Not all pasta is created equal, and that’s by design. Whether freshly made or purchased dried in a box from the grocery store, the way a piece of pasta is shaped indicates how it should be cooked and what other ingredients it should be paired with.
Some pastas are meant to be filled, like ravioli. Some are meant to be layered and baked, like lasagna. Others are better at holding onto creamy sauces, tubes like penne or rigatoni. Some are meant to be thrown directly in the trash.
Here are my official pasta rankings, from worst to best.
10. Angel hair
A pasta shape should have some, well, shape. It needs heft to stand up to the pot of boiling water in which it cooks, and the sauces that are spooned on top. Angel hair has none of that, a lank, limp, thin noodle that cooks too fast and practically disintegrates when you eat it. This inferior spaghetti has no place on anyone’s plate.
What I realized while ranking pasta shapes is that I gravitate toward the ones that feel more natural, like your nonna could have shaped them before they were dried and packaged by Ronzoni. There’s nothing natural about this tightly coiled corkscrew-shaped pasta, which aspires to be like other, better short noodles but falls flat. If you’re looking for a bite-sized noodle that will cling to creamy sauce, keep reading.
There’s nothing inherently offensive about fettuccine, a long noodle that’s thicker than spaghetti but not as thick as tagliatelle or papardelle. But given the other options, it just feels like a boring middle ground.
Penne is fine, but penne is not special. As far as tube pastas go, it’s easy to overcook. It’s better than something like rotini because it is a tube, which makes it better for soaking up sauce in your finished dish. But it’s not as strong as some of the others in this family.
I have a particular nostalgic fondness for this whimsical pasta, which you may know by its more common name: bowtie pasta. That’s because it looks like a little bowtie, or a butterfly, which is actually what its Italian name refers to. I love an al dente pasta, and while some may find fault in the fact that farfalle often cooks unevenly, I love that center bite that’s usually more al dente than the rest.
The name of this pasta comes from the fact that each piece looks like a small ear. A little weird, just like this shape. I like its unique structure, especially the fact that the little cups are perfect for holding teeny amounts of sauce. It’s a solid shape that can stand up to pasta salads or pasta dishes with lots of other add-ins. I love pairing it with peas, wilted greens, nuts and knobs of cheese.
A classic for a reason, the standard spaghetti noodle passes the Goldilocks test: not too thin, not too thick, just right. When cooked properly, it’s very satisfying, a perfect vessel for red sauce best consumed after a dramatic fork twirl.
One of the most rustic pasta shapes, papardelle is the easiest shape to make from scratch because it can be cut easily by hand. Usually, long sheets of pasta are cut into strips about ¾ inches wide, but the beauty of papardelle is that it doesn’t need to be too precise. The widest of the standard pasta noodles, it cooks up beautifully, coils into perfect little nests with ease and pairs well with any kind of sauce.
Ask me next week, and this shape may take the top spot. It’s really a question of what kind of shape you’re seeking at the moment: noodle or tube? As far as noodles go, bucatini is my choice every time. The thin, spaghetti-esque shape has one unique quality: There’s a hole running through the center of the noodle, which helps it cook more evenly. We have established the importance of that! Bucatini is not easy to find in local grocery stores, making it that much more special when you can get your hands on it.
Ah, rigatoni, the tube pasta of my dreams. The thick, hearty shape is typically used in bakes because it can hold up well to lots of heat. I love to cook it in boiling water like spaghetti, then splash it around in a skillet with some butter or olive oil and lots of Parmesan cheese. The tubes make for fun nooks and crannies in your meal — I live for the thrill of finding a surprise bit of pancetta in my rigatoni carbonara. And the al dente chew on a piece of rigatoni is like no other, a perfect bite of the best pasta shape.