The Best Pasta Shapes, According to Italian Chefs

You won’t find fettuccine or macaroni on this list.

short rib lumache pasta shape
Glazed shortribs with lumache pasta. | Courtesy of North Italia
Glazed shortribs with lumache pasta. | Courtesy of North Italia

When it comes to pasta, I mostly love it all. Sheets of lasagna stacked high, the way peas can nestle perfectly in orecchiette, the heft of tagliatelle. I would be lying, however, if I said I didn’t have a favorite. I am a lover of cavatappi—perfect corkscrews that can stand up to a meaty sauce or bathe luxuriously in buttery cream.

My colleagues have differing opinions as to what constitutes the best, however. We debated the merits of wavy tangles of mafaldine versus the irresistible curve of creste di gallo, which resembles a rooster’s comb. For long pasta, is spaghetti, bucatini, or linguine preferred? (There will be no mention of angel hair, because—to me—its thin strands are quite possibly the worst pasta shape.)

To settle any debate, I’ve decided to ask pasta professionals—Italians and Italian Americans in the food industry—to share what their favorite pasta shapes are. They wax poetic about what sauces to pair with their favorites and why the shapes are so special. And if you weren’t already buying lumache, this is a sign to start. Here’s what our experts had to say.

Rossella Rago

Author and Host, Cooking with Nonna
Favorite pasta shape: Orecchiette
What sauce does it go best with: Anything
Why it’s the best: “My favorite pasta shape is orecchiette hands down! Orecchiette hail from the Puglia region where my family is from and in the capital city of Bari, Italian grandmothers sit outside mixing semolina and water to make them by hand and sell them to tourists. While they’re usually paired with sausage and broccoli rabe, I love this ear-shaped pasta with almost anything because the glorious texture on the inside of each one really holds onto sauce like no other pasta does. Tip: Most commercial orecchiette are underwhelming and too smooth. For this cut in particular, opt for bronze extruded pasta or even make your own with a serrated edge knife that will ensure the texture is on point.”

Allison Arevalo

Owner, Pasta Louise

Favorite pasta shape: Lumache
What sauce does it go best with: cream sauces, meat ragus...almost anything!
Why it’s the best: “Lumache looks like a rainbow...or a bent rigatoni. It means ‘snails’ in Italian, but for me, describing it as a rainbow is more appealing! It usually has ridges, and a big hole in the center. I love it because it holds so much sauce! You can make mac and cheese with it, a pork ragu, even vodka sauce. It’s so versatile, and a nice change from the staples like spaghetti and penne. Because it’s a pretty large shape, every bite is so satisfying.”

Alberto Marcolongo

Chef, Benoit Bistro

Favorite pasta shape: Spaghettone
What sauce does it go best with: Aglio, olio, peperoncino
Why it’s the best: “I really like spaghettoni shape because they are great with many different sauces. I love it with aglio, olio e peperoncino because it is super simple but tasteful. At Benoit, we’re going to launch a pasta service and definitely this kind of pasta will be there; we’re going to do a little twist on it while keeping the same taste profile. It’s perfect for a late dinner and in Italy we use it to finish a great night with friends. I always suggest having always some spaghettoni at home for a quick dinner.”

Bari Musacchio

Partner, Rubirosa
Favorite pasta shape: Lumache
What sauce does it go best with: Bolognese
Why it’s the best: “Lumache means snail in Italian and is similar to rigatoni with an elegant curved shell that pinches on the end. The lumache's rigate style creates striped ridges where the sauce clings to. Lumache is best enjoyed with a bolognese-style sauce (or any chunky-style sauce) where small pieces can hide into the center of the shape allowing for a perfect pocket in each bite of pasta.”

squid ink tonnarelli pasta shapes
Squid ink tonnarelli with calamari. | Photo courtesy of North Italia

