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A Fun Guide to Pasta Shapes

If you were a typical kid, you probably enjoyed choosing your favorite pasta shapes for Mom to make for dinner, and perhaps your children love to do the same. Some kids like plain old spaghetti, but many enjoy choosing the curly-cues, spirals, bow ties, twists, and other fun pasta shapes that are available in boxes on your supermarket shelf. Generally, you’ll find more than two dozen different pasta varieties offered by most major pasta manufacturers and these days, you might find them in whole wheat varieties as well.

While different pasta shapes are fun to eat, most chefs will tell you that there’s an art to matching each kind of pasta with the right sauce. Some shapes are best for light sauces; others work well with creamy sauces like Alfredo. Still, other pasta shapes are hearty enough to stand up to a thick meat sauce or a very chunky tomato sauce. Like matching the right wine with the perfect cheese, pairing the right pasta with the desired sauce makes the meal more enjoyable as the two ingredients complement each other.

o Spaghetti – The most popular pasta shape in America, spaghetti is a very versatile pasta. Because it is sort of medium in consistency, it is appropriate for a wide variety of sauces from marina to meat.

o Angel Hair or Capellini – This is the thinnest form of spaghetti and is sold in long cords like traditional spaghetti. Sometimes you’ll also see it sold in nest-like circles and packaged in bags rather than a box. Thin sauces are ideal for capellini as it’s too delicate to stand up to the chunky stuff. It also sticks together easily so be sure to add the sauce as soon as you drain it.

o Linguini – Meaning “little tongues” in Italian, linguini is a thicker version of spaghetti. This type of pasta, along with the similar fettuccine, is often served with cream sauces like Alfredo or perhaps a creamy vodka sauce. The National Pasta Association also recommends breaking it up in pieces and using it in soups, like chicken noodle.

o Penne – This short tubular pasta comes in several varieties. Sometimes the outside is smooth and sometimes it has ridges as with penne rigate or mastaccioli. You’ll often find these used in baking dishes. Penne, or its similar cousin ziti, will appear this way on Italian restaurant menus and is often baked “en casserole” with melted mozzarella on top. It’s also good for chunky sauces or mixed with vegetables in a pasta primavera-style dish.

o Elbow macaroni – This is one of the most familiar pasta shapes because it is generally used for making macaroni and cheese. However, it’s also ideal for pasta salad and for use in soups. Similar shapes include the riccioli (curl) and the pipe rigate.

o Fusilli – The spiral shape of this long, twisted spaghetti can hold up to just about any kind of sauce. You’ll often find this one in three colors; the standard color as well as orange and green. This tri-colored pasta is regularly used in pasta salads and makes an attractive dish. Rotini is similar but a little shorter in length.

o Shells – Shell-shaped pasta comes in a few different sizes. The small ones are generally added to soups while the large ones are usually stuffed with a yummy ricotta cheese mixture, similar to what might be found inside manicotti.

o Tortellini – This ring-shaped pasta comes with an extra perk – there’s meat or cheese inside! Because tortellini tends to be heavy, it’s best when paired with cream or other thick sauces. However, you’ll also find them in soups.

o Ruote or rotelle (wagon wheels) – Sometimes used in pasta salads, these shapes are just plain fun and the kids love them. Top them with their favorite sauce and let them enjoy playing with their food!