A Pasta Shape Primer

July 16, 2014

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. 

Today: Learn how to tell your farfalle from your penne, and discover the best sauces for each pasta shape. 

Bucatini All'Amatriciana on Food52

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You've all had pasta before. You might just be eating some now as you scroll through this article. But do you really know the difference between spaghetti and bucatini? Or where they come from? Pasta as a category is huge -- there are dozens of different shapes, textures, and ways to use it, and each shape has its own story. 

To help you navigate the wild and wonderful world of pasta, we’ve put together an introduction to pasta shapes and how to best utilize them. Read on to discover new shapes or make sure you have your pastas down pat, and then test your skills to your heart’s desire.

Long Round Pasta

Long, Round (or Square!) Pasta
Long, round pastas range in thickness from the rotund pici and bucantini to slimmer strands of spaghetti. Bucatini (which has a small hole running through it -- pictured above, left) hails from central Italy, and is especially common in Roman dishes -- like Bucatini All'AmatricianaSpaghetti alla Chitarra (above, right) -- literally, guitar spaghetti -- is rolled out using a specific tool that creates four flat edges for a square shape. These sorts of pastas pair well with thinner sauces, especially oil-based ones, and work well with larger or longer items mixed in (like this spaghetti with shrimp, broccolini, and basil).

Chickpea Bolognese

Long, Flat Pasta (aka Ribbon-Cut Pasta)
Long, flat pasta is made by rolling out pasta dough and cutting it into rectangular strands. Like their round relatives, these also range in thickness -- from thin linguine, to medium-sized fettuccine and wide pappardelle. Long, flat pasta can handle a variety of sauces, but works best with richer flavors like crème fraîchechicken liver ragu, or even yogurt.

Baked Penne on Food52

These shapes probably remind you of your childhood (baked ziti and mac and cheese galore), but don’t let them fool you -- tube pastas can be quite mature. From the long, narrow ziti to the diagonally-cut, ridged penne and the larger paccheri, there are a ton of options within this category. 

Tube pastas pair well with dairy-based sauces, as well as with thicker or chunkier sauces (think about how you can sneak little pieces of a meat sauce inside a tube, like in this Rigatoni with Fennel and Veal Sausage). And ridged pastas (like penne) help grasp sauces better, which is great for a thicker sauce as well.


Short, non-tubular pastas often look pretty whimsical -- like the corkscrew fusilli, the bow-tie farfalle, shell-like gnocchetti (above, left), or little thumb-print orecchiette (above, right). These little shorties work well in pasta salads and tossed together in a mix of things, like in this Orecchiette with Cauliflower, Breadcrumbs, Pancetta, and Pepitas

Orzo Salad on Food52

There are tons of other members of the pasta family that don’t fit neatly into a category. Orzo -- pasta's answer to rice -- can be used in a pasta salad and makes a great addition to soup. Ditallini is another one that goes well in soups -- you might recognize it from pasta e faioli. Gnocchi, which are like bite-sized dumplings, are best with lighter sauces.

What are your favorite pasta shapes? Tell us in the comments, prego!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Diane Allard
    Diane Allard
  • Helen B
    Helen B
  • Liza's Kitchen NYC
    Liza's Kitchen NYC
  • Catherine Lamb
    Catherine Lamb
I put chocolate chips in 95% of the things I make and am a strong proponent for lunch dessert.


Diane A. August 10, 2015
Cappellini, rigatoni, and tubetti for pasta salads if I could only pick three but I know I will never be restricked which is absolutely amazing. I love trying them all.
Helen B. July 16, 2014
Liza's K. July 16, 2014
I love farfalle... wish I could post a photo of some I made right here!
Catherine L. July 16, 2014
This is so helpful! I'll never try to put pesto on my penne again.