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Are you curious about the many types of pasta? It can get confusing to keep track of them all! This glossary breaks down the best short-cut pasta shapes from cavatappi to ziti, along with fun facts about where they originated in Italy and the best way to sauce them.
Welcome to the world of Italian pasta, a beloved food all over the world. What would we ever do without it?!
The types of pasta made from durum wheat (as well as other flours like chickpea and buckwheat) are incredibly rich with history and culturally diverse. Each different shape tells a story about the place it comes from. For example, some pastas are only made in one specific village in one small Italian region. So cool!
This page is focused on a selection of the most popular short pasta shapes. I’ve also written about the best long pasta types so head there if you’re ready to learn about them.
Short-cut pasta shapes are so versatile. For one thing, they are perfect for feeding kids and older people who might find it difficult to manuever longer noodles like spaghetti onto a fork and into their mouths.
In addition, short, forkable pastas are superstars matched with pasta recipes, especially chunky sauces that have bits of cheese, meat, beans and/or vegetables because they capture all the goodies. Of course, short pastas are the backbone of classic baked pasta dishes and mac and cheese.
Once you’ve mastered the basics of how to cook pasta perfectly, it’s time to get to know all the different shapes and how to use them. I’ve selected the top types of pasta to stock in your pantry that are most popular and readily available. Let’s get started!
Best 15 short pasta shapes and how to use them (in alphabetical order):
- Also known as strozzapreti (priest-stranglers) this type of Sicilian rolled pasta is formed into a slightly twisted tube shape. This pasta is good with spicy arrabbiata sauce, cheesy sauce with peas or green beans, and alla carbonara (egg and bacon sauce).
- A new, 21st century pasta shape. The pasta is bite-size, shaped like waterfalls that look like curly pasta strips with frilly ruffled edges. They have the toothsome thickness of bucatini and resemble miniature curly lasagna noodles or mafaldine. Cascatelli with pesto sauce and chickpeas is a satisfying pasta recipe.
- Formed like a corkscrew, cavatappi (which means “corkscrew” in Italian) is a curly tube-shaped pasta with a hole in the center. It’s a good pasta shape for making mac and cheese as well as to serve with basic marinara sauce and in chicken pasta salad.
- Cavatelli resemble very small versions of gnocchi. They are made as a fresh pasta with ricotta cheese as well as a dried pasta made with durum wheat flour. The dough is rolled or pinched into pieces and indented with a tool or ridged with a fork. This pasta type is common in Campagna and Puglia where meat was scarce or unaffordable. For that reason, vegetables and beans are more likely to be paired with cavatelli than meat-based ones. Southern Italians prepare cavatelli “aglio e olio” — with garlic and olive oil sauce — and broccoli or rapini. I like to bake cavatelli with chicken and a lemon cream sauce.
- This pasta is made in the shape of snail shells (conchiglia) and are usually ridged. Small shells are lovely in brothy soups. Larger ones are our favorite to pair with creamy cheese sauces. Extra-large shells are made for stuffing with ricotta cheese or baking as a casserole with a mozzarella and a meaty tomato sauce.
- “Little butterflies” are a family favorite, for obvious reasons. Kids love to pick them up and eat them with their fingers. This bow-tie pasta shape has ruffled edges that are perfect with any kind of sauce, whether just plain butter and cheese or a quick sausage and broccoli sauce.
- Interestingly, this spiral-shaped curly pasta was invented in the 1920’s in New York by the Tanzi brothers, Italian immigrants who patented a machine die cut called the fusilla. Handmade versions of fusilli abound, made by rolling pasta dough around a sticks, spindles and even knitting needles! Try it with a savory roasted red pepper sauce to switch up the usual tomato pasta sauce.
- Traditionally a handmade version of fusilli, garganelli are now widely factory-made and are a specialty of the Emilia-Romagna and Umbrian regions of Italy. The name is derived from dialect for “chicken’s gullet” (garganel). This pasta shape is added to chicken broths, hearty meat or game sauce, or simple mushroom ragu.
- Gemelli (meaning “twins” in Italian) is related to fusilli, made with two pasta tubes twisted together. Like fusilli, children enjoy the fun shape of gemelli and so do adults! This pasta is great for pasta salads and as a substitute for penne or fusilli in any recipe.
- In Italian, the word orecchiette (pronounced ORA-KEY-ET-TAY) means little ears. Originally found in Puglia and southern Italy, round orecchiette look like little caps with a wrinkled surface on top. They are wonderfully chewy and perfect paired with sauces that have chunky bits, especially sausage and leafy greens like rapini (broccoli rabe), turnip greens or spinach.
- Penne means “quills” in Italian, referring to an old-fashioned pen with a pointed tip that’s dipped in ink. This is a tubular pasta with the ends cut on a diagonal. It’s made in both smooth and ridged versions (“rigate”). Penne is good paired with rich meaty tomato sauces and creamy sauces like “alla vodka” pink vodka sauce and veggie-packed pasta primavera.
- These ridged, hollow, curled pasta shapes have a wide hole in the middle, and are related to lumache pasta. Pipe literally means “pipe” in Italian. Think of this chunky elbow-shaped pasta as the perfect vehicle for the richest baked cream sauces, tomato sauces or meat sauces because they will capture a bit of the sauce inside the tube.
- Radiatori is a fairly new shape in the world of pasta, said to have been invented in the 1960s. Meaning little radiators in Italian, radiatori look exactly like cute mini heating fixtures. They have deep nooks and crannies that are great at trapping whatever sauce they are tossed with. Radiatori are a classic in pasta salads and with pesto sauce.
- Rigatoni: Wide and chunky tube-cut pasta with ridges. It’s not surprising that the name of this pasta comes from the word “rigato” which means ridged in Italian. Ridged pasta is the BEST for thick, hearty sauces such as Pasta alla Norma, roasted game meats or with braised red wine short ribs because the sauce and bits of meat can easily cling to the surface of the pasta.
- Ziti refers to tube-shaped pasta that originated in Sicily. They are made with a smooth texture or with ridges. Although we think of ziti as a short pasta, it used to be more common in old-school Italian kitchens to find them in longer lengths (like spaghetti), which were broken into bite-size pieces by hand before cooking. The word “ziti” translates to mean groom or bride in Italian, most likely because the pasta was traditionally made for special feast days and celebrations such as weddings. For many Italian-Americans, ziti (also the very similar mostaccioli pasta) was the “macaroni” served up with Sunday meatballs and gravy —Italian-style meat sauce.