The Ultimate Guide to Italian Pasta Shapes

Pasta has been around for thousands of years. Though Italy is commonly referred to as the motherland of pasta, there is much debate as to where it was actually invented. Marco Polo claimed to have brought the recipe back to Italy from his adventures in China. Others believe that it was originally from the Italian peninsula from a civilization called the Etruscans. Whichever history you choose to believe, if you want the best pasta today, you have to go to Italy.

Over the centuries, pasta has evolved into many different shapes and sizes, each serving a specific purpose. But who can remember what sauce goes on bowtie noodles? Have no fear: This will be your ultimate guide to Italian pasta shapes, so you will never have to wonder again.

Long Pasta

Photo of spaghetti and red sauce curled around a fork
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Swirling spaghetti around your fork and slurping up those last couple noodles can make dinner time a lot more fun. Long pasta is great for sauces that coat the noodles and small ingredients like herbs and ground meats. If your sauce is too thin, you will probably be left with a puddle at the bottom of your bowl after all the pasta is gone.

Long pasta should be used with sauces like carbonara, bolognese, and alfredo. As a general rule, try to stay away from things that need to be stabbed such as beans or chunky vegetables. You’ll end up being frustrated and hungry if you have to stab every individual piece of pasta to get the other ingredients. If it can’t be scooped up or twirled in with the pasta, don’t bother.

Spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, and angel hair are all examples of long pasta. The thicker noodles, such as fettuccine, are better for thicker sauces, as they have more surface area for the sauce to cling to. Alfredo is a thicker sauce commonly paired with fettuccini.

Short Pasta

Photo of a bowl of macaroni and cheese
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There are many different kinds of short pasta, but the one thing they all have in common is that they are meant to be stabbed instead of twirled like long pasta. Because they are supposed to be stabbed, that means you can use all the larger ingredients you couldn’t with your long pasta recipe! Think pasta salad with olives and veggies.

Short pasta comes in many different shapes and sizes that have nooks and crannies that are perfect for trapping sauce. Rotini, macaroni, and farfalle (bow ties) are examples of short pasta.

Short Pasta with Holes

Photo of a plate of penne pasta
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Short pasta with holes gets its own section because it is used differently than regular, hole-less short pasta. While it is still meant to be stabbed, you are allowed to use smaller ingredients. That’s right, the pasta police won’t come after you for throwing in some peas as long as your short pasta has holes in it! Ingredients like peas and nuts can add a lot of flavor to your pasta dish but are impossible to get on your fork. If they get stuck inside a piece of rigatoni, you can just stab the pasta and get all the delicious mini-ingredients along for the ride. Shells also count as short pasta with holes because they are great at scooping up and holding smaller ingredients.

Examples of short pasta with holes are penne, ziti, campanelle, and conchiglie (shells). Use these for the heavy meat sauces with lots of cheese and smaller ingredients that can get stuck inside the pasta. They also work well in baked casseroles.

Tiny Pasta

Photo of a bowl of orzo mixed with asparagus and lemon
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Because it is rather impossible to stab or twirl on a fork, tiny pasta is perfect for those who prefer to use a spoon. It is often used in soups or mixed with other small, scoopable ingredients. This style of pasta is also popular with children because it’s easier and less messy than the other types of pasta.

Pastina, orzo, and alphabet pasta are all examples of tiny pasta. Substitute them for your long noodles the next time you make chicken noodle soup. It’s guaranteed to result in less broth on your face from slurping up the longer noodles.

Stuffed Pasta

Photo of a plate of ravioli
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Usually pasta is an addition to a dish. In the case of stuffed pasta, it is the dish! Stuffed pastas are the largest of the bunch and are usually packed full of meat and/or cheese. These are meant to be eaten with a fork and knife.

Stuffed pastas include manicotti, tortellini, and ravioli. Most stuffed shells come pre-stuffed when you buy them from the store. Some of the larger pastas, like manicotti, typically come hollow, allowing you to fill them with whatever you want. Chicken manicotti is a popular recipe using the large manicotti shells.

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