The Ultimate Guide to Pasta Shapes

Updated: May 16, 2024

The grocery store is packed with pasta shapes. Before you reach for a box, learn about what makes each shape different and which recipes work best with your go-to noodle.

Various kinds of uncooked pasta and noodles, some in white bowls, on stone background, top viewYelenaYemchuk/Getty Images

There’s a reason making pasta is so much fun—there are tons of pasta shapes to choose from! Whatever kind of sauce you’re in the mood for, like pesto, cream, marinara or meat sauce, there’s a noodle shape that suits it perfectly. You can take it one step further and choose between fresh or dry pasta too.

Long, smooth noodles prefer lighter sauces or a simple coating of olive oil and herbs. Thick, ribbon-like noodles or ridged pasta can hold more weight, and they keep the sauce on your noodles instead of at the bottom of the bowl. Tubular pasta is ideal for baked dishes like casseroles. Because the shapes, sizes and thickness varies so much, each type of pasta will have different cook times. Check the directions on your pasta box for perfectly al dente noodles.

If you’re using a pasta maker to shape your homemade pasta dough into noodles, tubes or shells, here’s a whole list of fun shapes to try. One ball of dough can make dozens of different dishes!

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Ancini de Pepe

One of the tiniest kinds of pasta you’ll find at the supermarket is ancini de pepe. This itty bitty pastina gets its name from the Italian word for peppercorns, though this pasta is even tinier.

Much like orzo, ancini de pepe is best used in salads and soups. In fact, it’s the pasta that’s most commonly used in Italian wedding soup.

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Anellini (anelli, anelletti). Raw dry short Italian pasta in the form of small rings. Ingredient for making soup or garnish. Selective focus
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You probably didn’t know that can of SpaghettiOs you looked forward to as a kid was packed with anelli! Meaning “little rings” in Italian, they’re perfect for anything you’d put ditali in, like soups or pasta salads.

Of course, you can also make an adult version of those nostalgic bowls of tomatoey goodness. Make a basic tomato sauce, boil the anelli, and stir the pasta into the warm sauce.

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At first glance, bucatini looks just like spaghetti. Look again, though, and you’ll see this long pasta has a hole running through it.

Serve bucatini with carbonara, butter sauces and cream sauces or try this bucatini with sausage and kale.

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Italian pasta Calamarata made with thick ring pasta paccheri, calamari or sliced squid, and tomato sauce. Originates from Naples, the South of Italy. Directly above.
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If you’re a fan of calamari, or even if you’ve only seen it before, you can guess where calamarata gets its name. It’s shaped in the same short and wide, circular tubes that calamari is cut into before it’s often battered and fried. Calamarata is most commonly served in southern Italy with tomatoes and—you guessed it—calamari.

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Campanelle is a short, layered noodle with a hollow inside and frilly edges, which means that it works well in pasta salads (like this fresh summer pasta salad) and baked dishes alike.

Although campanelle translates to “little bells,” we think they could pass for little tulips, too. If you agree, this springy pasta with prosciutto and peas will be the perfect addition to your weeknight menu as the days get longer and the temperatures get warmer.

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Also known as angel hair, the literal translation is “fine hair.” This pasta is a thinner version of spaghetti at only about 1/15 of an inch thick. Capellini pairs best with a light sauce, simply tossed with olive oil and herbs or seafood (like lemony scallops with angel hair), so as not to overpower the pasta.

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Homemade Italian Casarecce Pasta
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Casarecce, meaning “homemade,” is built to hold sauces incredibly well. When it’s made, the dough is loosely wrapped around a rod to create its almost-tubular shape. This means it will be coated in sauce, and it’ll carry some sauce from your plate to your mouth within each noodle too.

In Sicily, casarecce is often enjoyed in a pesto sauce or with seafood. Arugula pesto or garlic scape pesto are fun variations to try, or you can cook steamed tilapia in wine sauce. Another seafood and sauce pairing, salmon and tarragon sauce, will make just enough sauce for the noodles to soak up.

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This spiral-shaped pasta goes by a few names, including cellentani and serpentini, but you’ll likely see it packaged and sold as cavatappi (which means “corkscrew” in Italian).

This pasta’s unique shape, ridges and bite-size proportion make it extremely versatile. Use cavatappi in pasta salads, baked pasta dishes or served with your favorite sauce. You really cannot go wrong!

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Ditali and Ditalini

Ditali and its smaller cousin ditalini are short, tube-shaped pastas. The name means “thimble” in Italian.

