You may not think about it every time you open a box of pasta, but the shape you choose plays an important role in the outcome of the dish. The right shape can make a good sauce great; the wrong shape can dampen the appeal of even the best sauce.
Long or short, smooth or ridged, thick or thin, with or without curves and crevices, different shapes of pasta capture and absorb sauce differently (see Which pasta, which sauce?). Matched correctly—rigatoni with a hearty sausage sauce—and you have a hit, a pleasing interplay between the texture of the pasta and the components of the sauce. In this case, the pieces of sausage are captured in the hollow of the pasta. Matched less well—the same meat sauce paired with capellini (angel hair pasta)—and you get the vague sense that something is wrong. I say vague, because this kind of mistake is not always apparent; the food may look good and smell good, but it just doesn't come together well. In the case of the capellini, the delicate noodles can't support the meat sauce, which gets left behind in the bowl as the pasta gets eaten.
Perfect pasta pairings—linguine and clam sauce, cavatelli and broccoli, ziti and meat sauce—have been a part of the Italian culinary repertoire for centuries. The possible combinations of pasta and sauce—there are hundreds of shapes of dried pasta alone—are limitless and may even be a little intimidating when you start to think about it. But by following the suggestions listed alongside the pasta shapes above, your dish will be off to a sound start.
You can be less particular when matching fresh pasta with sauces. The nuances of shapes and texture are less pronounced in fresh pasta than in dried, and fresh pasta carries and absorbs any sauce more readily than does dried. Fresh pasta generally follows the same rules as dried: the flatter and longer shapes combine well with olive oil and cream sauces, while sturdier shapes, such as orecchiette, work well with chunkier and more assertively flavored sauces. Tomato and simple cream and butter sauces are universal and will go well with basically all pasta.
Which pasta, which sauce?
Shaped pastas pair well with all kinds of sauces, but especially those with texture. Pieces of meat, vegetable, or bean are captured in the crevices of the pasta and nestle in the twists. The shapes also add some whimsy to the plate.
Photo: Scott Phillips
Short, tubular pastas go well with sauces that are thick or chunky. Keep the size of the ingredients in mind: tiny macaroni won't hold a chickpea, while rigatoni may feel too large for a simple tomato sauce, where penne would work better. Ridged pastas provide even more texture for sauces to cling to.
Photo: Scott Phillips
Long, thin dried pasta, such as capellini, spaghetti, or linguine, marry best with olive-oil-based sauces. These long expanses of pasta need lots of lubrication. Oil coats the pasta completely without drowning it. Thicker strands, like fettuccine and tagliatelle, can stand up to cream sauces and ragùs. When cutting vegetables or herbs for long pasta, cut them string-like rather than in cubes to help them blend better.
Photo: Scott Phillips
Lubricate, don't suffocate, pasta
For long, flat pasta, skip the colander. Simply let the excess water drip back into the pot before adding the strands to the sauce. This keeps more of the pasta's starch intact, which can add body to a sauce.
Pasta should be sauced immediately, while still hot, and judiciously, so it's not overwhelmed. I most often drain the pasta and return it to its cooking pot. Especially for tubular or creviced pasta, you want to be sure to drain it well or the excess water will keep the sauce from adhering to the pasta and may also dilute the flavor of your sauce. I add a ladleful of the sauce and toss to see that the sauce gets an initial even distribution, and then I top or toss the pasta with enough remaining sauce to thoroughly coat it but not so much that the pasta swims in a pool of it.
For long, but not tubular, pasta, where there's no risk of water hiding out in it, I simply lift the pasta out of its pot with tongs, let it drain briefly over the pasta pot, and then add it to the sauce. This keeps the pasta's starch intact, which can add body to your sauce. This method works especially well with thin capellini, which is easy to overcook. I take it out of the boiling water while it's still a touch on the stiff side and let it finish cooking in the sauce.