh pasta or dried box pasta?


  1. Melanie @ Nutritious Eats

    March 6, 2013 at 10:26 am

    It is so funny how there are certain pasta dishes that I have to make using a particular pasta or else I won’t make them. One would think pasta is pasta but I totally agree with this matching the right sauce-shape!

    • mewinebrenner

      March 6, 2013 at 10:27 am

      It really really does! Sometimes I want to be lazy and just any old shape, but I’m usually disappointed with how it comes out!

  2. Kiersten @ Oh My Veggies

    March 7, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    Oh, um, so you don’t just pick based on gut feeling? 🙂 This is such a useful post! And I’m not big on angel hair pasta either…

    • mewinebrenner

      March 7, 2013 at 5:58 pm

      Hahaha of course! Glad you found it helpful.

  3. Sara @ Nourish and Flourish

    March 8, 2013 at 1:05 am

    This was such an interesting and informative read! I’ve heard that the pasta shape should determine the sauce (or visa-versa), but I’ve never taken the time to look into specifics. Now it makes sense why famous dishes, such as fettuccine Alfredo and clam linguine, are what they are! Thanks for sharing, Maria!

    • mewinebrenner

      March 8, 2013 at 8:28 am

      It definitely makes a big difference! I’m glad you found the post helpful!!!

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