This piece was contributed by Cindy Brzostowski, a freelance writer focused on food, travel, and other lifestyle content. She’s a fan of all types of pasta.
With pasta, there are endless dinner possibilities. This is partially due to the fact that there are literally hundreds of different types of pasta shapes out there (many estimate around 350) and countless sauce varieties.
A staple of Italian cuisine, pasta is typically made from a mixture of flour and either water or eggs, and you’ll find it sold fresh or dried. When comparing different kinds of pasta, you can separate them into larger categories like long pasta, short pasta, and pastina (small, shaped pasta).
While covering all Italian pasta types could fill a book, we’ve created a guide to some of the most popular varieties to help you get a better sense of which you might want to cook for your next meal or order off the menu. At the end of the day, there’s no single best pasta shape. It all comes down to what works well with the rest of the dish—and, of course, personal preference. Buon appetito!
Long Pasta Types
Spaghetti is one of the most famous types of pasta noodles. The name comes from the Italian word “spago,” which means “twine” or “string,” and refers to the pasta’s long, stringy shape. Thin and cylindrical, spaghetti is usually served with a tomato or bolognese sauce.
At first glance, you may think bucatini is spaghetti given its long, cylindrical shape, but there’s a big difference: Bucatini has a hole through its center (“buco” translates to “hole”). This means more space to soak up sauce, so consider using bucatini in sauce-forward recipes like this dish with Calabrian chile tomato sauce.
Resembling ribbons, fettuccine are long, flat pasta noodles. Fettuccine’s width and density mean this variety works well in dishes with a richer sauce. Fettuccine with an alfredo sauce (the modern version of which was invented in Rome) is always a crowd-pleaser.
Linguine is long and thin like spaghetti but flatter in shape. Compared to fettuccine, it is much narrower. Given the more delicate shape of this pasta noodle type, linguine is often paired with more simple sauces and lighter proteins like seafood.
Mafaldine pasta also goes by other names like mafalda and reginette. While many pasta names directly reference the noodle’s form, the story goes that mafaldine—with its wide ribbon shape and wavy sides—was named after Princess Mafalda of Savoy and her curly hair. Found in long and short varieties, mafaldine shines in a variety of sauces from tomato-based ones to light cream sauces.
Short Pasta Shapes
A tube-shaped pasta, rigatoni have a large, hollow center. Getting its name from “rigato” (the Italian word for “ridged”), the noodle is also known for the ridges that extend down its outside surface. Both of these features help it hold sauce, so try it in a dish with a hearty sauce like this Spiced Pork and Baked Rigatoni Pasta.
Cavatappi means “corkscrew” in Italian, and that’s exactly what it looks like. This spiral-shaped pasta is also hollow and has ridges, and those three characteristics mean it has many places to capture sauce. Cavatappi is a popular choice for macaroni and cheese since you’ll want to get as much of that rich, cheesy sauce as possible in every bite.
It’s easy to confuse cavatelli with cavatappi due to the similarity of the words, but they’re quite different. Many people think cavatelli look like miniature hot dog buns. It’s a fitting comparison since there’s a small space in the middle. Instead of holding a hot dog, it’s perfect for catching more sauce. Test it out yourself with this Mushroom Browned Butter Cavatelli.
Meaning “little ears,” orecchiette may look more like small domes or bowls than actual ears. Given their concave shape, the pasta noodles work as mini vessels, holding a bit of sauce in each bite. Orecchiette con cime di rapa (or orecchiette with turnip greens) is a traditional preparation of the pasta, but it’s common to find orecchiette served with tomato sauce too.
With their many tight spirals, rotini bear a resemblance to screws. The twists of this pasta shape don’t just make it look cool; they serve a function as well, the curves are perfect for holding sauce. Rotini works in a variety of dishes, if you’re looking for ideas, one delicious option is this variation with pesto.
Despite how similar it looks to rice, orzo is indeed a type of pasta. To make things a little more confusing, “orzo” means barley in Italian. The name comes from the shape of the pasta, which looks like a grain, not from the ingredients. You’ll often come across orzo in salads or soups, but it can also be cooked like risotto to make a creamy dish.
Popular in Sicily, ditalini are a stubby tube shape (like rigatoni, they have a hollow center, but no exterior ridges). This noodle is frequently used to make pasta e fagioli, a traditional dish of pasta and beans, and it’s a good choice for pasta salads as well as soups like minestrone.
Thanks to its small, spherical shape, fregola sarda is another kind of pasta that may be mistaken for a grain (specifically couscous). Notable for being toasted, this pasta type originated in Sardinia where it’s traditionally served with tomato sauce and clams. You can whip up a twist on that classic with this Greek-style dish.
Other Pasta Types
Lasagna is a wide sheet of pasta with waves on its long edges, and it’s also what you call its most well-known preparation: layered with filling, topped with cheese, and baked. Using a ragù or béchamel sauce is typical, but you can switch things up by trying another variation like this butternut squash and spinach lasagna.
Unlike the other Italian pasta types in this guide, gnocchi—which are small, rounded masses—are made using potatoes. Because of this, they’re more accurately classified as dumplings, but they are often served like a pasta dish. Tomato, sage and butter, and pesto sauces are all common pairings for gnocchi.
For more ideas on cooking with different types of pasta, check out our recipe archive.