According to recent studies, Italians eat 23.1 kilograms (50.93 pounds) of pasta per year on average. This comes out to be 63 grams per day. Given that the suggested serving size is no more than 80 grams, it’s safe to say that every Italian eats almost an entire plate of pasta every day. Pasta is the ultimate comfort food in Italy. Pizza is also eaten often, but it’s not eaten anywhere near as often as pasta. There are over 1,300 different pasta shapes and countless recipes, sauces and condiments that go with each shape.
Needless to say, Italians know how to pick the best pasta shape better than anyone. Choosing the right type of pasta might seem like splitting hairs, but it’s a crucial element to your dish. Short or long pasta? Textured pasta or smooth pasta? Answering these questions correctly is a fundamental element of a satisfying meal.
When an Italian gets ready to make pasta, they have to options that they can start with. If they already know what sauce they’re making or what condiments they’ll be using, they’ll automatically know what type of pasta to use. Or, if there are a limited number of shapes in the house, they’ll choose a condiment based on what they have. Adaptations are prohibited except in rare cases: if there’s no spaghetti at home — a rookie mistake — making spaghetti with oil, garlic and chili peppers is out of the question. Got everything you need to make cacio e pepe? Is farfalle the only pasta you have on hand? Well, then you better make a tramezzino instead.
Truth be told, Italians don’t always agree on the best pasta shape for a given sauce or condiment. There is some universal consensus on a few condiments, and those who think otherwise are usually considered outcasts or are better off opening a restaurant abroad. Then, there are the condiments that have a little more wiggle room. That’s why we created this guide to help you choose the ideal, acceptable and unacceptable shapes depending on your pasta and condiments. The matter of choosing long and short pasta can’t be fully analyzed in one article. But it can act as a starting point.
Long Or Short Pasta?
Choosing between a long or short pasta is the first fundamental decision. Long pasta refers to any shape that you can twist with your fork: vermicelli, tagliatelle, pappardelle and so on. Any other type is considered short pasta. Think rigatoni, penne and fusilli. Just a quick reminder: you should never break long pasta. Cook it in a taller pot instead. You’ll thank us later.
Italians usually eyeball the amount of water and salt they want to use. If you’re still developing your eyeballing skills, a good rule of thumb is one liter of water per 100 grams of pasta. Use 10 grams of salt for every liter of water. The same goes for pasta. An Italian doesn’t have to weigh it; they have a general idea how much they want to eat and can guesstimate the right amount. But if you prefer to weigh your pasta with a scale, you can’t say that you’re truly Italian.
A Food Myth: Textured Pasta Vs. Smooth Pasta
The second fundamental distinction in terms of pasta is textured or smooth pasta. When Italians choose between the same shape with textured vs smooth, nine out of 10 prefer textured pasta and will do everything they can to avoid smooth penne, the only pasta shape that will never run out at the grocery store. This preference is based on a myth. Most Italians think that the textured shapes will hold the sauce better and therefore it’s better to choose textured pasta shapes. In reality, experts say the opposite is true: smooth, bronze-drawn, slowly-dried pasta holds sauce better than the textured pastas that Italians prefer buying at the supermarket.
Now that we’ve put that myth to rest, let’s talk about the million-dollar question: which condiments go with which pasta shapes? Short or long pasta?
Which Pasta Shape Should You Choose?
Let’s start with one of the most beloved dishes: carbonara. This traditional Roman dish is a must-eat for everyone who visits the Eternal City. But what type of pasta goes with this iconic dish? There are two options, and neither is necessarily better than the other. Your choice depends on whether you prefer to accentuate the creaminess of the egg yolks or you want to emphasize the guanciale’s crunchiness (the cured meat included in the dish). A quick note: never make carbonara with cream.
Ideal: spaghetti (perfect for emphasizing the creaminess) and rigatoni (because the guanciale will get stuck inside the noodle and showcase the crunchiness)
Acceptable: mezza manica
Unacceptable: penne, fusilli, pipe, conchiglie, tagliatelle and any other egg pasta
A simple sugo di pomodoro — tomato sauce — is the quintessential Italian comfort food. It’s a dish that everyone can agree on. All it takes is a bit of oil, finely chopped onion, tomato sauce, a few pieces of basil, and maybe a hint of garlic. Nothing is simpler or more satisfying than pasta al pomodoro. The best part about this sauce is that it goes with every pasta shape under the sun.
Ideal: all (that’s what makes it the ultimate comfort food)
Cacio E Pepe
Cacio and pepe is one of four emblematic Roman dishes, along with carbonara, la gricia and amatriciana. While it’s seemingly simple, there are important decisions to be made. Choosing the right pasta shape is crucial because the right shape will grab onto the sauce and the pasta water. The best shape is tonnarelli, a type of spaghetti that’s traditional to Rome but is hard to find outside of Lazio. If you can’t get on the next flight to Rome, you can try to make it at home.
Ideal: no dispute, it’s tonnarelli (spaghetti alla chitarra)
Acceptable: spaghetti (preferably on the thicker side), vermicelli
Unacceptable: tagliatelle and all types of short pastas
Ragù is undoubtedly one of the most divisive sauces in the Italian community. Yet whether it’s Neapolitan or Bolognese, ragù is usually only paired with one shape. There are a few alternatives that some find acceptable while others think that they’re blasphemous.
Acceptable: some say spaghetti is fine while others strongly believe it isn’t. Our opinion lies somewhere in the middle. Penne and mezze maniche are also acceptable shapes.
Unacceptable: spaghetti for some. Either way, there are very few pasta shapes that are out of the question for this type of sauce.
Sometimes called matriciana, this sauce can be divisive. This sauce has an ideal shape that comes with a few caveats.
Ideal shape: bucatini
Acceptable shapes: rigatoni, mezze maniche, conchiglie, fettuccine and spaghetti
Unacceptable shapes: penne, fusilli, pipe and any other shapes that wouldn’t “catch” the guanciale
Aglio, Olio E Peperoncino
Unlike tomato sauce, this comfort food has been a longstanding go-to dish after a night out. There’s no room for debate about which pasta shape to choose. Pasta with garlic, oil and chili flakes has only one correct pasta shape.
Unacceptable: all others
This delicious Sicilian dish isn’t as popular as carbonara, but it requires just as much attention to showcase each ingredient (tomato sauce, savory ricotta and fried eggplant.)
Acceptable: mezze maniche and other short pastas
Unacceptable: spaghetti and all long pastas
Fish-based sauces can be very different. In fact, we could write an entire article about fish-based sauces! However, there are some rules of thumb that you can follow. Using a textured type of pasta is essential for thinner sauces. If the sauce is mollusk or crustacean based, it pairs best with a smooth pasta. If the fish sauce is really creamy, you can use short pasta.
This article originally appeared on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.