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Which Sauce For Which Pasta?

Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples

Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples

We’ve come a long way since the days when Americans thought Italian cuisine meant spaghetti or ziti in rivers of “marinara” set on red-checkered tablecloths. Even if mistaken notions persist about what genuine Italian cooking really is, we’ve embraced every new pasta that has come our way (think squid-ink fettuccine or agnolotti al plin), and we’ve become more sauce savvy, too. Amatriciana and puttanesca are commonplace in restaurant and home kitchens alike, and “carbonara” is a household word from New York to Nebraska. Arrabbiata, cacio e pepe, aglio e olio — you name it, we love them all.

Nevertheless, the canon of pasta-and-sauce pairings has remained something of a mystery outside the borders of Italy. The immense number of different shapes is daunting to us foreigners; out of sheer exasperation, we find ourselves asking, “Why so many?” There are “priests’ hats,” “wolves’ eyes” and “horses’ teeth,” “church bells,” “little loves” and “kiss catchers.” It is not enough to make pasta bows (farfalle); there must also be little bows (farfallette) and much bigger bows (farfalloni). There are not only small reeds called cannelle, but also very small reeds, large smooth reeds and large grooved reeds. Some shapes have more than one name (penne lisce and mostaccioli, for example, are one and the same).

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

The roots of this maccheroni madness go back to the fierce rivalry among dried-pasta manufacturers in 19th century Naples, where the southern Italian pasta industry mushroomed during the Industrial Revolution. At one point about 1,500 pastifici competed for business, engaging in price wars or introducing ever-newer products to lure customers to their brand. But probably more than anything, the seemingly endless variations reflect the expansive nature of the Italian people — their imagination and love of show.

The American versus the Italian approach

Americans are characteristically laissez-faire about pairing rules. James Beard once told me that he saw no reason to be bound by tradition; he believed we ought to be inventive with pasta recipes. By contrast, the Italians are always mindful of the pairing principles derived from a long history of pasta eating. Over the centuries, tried-and-true guidelines have emerged, based primarily on the ingredients in the dough and the architecture of each resulting shape — hard wheat or soft wheat, dried pasta or fresh, long or short, smooth or ridged. Various pastas absorb and combine with sauces in different ways depending on their wall thickness, density and structure.

Meanwhile, sauces — condimenti, as the Italians call themhave inherent texture, flavor and color attributes. The foundation of most is olive oil or butter, given body with tomato purée, meat, vegetables and/or cheese. The art of pairing can probably best be explained by herding all the unruly strands and little shapes into three separate tribes, as it were — each with their own swimming pools or sauces. (Here we will concern ourselves with dried pasta alone.)

Golden rules for pairing dried pasta and sauces

Strands

Lightweight

Capelli d’angelo (“angel hair”), cappellini (“fine hair”), vermicelli (“little worms”), fedelini (“very fine noodles”): Use all in broths or broth-based soups. The latter two, being thicker, are suitable for light, sieved tomato sauces, but none of these long, lightweight pastas can support dense cream-based or meat sauces.

Medium-weight

Spaghetti, spaghettini, spaghetti alla chitarra (“guitar-string spaghetti”), mezze linguine (“half linguine”): This group is sturdy enough for olive-oil sauces such as aglio e olio as well as tomato- or brothy seafood-based sauces that easily slip along the surface.

Heavyweight

Linguine (“long tongues,” aka bavette), perciatelli, bucatini, fusilli bucati lunghi (“long hollow coils”): Because these shapes have more weight than those in the previous subcategories, they will all support a relatively unctuous sauce such as basil pesto, but they are also sprightly enough to consort with sauces suited to medium-weight long pasta. By tradition, linguine is inexplicably inseparable from fish or shellfish sauces, though fluid tomato sauces make a pleasant match, too.

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Tubes

The tubular shapes have relatively thick walls, which make them sturdy enough to support not only chunky tomato-based sauces with or without meat, as well as cheese or cream preparations. (Diagonal cuts are especially handy in this regard.) Despite the versatility of these shapes, the size of the ingredients in accompanying sauces should be kept in mind. For example, wide tubular cuts are big enough to trap meat bits and vegetable chunks (think rigatoni with broccoli and anchovies); not so in the case of petite variants such as pennette (“little quills”). Tubular shapes are also ideal for baked dishes because they hold their shape and firmness during a second cooking in the oven.

Anelli (“rings”), ditaloni (“thimbles”): Ideal for pasta e fagioli and other bean soups because the ring shape nests cannellini beans, lentils and such.

Penne (“quills”), penne rigate (“ridged quills”), penne lisce (“smooth quills”), pennette, rigatoni: These go with olive oil- or butter-based vegetable, meat and tomato sauces and also with cream-based concoctions. Olive oil-based sauces stick to ridged shapes better than to smooth ones. The slimmer pennette are best matched with light vegetable or tomato sauces containing, say, wild mushrooms or eggplant (though traditionalists wouldn’t dream of making pasta alla Norma with anything but spaghetti).

