Get Smart About Your Pasta Shapes

Oil shimmers in a pan on one burner. On another, a fat pot of water rolls at a full boil. You're making pasta for dinner, but which one, and why?

Maybe you're still at the supermarket, walking the miles of aisles of Italian pastas with names like creste, gramigna, and strozzapretti. And if you've never heard of half of them, you're not alone. Today's groceries can carry dozens of pasta shapes, each suited for their own sauces and cooking methods. How do you know what to do with them all? Think like a chef and get nerdy about it.

"There's a reason for all pasta shapes," says Michael White, chef and co-owner of the Altamarea Group, whose restaurants include Marea, Ai Fiori, Osteria Morini, and others. "Not each and every sauce goes with each pasta shape."

Think Regional

Trofie. Rabi Abonour

The star of White's roster is at Marea, where he pairs the short, twisted pasta fusili with fatty bone marrow and spindly octopus that mimic's the pasta's curls. And at Ai Fiori, one of his signatures is squid ink-blackened Trofie Nero with Shellfish Ragu. "We make the pasta in house, but you can buy the same shape at grocery stores or specialty Italian food marts," says White.

Trofie Nero from Ai Fiori. Evan Sung

Trofie, which looks like meat pulled from a crab's claw, "comes from Liguria and is twisted loosely," White explains. The Ligurian coast is famed for its seafood, and trofie's short length and loose curls are natural bedfellows with shellfish like crab and scallops. When it comes to buying pasta, it helps to put yourself in the mindset of those who first made it.

If you have trouble finding trofie, White recommends fusili or penne.

Mind Your Geometry

"Many different pastas go with many different sauces," says Marc Vetri, the chef and owner of Vetri in Philadelphia. Vetri has spent the past two years writing a book called Mastering Pasta. On the topic of shape and sauce, he says, "I tackle this issue several times throughout the book." For him, "Putting a certain pasta with a certain sauce is really a matter of tradition and personal preference."

One of his preferences is to pair Funghi Porcini, a proprietary dried pasta sold by Setaro, with Chianti-braised snails. The dried porcini mushrooms that flavor the pasta (and pair well with the wine sauce) grow in the same muddy environs as those snails, and the tight, tangled curls of pasta mimic the snail's shells. It's a pasta dish that doesn't just pair flavors, but also makes a neat biological pun.

Should funghi porcini prove too scarce, Vetri suggests radiatori—little steam-radiator-shaped pasta—instead.

Use New Pasta for Old Tricks

Bucatini. Rabi Abonour

Andrew Feinberg and Francine Stephens are fresh from a ten-year anniversary with their Brooklyn stalwart Franny's, where an innovative approach turns local, seasonal, farm fresh ingredients into exceptional salads, pizzas, and pastas. "They are inextricably linked," Feinberg says of the relationship between pasta shape and sauce. "Pasta is shaped specifically to catch sauce and sauces are created for the various pasta shapes."

One of the latest creations by John Adler, Franny's Executive Chef, is Bucatini with Guanciale, Pea Shoots, and Pine Nuts, a spare pasta dish sauced with rendered guanciale that some home cooks might do with plain spaghetti. But bucatini has a firmer bite. The fat noodle's hollow center soaks up sauce especially well, and as the noodles twist around your fork the rest of the dish's ingredients get caught in the tangle.

Bucatini with guanciale, pea shoots, and pine nuts at Franny's. Craig Cavallo

"I was standing in the walk in snacking on freshly delivered pea shoots," Adler began, "when one of my cooks brought me some of the pine nuts they'd just pulled out of the oven." That's how the pasta got started; bucatini filled the pasta role and guanciale, cured pork jowl, became a natural addition. "It's one of my favorite ingredients in pasta, and it is most often found used with Bucatini in classical Roman cuisine."

Bucatini is easier to find these days, and if you're looking for a change from your spaghetti routine, it works well with spaghetti-friendly sauces.

Check Your Die

Spaghettoro with rough, sauce-clinging edges. Rabi Abonour

Even with simple pastas like spaghetti carbonara, it pays to mind your details. At Chicago's Spiaggia, the spring menu will include a carbonara "served by the gram (starting at 50 grams), and we'll be using Verrigni's spaghettoro pasta, which is cut through a gold die," says chef Tony Mantuano.

"Soft metal dies like gold or bronze," Mantuano points out, "create more grooves and grain along the pasta edges that allows for the sauce to grasp onto the pasta and create a wonderful flavor." Pasta made this way is more expensive, because the tough dough breaks down the pricey extruders over time, but the gain is well worth it—a pasta that clings more tightly to its sauce.

Consider How You're Eating It

Maltagliati cooks into soft, floppy sheets. Rabi Abonour

Most of the pastas on the menu at Mario Batali's ten-year-old Greenwich Village haunt Otto use dried pasta. One of them, Taccozzette con Stracotto, is a classic ragu. Pork shoulder braises in red wine and balsamic vinegar for hours. Taccozzette, a flat pasta with frilled edges, catches the shreds of meat after they've been tossed with tomato sauce.

"As for the taccozette," says Dan Drohan, the restaurant's executive chef for more than eight years, "I just loved the shape and had not seen it before." But it has a practical purpose, too. The pasta to ragu ratio in this dish is 50/50. You could use rigatoni or penne, but wide, flat taccozzette has a smart shape to capture all that sauce. You pick it up with spoon or fork and discover, when the pasta's gone, that little sauce remains.

Taccozzette con stracotto at Otto. Craig Cavallo

"Normally," Adler says, "I follow the guidelines of chunky sauce = short noodle, smooth sauce = long noodle." Drohan takes an intuitive approach. "Choosing the right shape for the right sauce can be very subjective," he says. "I just try to go with what makes sense." And so should we all. That is, after all, how this whole pasta pairing business got started.

"There are traditions behind the combinations that people have come to know and love in Italian cuisine," Vetri says. "That's where the rules come in. Many of those combinations were born of necessity, created by housewives who struggled to feed their families and came up with interesting ways to turn everyday ingredients into something new to eat."

So keep practicality in mind. If the sauce is easy to scoop up with a fork, the pasta should be, too. If you're making pesto, look for long noodles that cling well. Does the asparagus, spring onions, and baby carrots you cut up for primavera look like penne? Use penne then. It's worth having a few shapes of pasta in your pantry to experiment.

And then if you need some more inspiration, keep Vetri's words in the back of your mind: "Rules be damned for most combinations."