Pasta may very well be one of the most popular carbohydrates in the culinary world. It can be served on its own with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of herbs or paired with a homemade meaty tomato sauce. It's also a central element of casseroles and soups. Other creative uses include tossing it into salads for a heartier main dish. With so many different types of pasta, you can choose from a wide array of noodle types with striking designs, various sizes, and different textures for your menu.
Pasta comes in all shapes and sizes, but the different types of pasta noodles have more than just aesthetic appeal to a dish. Each element of a pasta noodle contributes to the texture and experience of a meal. Different kinds of pasta uniquely hold pasta sauces, lending themselves well to certain dishes while flopping in others. Choosing the best pasta noodles for your menu items contributes to the meal's popularity.
Below, we outlined many typical pasta noodles and described their shape, cooking instructions, and common sauce pairings.
Shells come in many sizes, making them perfect for a variety of dishes, and their open cavity collects sauce, seasoning, and meat. Small shell shapes work great in macaroni and cheese or marinara sauce, while large shells are ideal for stuffed shell dishes.
Best for: Baked dishes, salads, macaroni and cheese
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Tomato, cream, cheese, vinaigrette, meat, vegetables
Spaghetti noodles are thin round strands that are about 10" long. These noodles pair well with marinara sauce, so much so that the dish is named after the type of pasta.
Best for: Tossing with sauce
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Tomato, pesto, meat, seafood
Gnocchi are cylindrical, soft dumplings usually made with potatoes. Oftentimes, they’re rolled with ridges to hold sauces and create a unique texture.
Best for: Tossing with sauce, soup, baked dishes
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Tomato, cream, pesto, cheese, meat
Rigatoni noodles are short tubes about 1 1/2" long and 3/4" in diameter with ridges. Not only does it retain sauce well, but its shape also allows meat and cheese to be incorporated into dishes.
Best for: Tossing with sauce, baked dishes
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Chunky meat or vegetable, cream, cheese
Tortellini is a stuffed pasta originating from Bologna and northern Italy. It’s a ring-shaped pasta that is typically stuffed with meat, cheeses, or vegetables.
Best for: Tossing with sauce, soups, pasta salad
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Alfredo, cream, cheese, garlic, tomato
Another pasta in the long, thin, round family, bucatini is thicker than spaghetti with a hollow center. The hole in the center allows the sauce to fully permeate the pasta, causing the dish to burst with delicious flavors.
Best for: Tossing in sauce, Bucatini all’Amatriciana
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Meat sauces, vegetables, oil, tomato, cheese, spices
Originating from Tuscany, pappardelle noodles are wide, long, flat pasta strands with a rough texture. This pasta type is thicker and broader than other flat pasta types and pairs well with thick, hearty sauces like ragus.
Best for: Pork or beef ragu
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Cream of mushroom, ragu, Bolognese, meats, cheeses
Ravioli is an Italian dumpling filled with meat, ricotta cheese, and/or vegetables. Most ravioli are square-shaped with ridged edges and topped with marinara sauce.
Best for: Tossing with sauce
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, beef
Similar to fettuccine, linguine is a thinner pasta with long, flat noodles about 1/8" wide.
Best for: Tossing with sauce
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Tomato, pesto, olive oil, seafood
Known for its presence in chicken alfredo dishes, fettuccine is a long, flat egg noodle about 1/4" wide.
Best for: Tossing with sauce
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Alfredo, cream, cheese, meat, seafood
Made with eggs and flour instead of water, egg noodles are hearty, rich in flavor, and deep in color. They come in many shapes and are easy to make from scratch. Egg noodles are also a significant element of Asian dishes with specific Asian egg noodle varieties available on the market.
Best for: Adding into thicker stews, soups, sauces, and casseroles
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Thick stews, stroganoff, butter, chicken broth
One of the smallest pasta noodles on this list, orzo is a tiny, rice-shaped noodle. It’s very versatile with a unique texture and flavor.
Best for: Salads, soups, and cheesy pasta dishes
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Tomatoes, olives, parsley, mushrooms, olive oil, cheese, broth
Cavatappi is a corkscrew-shaped pasta with ridges scored into the shape to better adhere to the sauce.
Best for: Baked dishes, salads, or tossing with sauce
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Pesto, sundried tomatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, peas, cream sauces, and hearty pomodoro
Originating in northern Italy, tagliatelle is a long, flat, ribbon-like noodle similar to fettuccine. It pairs well with chunky meat sauce like Bolognese.
Best for: Tossed in sauce
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Creamy sauces, mushrooms, tomatoes, meat
Ziti noodles are medium-width tubes that are at least 2" long. It’s popular in baked dishes with tomato sauces such as baked ziti.
Best for: Baked dishes
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Light tomato, olive oil, cream, cheese
Fusilli is a short, thick, spiralized pasta, which allows it to hold sauce well. It has tighter spirals than cavatappi and pairs well with creamy sauces.