Quirky shapes

Farfalle (“butterflies”): Their delicate “wingspan” suits them to light sauces based on either olive oil or butter, as long as there are no big obstacles in their flight path.

Fusilli, fusilli corti (“short fusilli”), tortiglioni (hollow “spirals”), radiatori (“radiators”), gemelli (“twins”) and various twists: Shapes like these are designed to trap cheese and ricotta sauces or unctuous nut sauces, such as pestos. Ragù and other meat sauces love to collect in their coils, too.

Strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”): These handmade dried forms call for tomato, meat and sausage sauces.

Conchiglie (“shells”), riccioli (“curls”), ruote (“wheels”), lumache (“snails”): Short and stubby shapes such as these work well with hearty sauces featuring meat, vegetables, cheese or cream.

Main photo: Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples, reprinted from “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking,” by Julia della Croce



Zester Daily contributor Julia della Croce is the author of  "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" (Kyle Books), "Pasta Classica" (Chronicle) and 12 other cookbooks.

12 COMMENTS
  • Greg Patent 1·10·15

    What a great summary of pasta shapes and the sauces best suited to them. Mille grazie, Julia. I’m making a chart to hang in my kitchen!

  • Marian Goldberg 1·10·15

    What about “wagon wheels”? Anything particular for this quirky shape? My mother always made them with butter, salt and cottage cheese.

  • Julia della Croce 1·10·15

    Marian, your mother was onto something. Little did she know that “wheels,” “rotelle” in Italian (aka “route”), were designed for ricotta sauces or combined tomato and ricotta sauces; also for other thick cheese sauces and ragù (meat sauces). The idea, of course, is that the bits of sauce become caught in the spokes. Some artisanal manufactures make not only rotelle, but also “rotelle media” (medium wheels). Benedetto Cavalieri in Puglia, one of the finest artisanal pasta makers, invented “rotelle pazze” (“crazy wheels)–these are twice the depth of regular rotelle, a bit like mountain bike wheels. I watched the “crazy wheels” being made from bronze dies at the Cavalieri pasta factory in Lecce just a few months ago, where Mr. Cavlieri proudly informed me that they had invented the shape.

  • Gene Vricella 1·11·15

    This was a fascinating history of pasta shapes. Grazie mille!
    What can you tell us about these shapes I have seen in Italy: trennette (Liguria), trofie (Puglia), paccheri (Basilicata)? I can’t seem to find any of these here in the States.
    ❤️

  • Jill Shnayer 1·11·15

    What about my favorite tagliatelle ?

  • Julia della Croce 1·11·15

    GENE VRICELLA, Unfortunately, many pasta makers don’t export many of the more unusual shapes because people don’t buy them. I know of a few manufacturers of the highest quality artisanal pasta who do bring in all kinds of shapes besides the commonly know ones. They include Rustichella d’Abruzzo, Benedetto Cavalieri, Del Verde, and Faella. There are others as well. If you are not near food specialty stores that carry them, you can find trenne (same as trenette) and trofie on line at such retailers as Market Hall Foods in Oakland CA, Gustiamo in Bronx, NY, Ritrovo in Seattle, and DiPalo Selects in NYC, Corti Brothers in Sacramento CA, and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor MI. You may also find paccheri, which I find in NYC. That one isn’t as well known as the first two you mention.

  • C.C. Fridlin 1·11·15

    Thanks Julia! Interesting article. I’ve seen some of this in the past….around my house, we occasionally get it right – my wife prefers the Farfalle (regardless of sauce) and the daughter loves the “Wagon Wheels.” Always tastes great even if we don’t match it correctly…..

  • [email protected] 1·11·15

    What a great lesson! And of course, every time I see a shape I don’t have, well you know…home it comes, you should see my “collection”! I often use Marcella’s Essentials list for reference. Italians know their pasta…so I trust their suggestions! Julia this post is bound to become very useful for a lot of folks! Happy pasta eating! I’m always happy when eating pasta!

  • Julia della Croce 1·11·15

    Hello JILL SHNAYER,

    I suspect you are referring to fresh tagliatelle? I will have to write an article on fresh pasta and sauces as well. This story addressed only dried pasta, but you will be able to find factory made pasta secca called “tagliatelle al’uovo,” that is, semolina flour and egg pasta in dried form, easily. They aren’t the same as fresh pasta, but they are quite good. Traditionally, the dried egg tagliatelle are matched with butter-based sauces, and sauces containing cream.

  • Joy Rosal-Sumagaysay 5·2·15

    Amazing! Thank you for this informative and entertaining article Ms. Julia. In the Philippines, we generally know only two: spaghetti–in banana catsup sauce with hotdogs and ground pork and macaroni– in the same bright red, sweet sauce, the dish called baked mac but never baked at all!

  • Julia della Croce 5·3·15

    Well Joy Rosal-Sumagaysay, that’s a new one! You didn’t say whether you like it?

  • Joy Rosal-Sumagaysay 5·5·15

    🙂 I used to when I was a kid. Filipinos, young and old, love this sauce for pasta. Guess I’m different (but only with pasta). Proud of our rich Philippine heritage.

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