How to Pair Pasta with the Perfect Sauce

Pasta is one of the most popular dishes in the world.  And for good reason, it is relatively inexpensive, versatile and easy to prepare. When done correctly it can also be one of the most delicious and satisfying dishes too.  

A white bowl of linguine topped with a chunky tomato sauce.

But did you know that to get the most flavorful pasta dish it is important to pair the pasta shape with the right type of sauce? Selecting the right pasta shape and sauce combination can mean the difference between a great dish and an ordinary dish!

Although most home cooks may not give this much thought, you can be sure that a good chef or Italian Nonna certainly will.  They want to ensure that the pasta and sauce complement one another, rather than compete for focus in the dish.

The shape and texture of the pasta determines how sauces are absorbed and carried. To top it off there are over 600 pasta shapes and possibly as many sauces, making the options endless.

So how do you know which combination is best?  To get the most flavorful bite every time, there are some general rules you should follow.  Below I have compiled an easy guideline to help you pick the perfect pairing.

Perfect Pasta Shape and Sauce Pairings

A bowl of linguini with a chunky tomato sauce on a table with basil and a bowl of grated cheese.

Long Thin Pasta 

Spaghetti, thin spaghetti, linguini or angel hair, is delicious with light tomato, cream sauces or oil-based sauces where each strand is evenly coated. A chunky sauce like a ragu would be too heavy for the pasta and only overwhelm the long strands. Most of the bits would be left in your plate rather then carried with the pasta.  

Try them with Carbonara, aglio e olio, pesto or marinara. They are also a great option for a light seafood sauce as well.

Ribboned Pasta 

Pappardelle, Mafalda, or fettuccine is perfect for holding hearty sauces like Ragu, or Bolognese.  The hearty texture of ribbons like fettuccine are perfect vehicles for creamy sauces like alfredo and pesto.

A bowl of pasta alla Norma in front of a glass of red wine a tomato and a decorative black and white canister.

Tubular Pasta 

Rigatoni, penne and other tube shaped pastas are great options for chunky vegetable sauces (Amatriciana or alla Norma), baked pasta, or cheesy meaty sauces. The tubes are perfect for capturing the sauce and the shape compliments the chunky texture of the vegetables or meat in the sauce.

These short shapes are so versatile that they work well with almost all types of sauces.

Spiral or Twisted Pasta

Shapes like fusilli, casarecce, or trofie are suited for smooth creamy sauces, pesto, or smooth tomato sauces. The spirals and twists fill up with the smoot sauce so you get a perfect ratio of pasta and sauce in every bite.

Shell Pastas 

Pasta such as conchiglie, cavatelli, or orecchiette are delicious with rich creamy or meaty sauces, chunky vegetable sauces, or pesto.  They are especially good when the sauce has pieces that are small enough to be carried in their small curves.

A blue bowl with ravioli and pancetta.

Filled Pasta 

Pasta like ravioli or tortellini doesn’t need anything too overpowering because the stuffing has so much flavor.  Simple sauces and oil or butter-based sauces are perfect!  Try this butter and sage sauce or a simple tomato sauce for instance.

Tiny Pasta

Shapes like orzo, ditalini or pastina are the go to shapes for soups and broths. They are too small to hold any sauce but they add texture and heartiness to the light brothy dishes.

Pasta and Sauce Pairing Quick Guide

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