This past spring CHOW.com published an article aimed at showing readers how to pair pasta shapes with sauces. The Washington Post did the same thing with a big diagram. The bottom line in the CHOW article is that “delicate noodles are for delicate sauces while heartier noodles are for heartier sauces.” Then CHOW says “it’s not always that simple”, so let’s take a closer look.
Every one agrees that there are no hard and fast rules about what sauce goes with what pasta shape. I think that personal taste should always come first when making food choices. However, in the world of pasta there are some guidelines that are just too old to mess with. For example, it is always fettucine alfredo, and parmesan does not belong on fish pasta. There are good reasons behind these two traditions; fettucine was used by the chef who invented that dish. The flavor of cheese can overpower seafood. Then there are some ‘rules’ that have no logical explanation–why should you make tomato sauce with a wooden spoon? Because that is just the way it is done. And by the way, don’t add the salt until the end. I’m just saying.
Let’s get the other ‘MUSTS’ out of the way; spaghetti goes with bolognese sauce, bucatini is the pasta for al’amatriciana, pesto matches trofie and linguine goes with vongole. Those combinations have regional histories, an important factor to consider when matching sauce to pasta. Only Ligurians eat trofie. Basil pesto is from Liguria. So, I recommend you trust the Ligurian tradition of pairing a little twisty pasta with pesto. Trofie can be hard to find; fusilli, gigli, rotini, or gemelli are fine substitutions. And really, if you like linguine then make linguine, but know that in Liguria they prefer trofie. Another super-regional pasta shape is orecchiette, it is only eaten in Puglia. The same goes for malloreddus from Sardinia. The Setaro pasta brand from outside Naples doesn’t make either of those shapes. They just don’t eat them.
Pesto, like butter and sage, oil and garlic are thin sauces, these are very flexible because they cling to any shape. Pasta with a hole in it, like rigatoni, would be superfluous for a thin sauce. Pasta with a hole in it is more suited to thicker cheese sauces and sauces with small diced vegetables or meat because the pasta can catch those pieces.
I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but thin sauces with peas or a small amount of chunks like prosciutto and peas, shrimp and peas, or al’amatriciana are best with long pastas. It is easier to eat the little pieces of peas or whatever if you fork them after twisting up the pasta. That is the idea, anyway.
Wide, flat pasta is good with thicker meat ragus because the braised, raggedy pieces cling to the face of the pasta. By the same token, thick cheesy sauces do a nice job coating the pasta surface. Wide flat pastas include pappardelle, tagliatelle, and fettucine. To me, the thicker the sauce is, the wider the pasta should be. But again, some people like to have maccheroni or rotini with this type of sauce. I think it is some kind of “mac and cheese” habit but I prefer maccheroni only when the sauce is really chunky or if the whole thing is baked. [Again, some things can’t be explained! Where did mac and cheese come from??]
Very short pasta like tubetti, ditali, stelle, riso, orzo or acini di pepe are good for soups (thick or thin) and pasta salads. The main reason for this is that the little pieces can easily fit into your spoon. So if you are making soup and you only have spaghetti, break it into bite-sized pieces.
Generally, I believe that when a recipe calls for a certain shape of pasta you should think more broadly about it. Is it short, long or tiny? What do I like/have on hand? Unless you are making one of those specific dishes, deciding what shape goes with what sauce doesn’t matter too much. I think that the Italians enjoy playing with their pasta and you should too. After all, they make pasta in the shape of butterflies, shells, pens, hats, ears, stars, little mouths, radiators, and hair!! So play with your food too, it doesn’t matter as long as you enjoy it. Just don’t serve it to any Italians. [Remember when Anthony Bourdain served Jamie Oliver’s spaghetti carbonara with meatballs to the Italians? They said it was disgusting! Go to the 2:00 minute mark.]