Pasta and sauce pairings are steeped in Italy’s deep regional traditions, so much so that experimentation is often discouraged in Italian kitchens. Traditional pasta alla gricia, for example, is always made with rigatoni, and carbonara recipes most often call for bucatini or spaghetti. But with most dishes, you can choose from within categories of similar shapes. Here are some things to keep in mind when pairing pastas with sauces.
• Thinner long pastas such as spaghetti and capellini (or angel hair) pair well with light pasta sauces such as the traditional marinara or pomodoro or oily, smooth sauces such as pesto. Large pieces of meat don’t cling very well to these pastas, but thinly sliced vegetables or pieces of asparagus tend to get pleasantly tangled in their midst, making them great for springtime pastas with fresh, tender produce.
• Thicker long pastas such as linguine or bucatini (a long, hollow, straw-like pasta) can support sauces thickened with cheese or cream such as Alfredo or thicker tomato sauces such as Amatriciana.
• Long, flat noodles such as tagliatelle and pappardelle go well with dairy-thickened sauces such as vodka sauce or traditional Bolognese, which cling to and get trapped in the folds. They're also worth trying with lighter sauces such as pesto or simply oil, herbs, and lemon, which deliciously coat the noodles.
• Short, tube-shaped pastas such as penne, rigatoni, cavatappi, and ziti pair well with ragus—long-stewed sauces with bite-size bits of meat and vegetables—which can fully coat the tubes, inside and out. They also hold up well to the thicker sauces mentioned above: carbonara, Bolognese, vodka sauce, and more.
• There are several small pasta shapes, including orecchiette, which are shaped like small cups or “little ears,” and butterfly-shaped farfalle. They do well with most sauces, salads, and soups, and they pair perfectly with small pieces of vegetables or peas.
• Stuffed pastas are a world all their own, from the traditional ravioli, agnolotti, and tortellini to the half-moon mezzelune and the adorable candy-shaped caramelle. It’s best to let the fillings shine, so pair these with lighter oil- or butter-based sauces or lighter tomato sauces such as a simple marinara.