Chris Curtiss

Brand Chef, North Italia

Favorite pasta shape: Tonnarelli
What sauce does it go best with: Tomato-based sauces
Why it’s the best: “I really love tonnarelli, which mimics the classic spaghetti alla chitarra that is well known in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Tonnarelli differs from traditional spaghetti because of its squared cross-section, whereas spaghetti is round. This pairs perfectly with a tomato-based sauce because of its robust mouthfeel, plus it’s easy to eat. At North, for our new fall menu that we’ll release later this month, we’ve chosen to elevate this pasta shape even further by creating a squid ink version. The pasta dough is created fresh daily using squid ink, then extruded and paired with a spicy bomba tomato sauce and vermouth to highlight the variety of seafood included in the dish such as calamari and tiger shrimp. For those at home, my advice for venturing out into using tonnarelli would be to try swapping it out for spaghetti in recipes you already have. You’d be surprised how drastically a dish can change by updating the style of noodle you’re using.”

Fernando Scarpati

Co-owner, Ferdi

Favorite pasta shape: Rigatoni
What sauce does it go best with: Bolognese or Pomodoro
Why its the best: “The best pasta shape is a contested topic among Italians, but Rigatoni is definitely my favorite. Rigatoni all’amatriciana is a classic Roman dish, simple but delicious, which has guanciale, pecorino and tomato. Rigatoni cooked al dente is the only way to eat it. Rigatoni is the best pasta to hold dense sauces because of its ridges, which is why it also goes incredibly well with bolognese sauce, or pomodoro sauce."

Michele Casadei Massari

Chef, Lucciola

Favorite pasta shape: Lumache
What sauce does it go best with: Alfredo Parmigiano Reggiano and “Triple Butter” Lumache
Why its the best: “The dish was first created in 1907 by Alfredo di Lelio—who prepared it as a gesture of love for his wife after she gave birth to their first child. To help her feel better, Alfredo modified an existing recipe by adding more cheese and butter, turning it into a rich and creamy 'triple burro.' I think that lumache for this dish and any creamy sauce dish is the best shape to retain the sauce and the heat. They don’t have to be al dente if you don't like it: you can cook them and make them any grade of consistency, and they always taste amazing. They are easy to cook and best for absorbing and carrying any sauce you love the most, making any home cook a Master Chef!”

malfade pasta shapes
Green malfade. | Courtesy of Patina Restaurant Group

Benjamin Dodaro

Executive Chef, Patina Restaurant Group

Favorite pasta shape: Mafalde
What sauce does it go best with: Hearty ragu or cacio e pepe
Why it’s the best: Mafalde is an extremely versatile pasta, which is why it’s one of the best to have in your pantry. I personally like to describe it as if a wavy lasagna and fettuccine had a baby, they would make mafalde. We make a homemade mafalde verde with sweet Italian sausage, fennel, onions, white wine, Calabrian chili and finished off with extra virgin olive oil and pecorino romano. This dish is always a guest favorite when it’s on the menu.

Michele Mazza

Chef, Il Mulino New York

Favorite pasta shape: Bucatini
What sauce does it go best with: Amatriciana sauce
Why it’s the best: Bucatini is unique as it is a long noodle with a hole in the middle, when mixed with amatriciana sauce the sauce becomes a part of the pasta. It’s like a love affair. People should try it as the bucatini can be cut or broken and shaped to different sizes for use in different dishes such as soup or with Parmigiano Reggiano. I love it because if I cook too much, the next day for breakfast I can mix it with eggs, mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to make a frittata.

Brian Doyle

Director of Culinary Development, Strega Italiano

Favorite pasta shape: Cavatelli
What sauce does it go best with: Pomodoro, pesto alla trapanese, ragu or really anything!
Why it”s the best: Cavatelli is hands down my favorite pasta. Literally, it translates to little hollows. As the texture is a bit thicker slash denser, the small pocket mops up and holds any sauce you cook it in. My grandmother used to make it for us on holidays with pomodoro, meatballs, and braciola or just any ordinary night with sauces based on the season. It is now my go-to entrée at Strega Italiano, the Cavatelli e Salsicca—sausage, broccoli rabe, garlic, Calabrian chiles, stock and butter.

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.