Lidia's Master Class
From choosing the correct shape to go with your sauce to the proper combination of ingredients – learn the secrets to creating perfect pasta dishes every time.
My tips on choosing the right pasta:
You may not think about it every time you open a box of pasta, but the shape you choose plays an important role in the outcome of the dish. The right shape can make a good sauce great; the wrong shape can dampen the appeal of even the best sauce. Long or short, smooth or ridged, thick or thin, with or without curves and crevices, different shapes of pasta capture and absorb sauce differently.
Matched correctly—rigatoni with a hearty sausage sauce—and you have a hit, a pleasing interplay between the texture of the pasta and the components of the sauce. In this case, the pieces of sausage are captured in the hollow of the pasta. Matched less well—the same meat sauce paired with capellini (angel hair pasta)—and you get the vague sense that something is wrong. I say vague, because this kind of mistake is not always apparent; the food may look good and smell good, but it just doesn’t come together well. In the case of the capellini, the delicate noodles can’t support the meat sauce, which gets left behind in the bowl as the pasta gets eaten.
Perfect pasta pairings—linguine and clam sauce, cavatelli and broccoli, ziti and meat sauce—have been a part of the Italian culinary repertoire for centuries.
By following the suggestions listed alongside the pasta shapes below, your dish will be off to a sound start.
Which pasta, which sauce?
Shaped pastas pair well with all kinds of sauces, but especially those with texture. Pieces of meat, vegetable, or bean are captured in the crevices of the pasta.
Short, tubular pastas go well with sauces that are thick or chunky. Keep the size of the ingredients in mind: tiny macaroni won’t hold a chickpea, while rigatoni may feel too large for a simple tomato sauce, where penne would work better. Ridged pastas provide even more texture for sauces to cling to.
Long, thin dried pasta, such as capellini, spaghetti, or linguine, marry best with olive-oil-based sauces. These long expanses of pasta need lots of lubrication. Oil coats the pasta completely without drowning it. Thicker strands, like fettuccine and tagliatelle, can stand up to cream sauces and ragùs. When cutting vegetables or herbs for long pasta, cut them string-like rather than in cubes to help them blend better.
What about fresh pasta?
You can be less particular when matching fresh pasta with sauces. The nuances of shapes and texture are less pronounced in fresh pasta than in dried, and fresh pasta carries and absorbs any sauce more readily than does dried. Fresh pasta generally follows the same rules as dried: the flatter and longer shapes combine well with olive oil and cream sauces, while sturdier shapes, such as orecchiette, work well with chunkier and more assertively flavored sauces. Tomato and simple cream and butter sauces are universal and will go well with basically all pasta.
How much sauce does your pasta need?
Sauce should be considered a condiment, an enhancement to the pasta. I like to think of the pasta as playing the leading role. If you see that the quantity of sauce is disproportionate to the pasta, spoon some of the pasta out before tossing and finishing the dish. If you see that the sauce is soupy and collects in the bottom of the skillet, raise the heat while tossing the pasta actively, evaporating the excess water and thickening the sauce so it adheres to the pasta. A properly dressed pasta should glide in the sauce, not drown in it or stick in lumps.
Serve pasta pronto
What is of utmost importance in serving pasta is that the pasta is served hot. Warmed bowls will help keep it that way. I like to pile the pasta into a mound in the center to keep it warmer longer and so I don’t lose my sauce to the side of the plate.
In Italy, cheese is used with pasta very selectively—it’s not offered with seafood pastas for example—and with careful attention paid to timing. Toss it with the pasta at the last minute, after removing the pot from the heat. Otherwise, the heat will cause the proteins of the cheese to separate from the fat, and you might end up with a serving spoon filled with stringy cheese and oily pasta. To add the classic final touch, grate or shave a little extra cheese over the plated pasta. The steam of the pasta will lift and intensify the aroma of the cheese.