Best for: Tossing with sauce or making a cold pasta salad
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Alfredo, cream, cheese, tomato, fresh or sauteed vegetables, meat
There are two types of penne pasta: penne rigate and penne lisce. All penne pasta are small tubes typically 2 - 4" long, available in white or tri-colored varieties. However, penne rigate has grooves while penne lisce is smooth.
Best for: Tossing with sauce
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Chunky tomato, meat, cream, vegetables
Best for: Baked dishes, salads, soups, macaroni and cheese
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Cheese, butter, broth
Capellini is a stick-shaped pasta with long, thin strands. It has a narrower diameter than spaghetti but a wider diameter than angel hair.
Best for: tossing with chunky pomodoro sauce
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Hearty tomato and meatballs
Rotini is another spiral-shaped pasta that retains sauces and ingredients well. It’s often available in white or tri-colored options, which allow you to choose between unique flavors.
Best for: Tossing with sauce, pasta salad
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Tomato, cream, vinaigrette, meat
Angel hair is very fine, delicate strands of long pasta. It has a round shape, closer to spaghetti than fettuccine.
Best for: Tossing with light sauces
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Light tomato, olive oil, light cream, butter, seafood
Commonly known as bowtie pasta, farfalle noodles are squares with ridged ends that are pinched in the middle to form a bowtie shape. Their versatility allows them to be served in both hot and cold pasta dishes.
Best for: Salads, baked, or tossed in sauce
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Creamy tomato sauce, cream, oil, lemon garlic sauce, olives, feta cheese
Paccheri is a tubular pasta in the shape of a large, hollow cube. It is often smooth, but some varieties have ridges to better hold sauces.
Best for: Tossing in sauce
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Pesto, tomato, oil, butter, vegetables
Also known as lasagna noodles, lasagna noodles are long, wide, flat, and sometimes have ridges on the borders. They serve as building blocks for casseroles and layered dishes.
Best for: Building lasagnas
Ideal sauces and ingredients: Cream, cheese, meat, and vegetables
Pot pie squares are square, flat noodles usually measuring 1". They work well in all kinds of soups but are used most often in chicken pot pie soup.
Best for: Chicken pot pie soup
Ideal ingredients: Broth, celery, onions, carrots, peas, chicken
When creating a pasta-based dish, prepare all other ingredients in the recipe first, including sauce, vegetables, seafood, and meats. Since pasta is best-served as soon as it's cooked, you can add the finished noodles to your already-prepared dish. When cooking pasta, keep these tips in mind:
While the shape of pasta impacts the flavor and texture of your dish, the quality of a meal is also affected if you use fresh pasta vs dry pasta. Fresh pasta has distinct flavors, aromas, and nutritional value but a short shelf life. Comparatively, dry pasta is mass-produced and can be stored almost indefinitely, but the flavors fade the longer it remains stored.
Choosing between fresh pasta vs dry pasta often boils down to the individual restaurant's needs. An authentic Italian restaurant requires higher quality for its signature pasta dishes, while a chain operation might not serve pasta often enough to justify the expense of fresh pasta. Knowing your establishment's brand and menu helps you determine which type of pasta is right for you.
Fresh pasta is typically made from white flour, and eggs are substituted in place of water to provide extra moisture. A pasta machine or cutter then forms the noodles. The shaped noodles are then left out to partially dry. Once the pasta is ready, add your fresh pasta to boiling water and cook just like dry pasta, but for less time.
Benefits of Fresh Pasta
Dry pasta is made from semolina or "00" flour and water. These ingredients are mixed into a paste, pushed through molds, and cut into different types of pasta shapes. The noodles then undergo a drying process that extracts all the moisture. Since dry noodles do not contain liquid, there are a few benefits to buying them:
Benefits of Dry Pasta
If you've looked at a recipe or Italian menu, you may have been confused by some of the vocabulary used to describe pasta. Most pasta vocabulary comes from the Italian language, which is not immediately self-explanatory. Knowing these terms allows you to cook pasta according to the best practices of the masters of pasta themselves.
Before experimenting with different pasta dishes, take time to understand pasta terms frequently used in the kitchen.
Use our types of pasta chart to see the difference between several common pasta shapes.
Now that you understand the difference between the various pasta types and some typical pasta terms, you need to decide what color of pasta to use. Like bread, you can also choose between white and whole wheat pasta. Tri-color pasta is also a readily available noodle type. When making your own, try adding spinach, squid ink, pumpkin or butternut squash puree, and even beetroot powder or puree to your pasta dough for a trendier dish.
The base of white pasta is refined flour, which lacks the nutritional value of its counterparts. However, the appeal of white pasta lies in its easy pairing with sauces and pasta toppings. Moreover, its color is not off-putting to diners.
For a more nutritious option, wheat pasta contains more fiber and protein than white pasta. These attributes improve the digestion of carbohydrates and allow for increased blood sugar control. Since wheat pasta has a distinctive flavor and texture, some sauces and pasta toppings do not pair well with this pasta type.
While many believe that the unique colors come from food coloring, the pigment of tri-color pasta comes from natural additives such as spinach, tomatoes, carrots, or pumpkin. These ingredients affect the flavor of the pasta, so sauce pairings and toppings are tricky to find.