"The right sauce in combination with the right pasta creates gustatory magic," says Lidia Bastianich.
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.