Pasta Pairings

Find the best sauces for specific pasta shapes

James Beard, American chef and culinary educator, once wrote that the pairing of pasta and sauce should be a matter of individual choice. “We Americans have been intimidated for

far too long by other people’s opinions on what we should eat,” Beard said in his 1983 cookbook, Beard on Pasta.

Beard’s opinions on things culinary are often treated as sacred, but in this case, not so much.

Italian chefs in particular are likely to insist that most combinations are a matter of certainty. With pasta, they’ll tell you that size matters. And so do shape and texture.

In some cases, it’s simple common sense. Tubes of rigatoni served with a chunky ragu, for example, fill up with the hearty sauce so that when you bite into them, you get a satisfying mouthful of both pasta and sauce. The same sauce would overwhelm a long noodle, such as fettuccini, or a tiny delicate shell.

So yes, it’s a free country, and nobody is the boss of your pasta pot except you. But if you’d like to do it right …


What Americans consider “regular” spaghetti is more correctly called linguine, which is related to the thinner spaghettini (or angel hair pasta), the flat fettuccini and the fat, hollow bucatini. All go well with classic tomato sauces, as well as creamy sauces such as alfredos. These sauces coat the strands so that when you roll the pasta around your fork, you get a nice, flavorful bite. Pesto is also a popular pairing. In some parts of Italy, the thinnest strands are served with light seafood sauces, particularly with shrimp.


These include tube- and cup-shaped noodles such as penne, rigatoni and shells, and they do well with chunky sauces that creep into the hollows and fill them up. Sauces with bits of meat or vegetables work well. Related pastas include campanelle, a flower-shaped pasta with a fluted, petal-like edge; rigate, or ridged pastas, normally tube-shaped, that really grab onto sauces; cellentani, a ridged tube that is curled into a corkscrew; and orecchiette, shaped like a little cap.


Fusilli (spirals), radiatore (chunky and deeply ridged), ruote (wagon wheels) and such hold up under larger cuts of vegetables. They are often used in pasta primavera, with its sizeable pieces of broccoli and asparagus. These thick shapes also are good in pasta salads, as they have the substance to absorb dressings without becoming soggy.


The potato-based gnocchi can stand up to heavy meat or mushroom sauces. But well-made gnocchi is often served as a side dish, simply dressed with butter or grated Parmesan, the better to show off the craftsmanship. Likewise, stuffed pastas like ravioli and tortellini should be paired with lighter sauces, so as not to distract from the fillings.


There is an entire world of multipurpose, multidimensional pasta, from the common farfalle (bow tie) to seasonal specialties of Christmas bells and Valentine’s hearts. Most are versatile, as they are thick enough to match with almost any sauce. If you’re looking to showcase the shapes, though, consider a lighter, creamy sauce or a pasta salad.


Orzo, miniature farfalle and tiny shells are too small for most traditional sauces. They are often used as substitutes for rice, added to soups or baked into casseroles. They also can be mixed with small beans to make a salad.


Giant tubes such as manicotti and oversized shells are made to be stuffed. Sheet-type pastas along the lines of lasagna noodles are meant to be layered. Fillings can range from hearty meat sauces to creamy cheese sauces to light, chunky vegetable sauces.

Pasta Recipe

This recipe comes from Keith Endo, chef at Vino in Restaurant Row. He says it is a great basic dough that can be used to make any shape of noodle, or even used as a wrapper for ravioli. Use a pasta machine if you have one, or simply roll the dough thinly and cut into strands or other shapes.

This recipe has been reduced from Endo’s original to a quantity enough for about four people.

Basic Pasta Dough

* 2 1/2 cups high-gluten flour (such as bread flour); all-purpose flour may be substituted
* 3 teaspoons salt
* 3/4 cup semolina flour
* 4 eggs
* 3 tablespoons water

Combine ingredients in mixing bowl and knead for 5 minutes. Let rest 20 minutes before using.

Roll dough and cut into desired shapes or use a pasta machine. Drop noodles into salted, boiling water and cook until al dente, 1 to 3 minutes depending on thickness.

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