Penne for your thoughts: how to choose pasta shapes

Rigatoni or paccheri? Does it matter which pasta goes with which sauce? Italian food experts dish out advice

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Pasta ingredients: ‘The truth is that almost any kind of pasta goes reasonably well with almost any kind of sauce.’

‘The truth is that almost any kind of pasta goes reasonably well with almost any kind of sauce.’
Photograph: Issy Croker/The Guardian. Food and prop styling: Anna Jones

How do I choose the right shape of pasta for my sauce? And does it really matter?
Maya, Leeds

As Oretta Zanini de Vita writes in Shapes & Sauces, “The truth is that almost any kind of pasta goes reasonably well with almost any kind of sauce, and people who get all serious and talk about the importance of correct sauce pairing are probably overthinking.” While I daren’t quibble with such an authority, it’s worth remembering that pasta is the vehicle for the sauce, so there is method behind those winning unions.

“A lot of famous pairings came about because of the geometry of the pasta and regional habits, which over time have become entrenched,” says the Guardian’s Rome-based food correspondent Rachel Roddy, who is currently penning The A-Z of Pasta (out next year). “I’ve found a lot more freedom than I expected, as well as hilarity, because choices are sometimes eccentric and subjective.”

However, certain characteristics lead to more harmonious combos. Tubes, Roddy says, are “begging for a bean”, while wide noodles are for thick, rich, meaty sauces. Jacob Kenedy, chef/patron of Bocca di Lupo in London, matches chunky pastas with “things with big lumps in”, while finer shapes with more surface area require more delicate sauces. You could argue that carbonara, for example, goes with two very different shapes: Roddy pairs hers with rigatoni instead of the more traditional spaghetti, and this is where personal taste comes in. Then again, as Roddy points out, the “basic tenet of most Italian food is: let’s disagree”.

The undisputed joy of Italian food is its sense of origin. “If you serve pesto Genovese with trofie,” Kenedy says, “adding potato and green beans as you cook the pasta, it speaks of a place. It’s nice to get that journey on a plate, especially seeing as we can’t travel at the moment.”

Some sauces, however, welcome all. “A well-executed, tomato-based sauce can go with any shape,” says Phil King, head chef at Pophams, where pastries and pasta unite. He slow-cooks Sardinian antonella plum tomatoes with garlic and olive oil, while Roddy boosts hers with chilli and serves it with penne or, even better, garganelli. “The world is full of penne haters, but I’m a great lover of it,” she says. One such person is Kenedy, who prefers rigatoni, which he serves with punchy, meaty sauces of ’nduja, a soft, chilli-spiked sausage.

If lockdown shopping has taught us anything, it’s that certain shapes have fallen out of favour (no, I don’t know why orzo and orecchiette were left on the shelves, either). It’s time to expand your horizons, and Kenedy suggests starting with paccheri: “It’s not used enough and is a very versatile shape.” These large tubes from Campania pair just as well with tomato sauce as with seafood such as squid or clams, he says. King recommends looking even farther south, and in particular to the eggless doughs of Sardinia and Sicily – orecchiette, capunti and malloreddus, which, pre-Coronavirus, Pophams served with baked olive tapenade and radicchio.

As ever, the quality of the pasta plays a part: “The better the pasta, the more lovely, starchy stuff you get, which thickens and transforms the sauce,” Roddy explains. She rounds up the ends of said packets of pasta “like unruly children” to store in a jar ready to use in soups with beans or potatoes and sausage – just make sure the pasta cooking times are similar. All wayward carbs are welcome round Roddy’s: “There’s no shape I don’t like. I feel like a protective mother, because I love them all.”

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