Like many, you probably pick your pasta based purely on preference. I love capellini, while my husband prefers rigatoni -- an argument that generally ends with two separate pots of noodles. Logic out the window, sometimes I even pair those delicate strands of angel hair with hearty, thick sauces like a Fra Diavolo. What would my Italian ancestors think? Gasp. Well, fellow noodle-lovers, there are actually pretty straightforward guidelines to follow when pairing pasta with sauce. Follow them and please the pasta gods, or live on the wild side and go rogue!
Spaghetti, linguine, vermicelli, and capellini all fall into the long, skinny, and slick category. While they are the most common to be served in the U.S., they are also the most common to be served with an incorrect sauce. This shape pairs best with light, oil-base wine or seafood sauces. A basic Marinara Sauce, classic Lemon Butter Clam Sauce, or an Avocado "Alfredo" are all good examples of sauces that pair well with this class of noodle.
Fusilli, rotini, elbows, and other twisty pasta complement slick and smooth sauces, which is why you commonly see them in mac and cheese and pasta salads. Bechamel and oil-base dressings stick to all the crevices and "hold" the pasta. Classic Pesto is also a good choice for shapely pasta. Gouda and Sriracha Mac-N-Cheese is a perfect example!
Orecchiette, also known as "little ears," is a good example of a curved pasta. However, there are so many specialty shapes that fit this description, it would be impossible to name them all. They serve as tiny bowls for the sauce they carry. They do best with oil-base sauces, like Scallion Pesto with Swiss Chard and Scallops.
Miniature pastas are just adorable and do best in soups and stews. Check out couscous in Italian Seafood Stew -- ready in just 20 minutes, it has a few less-common ingredients.