Both options are most commonly used in Italian soup recipes like pasta fagioli and minestrone, though you can also use them in cold pasta salads.

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You may know these shapes as bow ties, but in Italian, they’re actually “butterflies.” A kid favorite because of the fun shape, these noodles work well with chunky sauces (try this no-cook fresh tomato sauce) or as the main ingredient in a cold pasta salad (we recommend this summer strawberry salad).

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You probably know it primarily from fettuccine Alfredo (and the myriad ways to play it up, like with seafood). But you can also use these “small ribbons,” which are wider and flatter than spaghetti noodles, in any dish with a thick or creamy sauce.

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Don’t let the name fool you: Despite the fact that gemelli means “twins,” each piece is actually just one twisted piece of pasta dough. The twisted texture makes it a great option for serving with tasty sauces like homemade pesto. The grooves catch all the bits of flavor.

You can also think outside the pasta box with this chorizo pumpkin pasta, or keep it classic and simple with one-pot chicken pesto pasta.

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Gnocchi is a very different type of Italian pasta. In addition to the standard ingredients (egg and flour), this pasta also includes potatoes, which gives it a slightly different texture. For that reason, gnocchi are sometimes referred to as dumplings.

There’s some debate where the term gnocchi comes from but it likely comes from the Italian word knocchio, meaning “knot,” or nocca, which means “knuckle.”

Gnocchi can be served with any sauce or in any preparation. Lighter sauces, though, allow the gnocchi’s distinct flavor and texture to really shine. This skillet dinner made with spinach and chicken sausage is a great way to use this pasta.

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Dried Elbow Macaroni in A Measuring Cup
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Although macaroni noodles are sometimes called elbow macaroni, gomiti literally translates to “elbow” in Italian.

Gomiti is a very close cousin to macaroni. In comparison, the circumference of the tube is a little bit wider, one end is a little bit more pinched than the other side, and some gomiti are ridged while all macaroni noodles are smooth. But we wouldn’t blame you if you can’t tell the difference!

Gomiti will do well in any dish that you’d typically use macaroni in, like any mac and cheese recipes or pasta salads.

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One of the oldest types of pasta, these wide sheet noodles are a staple in many American households in the popular dish featuring layers of pasta, sauce and cheese. While traditional four-cheese lasagna is always a delicious option, you can also try a breakfast version using bacon and eggs.

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Similar to fettuccine, linguine (which means “little tongues”) is a long, flat noodle. Because it’s slightly narrower than fettuccine, linguine is often served with lighter sauces or even simply with olive oil or pesto. It’s also commonly used in seafood dishes.

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In Italy, you might see these elbow-shaped pasta referred to as maccheroni, but stateside we spell this pasta macaroni. Whatever you call it, it’s most commonly used in dishes like macaroni and cheese here in the U.S., though you’ll also see it used in macaroni salads, stirred into soups or served with chili.

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Mafalde or Mafalda or Mafaldine Pasta Bolognese
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Also called mafalda or reginette (which means “queen” in Italian), mafaldine is essentially fettuccine with frills. It goes well with tomato or cream-based sauces, because the sauce catches in its edges.

You could try replacing the lasagna noodles with mafaldine in recipes like slow-cooker lasagna soup. Otherwise, go for a classic meat sauce to pair with the frilly noodles.

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Manicotti is a ridged, tube-shaped pasta. Meaning “little sleeves,” each piece is about four inches long and an inch high. These tubes are designed to be stuffed with tasty fillings and baked. A ricotta and herb filling is most popular, and we’ve got a great cheese manicotti recipe.

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Meaning “little ears,” orecchiette is a type of curved, ridged pasta that originated in Puglia. Because of the ridges, orecchiette are terrific for holding onto sauces and other ingredients.

Ragu and pesto are traditional sauces to serve with this pasta, but wilted greens of all kinds are welcome in any orecchiette dish. This sausage and swiss chard pasta makes great use of it.

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Nope, it’s not rice! Orzo is actually a rice-shaped pasta that gets its name from the Italian word for barley. This tiny pasta (a kind of pastina) is best used in soups and cold pasta salads. It’s not a pasta suitable to be served with your favorite meat sauce.

You can use this pasta in place of rice in many recipes, though, like stuffed peppers.

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Flat, wide ribbons of pasta are called pappardelle. Its name means “to gobble” which is fitting because this pasta is often served with the most delicious sauces.

