Pasta 101: which pasta goes with which sauce?

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Have you ever walked down the pasta aisle of the supermarket and felt overwhelmed by all the varieties available?

I sure have.

Before I moved to Italy, I only had two types of pasta on rotation: spaghetti and penne. This was probably because I had no idea which pasta goes with which sauce.

Is there a rule about this? As it falls into the Holy Trinity of Italian life (food, family and football), you can bet on it.

The rule of thumb for pasta is that short pasta is best for holding thick, creamy sauces, and long pasta is for light, fresh sauces – but this rule is often broken, and always contested.

Instead, I looked at a few classic Italian pasta recipes – which hold a high place in the hearts of locals, but often ill-known to those of us abroad – so we could learn a thing or two from the pasta masters.

Consider this pasta 101.

Here are four of my favourite pastas, and the different sauces that can accompany them that you probably haven’t thought to try.


In Italy, Spaghetti Bolognaise isn’t actually a real thing – shocking, I know – it’s something that Westerners made up and have just rolled with as being quintessentially Italian. It is, however, inspired by a regional dish of Emilia Romagna (in the north of Italy), hailing from Bologna (as the name ‘Bolognaise’ suggests).

Ragu is the name given to the rich meat and tomato sauce, in which Italians typically use pork or veal, rather than the beef that Aussies prefer. Sautee some brown onions, diced carrots and celery to begin, then brown your meat, add a few cups of stock and water, topped with diced tomatoes, and you’re good to go.


Fettucine is great with a heavier sauce. Image: San Remo.

And the pasta of choice? In Bologna, ragu will always be served with fettucine. Even though I am a fan of making my own fresh pasta, I honestly believe that dried San Remo fettucine does a better job than I can, as it seems to have more structural integrity that can hold the sauce better than fresh pasta.

The best thing about ragu is that you can cook it as quickly or as slowly as you like. For those on the go, chuck all the ingredients for the sauce on the slow cooker before work, and it’ll be ready to go by the time you get home. Pop the fettucine on the boil, and in a few minutes after walking through the door at the end of the day, you’ve got yourself a seriously satisfying winter meal.


The streets of Bologna are bursting with fresh culinary delights, none better than my favourite tortellini. These fresh parcels of goodness are traditionally filled with a mix of pork, mortadella and prosciutto, though in Australia you’ll more commonly find them packed with ricotta and spinach or pumpkin.

The hero of any tortellini dish should always be the pasta, so traditionally they will be served with sauces that bring out the flavour of the tortellini, rather than focusing on the sauce. Do as the Bolognesi do and have your tortellini in a soup – a plain chicken broth will suffice nicely.


"Do as the Bolognesi do and have your tortellini in a soup." Image: iStock.

If you want to make more of a meal out of it, melt some butter in a fry pan, add sage leaves to your liking, and once the tortellini are boiled, lightly fry them in the pan. Top with plenty of parmesan, and in a couple of minutes, you’ve got yourself one tasty meal.


Literally meaning “little ears,” orecchiette get their shape from being rolled with the blade of a knife, ensuring that their texture remains a little rough – perfect for holding onto sauce.

Hailing from Puglia in the south of Italy, a fertile agricultural region nestled on the Adriatic and Ionic seas, orecchiette are usually served with light, olive-oil based sauces.

A regional favourite is orecchiette con cima di rapa that features the broccoli rabe, which grows wildly all across the region. This vegetable is similar to kale or spinach, though has a more bitter, tart flavour.

"Orecchiette get their shape from being rolled with the blade of a knife." Image: iStock.

For this dish, cook the broccoli rabe with the pasta in the boiling water, so the orecchiette absorb the flavour of the vegetable. Meanwhile, throw some garlic and chili in a fry pan with olive oil to form the base of the sauce. When the pasta is al dente, gently mix the pasta and rabe through the oil, and add some pecorino cheese to thicken the sauce slightly.


The Pugliesi like to include sardines or anchovies to this dish, highlighting how the local cuisine is influenced by the sea. But for those who aren’t game enough, bacon or mushrooms also make great, filling alternatives.


Busiate are a short, corkscrew-shaped pasta used in many southern Italian dishes – though in Australia, you’ll find them in San Remo packets labelled as casarecce. Alternatively, spirals will also do nicely. They’re used in a typical Sicilian recipe, busiate alla siciliana – spirals with Sicilian pesto.

Unlike the basil-based pesto that we all know and love, which originates in Genova in the north of Italy, Sicilian pesto is slightly different but equally delicious – it’s made from tomatoes and almonds.

which pasta goes with which sauce

"Busiate are a short, corkscrew-shaped pasta used in many southern Italian dishes." Image: iStock.

To make the pesto, blend about 400g of peeled, tinned tomatoes with 100g of almonds, a large bunch of fresh basil leaves, 100ml of olive oil, and about 50g of pecorino or parmesan cheese. Simply boil a bag (500g) of San Remo spiral pasta and stir the pesto through. In a matter of minutes, you’ve got a meal to feed a family of four.

Whatever pasta adventure you’re undertaking, be sure to serve with crusty bread, because you know you’re going to need to mop up all the leftover sauce. Who’s hungry?

What is a favourite pasta pairing in your family?