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Your Guide to Pairing Pasta with Sauce

Each pasta's shape and texture makes a difference in how your meal tastes. We look at the best pasta for Alfredo, marinara, meat sauces and more.

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Homemade Italian fettuccine pasta with mushrooms and cream sauce (Fettuccine al Funghi Porcini). Traditional Italian cuisine. Served on a dark table with a rustic wooden background. Close-up; Shutterstock ID 1448882672; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of HomeDaria Mladenovic/shutterstock

Best Pasta for Alfredo and Cream Sauces: Fettuccine

Fettuccine Alfredo is a classic for a good reason: fettuccine’s wide, thick shape allows you to sop up the maximum amount of creamy sauce with each bite. Coating thick pasta with creamy sauces is also the best way to keep the noodles from clumping together in the bowl.

Try using fettuccine with homemade Alfredo sauce, or one of these cream sauces that also pair well with this noodle.

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A plate of buttered noodles with dinner rolls; Shutterstock ID 139217111; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of HomeMSPhotographic/shutterstock

Best Pasta for Butter or Sour Cream Sauces: Egg Noodles

Egg noodles are versatile enough to go with any number of sauces, but they’re our go-to choice for simple sauces. The flat, wide noodles have an eggy flavor and a slightly chewy texture that adds depth to plain buttered noodles.

Try using egg noodles the next time you make cacio e pepe or stroganoff.

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Bucatini Carbonara; Shutterstock ID 218817367; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of Homesvariophoto/shutterstock

Best Pasta for Carbonara: Bucatini

Bucatini is an interesting pasta shape: a hole runs through the center of these long, round noodles. That makes bucatini a perfect choice for creamy, rich sauces like carbonara because you get to slurp up the tasty sauce inside and out!

Try using bucatini instead of spaghetti the next time you make this carbonara recipe.

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Delicious macaroni and cheddar cheese shell noodles in a bowl; Shutterstock ID 1496072468; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of HomeEzume Images/shutterstock

Best Pasta for Cheese Sauces: Elbows or Shells

The dish might be called macaroni and cheese, but you don’t have to restrict yourself to elbow pasta. Any shell shape that’s textured with pockets or grooves will work. These types of pasta catch the cheese sauce in every crevice, delivering maximum flavor with each bite.

Try playing around with different shapes (like conchiglie shells, cavatappi or rotini) to take your favorite mac and cheese recipe to the next level.

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Pasta, spaghetti with tomato sauce in black bowl on grey stone background. Top view.; Shutterstock ID 1168833847; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of HomeAnna_Pustynnikova/shutterstock

Best Pasta for Marinara and Tomato Sauces: Spaghetti

It doesn’t get much simpler than spaghetti, a long, round noodle that can be paired with just about any sauce. Spaghetti’s smooth texture makes it a good choice for thin tomato sauces, which evenly coat the noodles as you twirl them around a fork.

Try pairing spaghetti with store-bought tomato sauces, or step your game up by making your own marinara at home.

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pasta tagliatelle bolognese on the wooden table, rustic style; Shutterstock ID 428277280; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of HomeZB2/shutterstock

Best Pasta for Meat Sauces: Tagliatelle

Tagliatelle is similar to fettuccine, but it’s thinner both in width and thickness. These ribbon-like noodles are ideal for thicker sauces, wrapping around large chunks to deliver a tasty package in each bite.

Try pairing tagliatelle with meaty ragus or homemade bolognese.

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Pasta Rigatoni with tomato sauce basil leaves garlic and parmesan cheese.; Shutterstock ID 396666679; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of HomeMarian Weyo/shutterstock

Best Pasta for Pasta Puttanesca or Thick Tomato Sauces: Rigatoni

Rigatoni noodles are similar to penne—they’re both ridged, tube-shaped pasta, but rigatoni is generally wider. It’s our go-to option for thicker tomato sauces that contain heavy toppings like eggplant, prosciutto or olives.

Try using rigatoni the next time you whip up a batch of pasta puttanesca or red clam sauce.

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Breaded shrimp with gemelli twin tube pasta in homemade pesto sauce; Shutterstock ID 1148709638; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of HomeEzume Images/shutterstock

Best Pasta for Pesto: Gemelli

This twisty, helix-shaped pasta is similar to fusilli, but its shape is so curved it almost creates a tube. Toss it with pesto to pack each crevice full of a rich and tasty sauce. You can’t go wrong with that!

Try out gemelli with our top-rated pesto recipes.

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Traditional italian seafood pasta with clams Spaghetti alle Vongole in the pan on wooden background; Shutterstock ID 1319109386; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of HomeEkaterina Kondratova/shutterstock

Best Pasta for Seafood Sauces: Linguine

It looks like flattened spaghetti or thin fettuccine, but linguine is the best of both worlds. It has the structure of a round noodle with the texture of a flat one. Linguine tastes fantastic with tomato sauces, but it’s even better with rich seafood sauces.

Try a simple linguine and clams dish, or go decadent with lobster alla diavola.

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Homemade pasta orecchiette with broccoli, Parmesan cheese and chili pepper on light background. Top view with copy space.; Shutterstock ID 1309385296Ale02/shutterstock

Best Pasta for Veggie Sauces: Orecchiette

This pasta shape got its name from its appearance: It looks like tiny little ears. It’s fairly thick, which creates a springy texture when cooked. That makes it ideal for veggie-heavy sauces, but the concave shape also allows orecchiette to soak up creamy sauces.

Try orecchiette with Brussels sprouts, or whip up a Swiss chard and sausage sauce.

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Farfalle pasta in tomato sauce with chicken, basil in pan. Chicken italian bow tie pasta over black background with copy space, homemade italian food.; Shutterstock ID 1241007715; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of HomeOksana Mizina/shutterstock

Best Pasta for Vodka Sauce: Farfalle

This bowtie pasta can be paired with any type of sauce—cheese, cream, veggie or seafood—but we think it’s best when drowned in a rich vodka sauce. The noodle’s ridges and grooves cling perfectly to the sweet, spicy, smooth sauce.

Try farfalle instead of penne the next time you make vodka sauce.

Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.

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