Due to the pappardelle’s great surface area, the pasta is served with some pretty robust sauces like bolognese, ragu or clam sauce.

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Homemade puree soup with pastina, chicken, vegetables and cheese close-up in a bowl. Horizontal top view
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Technically, pastina is a category of pasta that contains the smallest of pasta shapes, like orzo and ancini de pepe. However, you can also find boxes of dried noodles labeled “pastina” all the same. These boxes typically hold stelline pastina, which are star-shaped. Know that since they’re so small, they have a shorter cook time than other pasta shapes—reaching al dente status in just three to four minutes.

Stelline pastina (or other varieties of pastina) could be easily mistaken for grits if you cook them up in a cream-based or cheese sauce. They’re perfectly suited for soups too.

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Translated as “quills” or “feathers,” penne noodles are also tubular and ridged similarly to rigatoni. Those two features help sauces cling to the noodles. Use penne for any dish where you want the sauce to be the star, like penne alla vodka. Learn how to make pesto penne pasta for another satisfying dish.

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pici pasta with lamb ragu
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Pronounced “pee-chee,” this pasta shape is essentially the thickest version of a spaghetti noodle that you can find. Some people are reminded of worms because it’s a thick, unevenly shaped noodle—but don’t let that scare you away! If you’re a fan of the chewy quality that a perfectly cooked, al dente noodle provides, you’ll love pici because you simply get more of that bite with each thick strand.

Although this Tuscan pasta shape is not something you’ll typically find in the pasta aisle at the grocery store, it’ll be worth the extra effort spent tracking it down on Amazon. Serve it in carbonara or as the star in cacio e pepe.

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Corn vegetable radiatore pasta in a bowl on wood table
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Who knew making pasta in the shape of a radiator would be such a good idea? We can thank the layers in this pasta shape for the pockets of saucy goodness that each noodle carries. English muffins aren’t the only food with nooks and crannies! Try pairing radiatore with a flavorful vodka sauce or other creamy tomato sauce.

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Toasted Ravioli
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When it comes to this pasta, less is more. Because ravioli are stuffed with anything from cheese to meat to veggies (or all of the above!), there’s already a lot going on. Keep the sauce simple with the classic sage and browned butter ravioli or toss it in fresh spinach and olives for this Greek-style ravioli. If you want to think outside the box, try toasted ravioli, a St. Louis favorite.

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Four-Cheese Sausage Rigatoni
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One of the most popular types of pasta, rigatoni (meaning “ridged” or “lined”) is extremely versatile. Whether you’re serving up a light garlic chicken rigatoni or using the noodles in a baked dish like four-cheese sausage rigatoni, it’s a pasta that can get tossed into any meal.

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Otherwise known as wagon wheel pasta, rotelle is perfect for pasta salads, soups and casseroles because they’re easily picked up with a fork or scooped with a spoon. Plus, the ridges hold just a little more sauce than if they were smooth.

This pasta salad will put you and your guests on a roll with rotelle.

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Chicken and Spinach Pasta Salad
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Common among home cooks, the corkscrew noodles can be used in a variety of dishes, but are most often eaten in the form of pasta salad. Want to try it yourself? We recommend our chicken and spinach pasta salad.

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While the Italian word for this pasta is conchiglioni, you’re most likely to hear this pasta referred to as “shells.” This pasta comes in various sizes, with and without ridges. Smaller versions are often used in pasta salads or in a cheese sauce, but we think stuffed pasta shells make the most of this unique shape.

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We all know spaghetti! This long thin pasta gets its name from the Italian word spago meaning “twine” or “string.” We bet you have a box of spaghetti in your pantry right now. So get going and make a delicious spaghetti sauce or a baked pasta dish. Just make sure you keep these tips for cooking pasta in mind as you go!

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These little bites, often filled with a variety of meats or cheeses, are similar to ravioli. Their unique shape and sturdy structure, however, make them a great fit for soups (this spinach and tortellini soup recipe is ideal for a cold day) or salads (toss them in this homemade Caesar salad).

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Ziti is a smooth, tube-shaped pasta. Traditionally, ziti would be sold in foot-long tubes and broken before boiling, but today it’s more common to see ziti sold in shorter lengths (about two inches).

This type of pasta (which comes from the Italian word for “bride”), is best with lighter sauces because of its smooth surface. It’s also very popular with baked pasta dishes—everyone’s heard of baked ziti before!