Pasta the Italian Way - The guide to pasta & sauce combinations.

A few months ago I was sitting in a lovely little Edmonton Cafe with Nicoletta & Loreto (the quintessentially Italian couple behind Sugar Loves Spices) and I asked a seemingly simple question that got a passionate conversation started.

"How do you know which pasta goes with which sauce?!"

I knew for a fact that I had been butchering the sacred rules of conduct in regards to sauce-pasta matches, but it wasn't out of a sly plan to remodel Italian traditions. I just didn't know any better.

So they agreed to share their knowledge on the matter with me (and with you) in this wonderful post. Now, I know this is a boat load of information, but unless you have an Italian nonna or some really good Italian friends who you can call in your next moment of "which pasta goes with this sauce" stupor, I suggest you bookmark this page for safe keeping and so you can refer back to it with ease.



Without further ado, Nicoletta of Sugar Loves Spices

Pasta is so popular around the world, making it among the most loved comfort food, from children to adults and even nonni (grandparents). For Italians it is a staple, almost a ritual, with strict regional rules and boundaries.

So, I have a question for all of you pasta lovers out there: do you want to learn how to make pasta the “Italian Way” and become a true Italian Pasta connoisseur?

Well I am going to share my “knowledge”, not based on scientific evidence, but simply passed down to me from my mom, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and the experiences, and memories I have had in my life in Italy.

Italians can get passionate when asked to explain why pasta should be cooked and eaten a certain way, why matching the pasta shape to the right sauce is of the utmost importance, why shape and size do matter. and that each shape and each size have a specific purpose. 

However, it's not that the different kind of pasta were designed for the sauces. It's just that certain pairings worked better, people liked them and with generations they became embedded in the nation. Centuries of cooking have taught people what goes better with what. Which ingredients bind with a particular type of pasta and exhault its taste. 

Certain pairings are so well known, they are so familiar, that nobody would do anything else. Like, for example, these popular Italian pasta dishes: Bucatini all'Amatriciana, Linguine al pesto, Spaghetti alle Vongole (with clams), Penne all'Arrabbiata, Spaghetti alla Carbonara, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe.





When you match the pasta shape to the right pasta sauce, the dish actually works better, looks better, and definitely tastes better.  

Let's start with the different types of pasta. 

The main difference is between dried pasta and fresh pasta. 

Among the dried pasta, another difference is according to length: pasta lunga (long pasta) and pasta corta (short pasta). Both pasta lunga and corta have an additional difference: liscia (smooth) and rigata (ridged, or furrowed). Not to mention all the pastine (tiny pasta) used in soups or minestrone recipes.

Among the fresh pasta there is the stuffed pasta.

Think about that, it seems like there are more than 300 different types of pasta. And as it always happens with Italian food, it is also a Regional thing: where they originated matters, and influences which recipes are best for each shape.

For Rich, robust, sauces

Rich, robust, sauces, work better with some tubular pasta like rigatoni, maccheroni (tortiglioni) where the chunks of meat (ragù) or vegetables (vegetable ragù), are captured in the hollow of the pasta. But they're also good with thicker, flat, long pasta, like tagliatelle, fettuccine and pappardelle, more able to capture the chunky sauce.





Delicate, lighter sauces

Delicate, lighter sauces, with panna (cream) or oil-based, work better with skinny shapes like tagliolini, spaghetti, linguine. Or with pasta corta like farfalle and fusilli, where the sauce can be absorbed in the curves and crevices. The thinner the pasta, the creamier or oilier the sauce, because it is able to coat the whole strand. Creamy or cheesy sauces, can't go well with a wide, flat pasta, like tagliatelle, for example, because the flat sides would stick together like two pages with glue.





Hearty vegetable sauces or baked cheese dishes

Hearty vegetable sauces or baked cheese dishes go particularly well with penne, rigatoni and maccheroni. In the case of vegetable sauces, the pieces are captured in the hollow of the pasta, making it a true enjoyable experience. 

As for the fresh, stuffed pasta 

As for the fresh, stuffed pasta, like ravioli, agnolotti, the “rule” is that they shouldn't be cooked in elaborated sauces. You'd want to enjoy the filling and not cover its taste. A simple tomato sauce, or a butter sauce will do. 

A quick note on tortellini:

They belong to the fresh stuffed pasta category, but traditionally and typically they are only served in broth. Like capelli d'angelo (Angel Hair pasta), only meant to be in broth.

When you talk about matching the sauce to the right shape of pasta, you cannot not mention the role of Parmigiano (or Grana). Not all pasta dishes require a sprinkle of our beloved cheese. It may be because it is not traditional, but also because the flavor combination is considered unpleasant, that is the case of fish sauces, or hot sauces like Penne all'Arrabbiata.

Since it's all about cooking, serving and eating pasta “the Italian Way”,
there are few tips that I think may help:


Buy good quality dried pasta, the best pasta brands are a little more expensive but it's worth the cost. If you look at their texture, it is rougher and coarser, best to “capture” any sauce. Plus they hold the “al dente” cooking time better.

Always salt the water in the pot where you're going to cook the pasta, or the pasta won't taste the way it is supposed to taste, even with the sauce.

Do not add oil to the water in the pot. The sauce won't be absorbed by oil-slicked pasta. Use a big enough pot and enough water, stir the pasta after adding and the pasta won't stick. 

Never cut the pasta (spaghetti, for example). There is a reason why their shape is like that. One being the ability to twirl them with a fork.

Follow the manufacturer's suggested cooking time. Pasta needs to stay “al dente”. We always take the pasta out of the water a couple minutes earlier than the suggested time, because we finish it in the pan with sauce. This allows the sauce to coat the pasta perfectly. If you're going to bake your pasta, take it out of the water at half the cooking time. Pasta will continue cooking in the oven and won't be overcooked.  

Never rinse drained pasta under running water. This will remove the starchy coating and prevent the sauce to adhere to the pasta. The only excepion is for lasagna noodles, they must be shocked in iced water to prevent overcooking (but after they're laid on a towel to dry).

Pasta is served in shallow plates, (not soup bowls), and it is a course by itself (primo piatto, first course). It is never accompanied by a side dish (salad) or protein of any sort. Being the first course, it is preceded only by the antipasto (appetizer) and followed by everything else, but nothing with it. 

In the end it is all about good food and wanting to deliver the best experience to the people you love and share the table with. Is there room for creativity? Absolutely! Nonetheless, we have a passion and pride for our roots and traditions and would hate to see those disappear.

Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.
— James Baldwin

Nicoletta (one half of) SugarLovesSpices 


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