One of the secrets of making good pasta is understanding what sauce to pick for each pasta shape. Here are some of our favorite matchups
Smooth sauces, finely chopped herbs, and finely grated cheeses are the ticket here, because they integrate best with the pasta; bigger chunks get lost at the bottom of the bowl or pot. That said, the American invention of spaghetti and meatballs works too—with the big meatballs perched on top, to be broken down by the fork into the pasta and trapped by thick tomato sauce. Make sure to use enough oil or cream with long pastas like spaghetti to completely lubricate them (otherwise they tend to dry out).
Campanile's Spaghetti and Meatballs in Red Sauce
This dish illustrates the principle that, as chef Mark Peel says, "It's not what you do, it's how you do it." The meatballs have three kinds of meat for flavor; they're made carefully and not overworked; and the sauce is clingy.
This version of silky carbonara cuts out the standard addition of heavy cream, making it more faithful to the Italian original without the added fat. Sprinklings of garlic and bacon mean you won't be sacrificing any flavor, either.
Recipe: Spaghetti Carbonara
Thomas J. Story
These sweet little ridged scoops are designed for thick or chunky sauces, since they can easily hold bits of sausage, or clams, or any chopped vegetable. And the ridges help absorb sauce, too.
Orecchiette with Clams, Chiles, and Parsley
“Clam pasta is a great way to extract all the flavor and texture of clams,” says chef Samin Nosrat. “Their juices mingle with the butter and wine and cook into the pasta.” This recipe demonstrates how to easily make orecchiette from scratch, too.
Thomas J. Story
In this tasty dish, chef Samin Nosrat shows how to make orecchiette from scratch. For the sauce, she cooks down half the tomatoes into a savory jam, then adds fresh ones at the end. “I like to layer flavors, to have two levels of deliciousness.” If you can’t find ricotta salata, fresh ricotta works well too—just drain it and stir in some salt.
The little-ear shaped pasta shape masterfully scoops up bits of savory sausage and bitter greens in this hearty dish.
Although it comes in a variety of different diameters, and can be ridged or smooth, penne is best with coarse-textured but loose sauces, or sauces with chunky bits about the same size as the penne (so every bite delivers both). Ridged penne (actually any ridged pasta) is also good with melted cheese, which tends to coat and cling in a most delicious way.
All’Amatriciana, which indicates the recipe hails from the Amatriciana area of Italy, is a rich and spicy tomato sauce. Traditionally, it’s made with guanciale, a part of the pig jowl that’s considered a delicacy. We’ve simplified things by using pancetta or bacon.
Recipe: Penne All'Amatriciana
The secret key to this dish is the fresh mozzarella, which melts just enough with the warm pasta to create a creamy effect.
Recipe: Fresh Tomato and Basil Pasta
Flavor and texture contrasts give this salad extra appeal: Nutty pasta mingles with crisp green beans, strewn with bits of crunchy bacon and creamy Roquefort.
Thomas J. Story
The size and shape of rice grains, velvety-textured orzo is extremely versatile. It can be used as one of many ingredients—in a pasta salad, for instance—or on its own as a stuffing for cooked vegetables or as a stand-in for risotto. And it gives richness and body to soup.
Spinach and Orzo Salad
This herb vinaigrette-dressed pasta salad keeps better than a mayo-based one from the deli—and tastes better too. We like the deep flavor of the dried tomatoes here, but if you have ripe tomatoes handy, they’ll taste great, too.
Recipe: Spinach and Orzo Salad
Tiny, rice-shaped orzo absorbs liquid and flavor much like rice, but unlike traditional risotto, this recipe doesn't need to be stirred obsessively for a perfectly al dente, creamy result.
Recipe: Mushroom Orzo Risotto
The sweet butterfly shape traps and holds chunky sauces—made with anything from bits of meat to caramelized onion to chopped vegetables. Farfalle (a.k.a. bow-tie pasta) does well with smoother sauces, too, as long as they’re bold; because the pasta is thick, it needs assertive flavor from the sauce.
Farfalle with Artichokes, Peppers, and Almonds
Ground almonds take the place of pasta's usual parmesan, making this a good vegan choice. Trim raw artichokes down to the very tender hearts and slice them quite thin, so they're crisp but not chewy.
What do you do when you’re craving pesto and basil isn’t in season? Use peppery arugula to stand in as a flavorful substitute.
Recipe: Arugula Walnut Pesto Farfalle