It’s easy to see why pasta is a staple food in so many kitchens: it’s a blank canvas that takes to sauces, seasonings, and dressings like nothing else can, it comes in all sorts of unique shapes and sizes, and when cooked perfectly, it can be nothing short of magnificent. But that’s the thing—pasta is such an all-encompassing category that it can be overwhelming. Which one should you go for? I’ve done some serious thinking, and I have unscientifically determined that the best pasta shape of them all is rigatoni. Grooved tubes for the win.
This all started with a trip to a local Italian-American joint in our neighborhood, Trattoria Porretta. It’s a pretty standard mom-and-pop Chicago red sauce joint that serves an array of comforting items, from pizza (both thin crust and deep dish) to calamari, fried chicken to fist-sized balls of burrata under a blanket of arugula, and of course, pasta.
I ordered a pasta dish I wasn’t familiar with called rigatoni boscaiola (an Italian named meaning “woodman’s pasta”). It featured rigatoni noodles bathed in a creamy tomato sauce with Italian sausage, pancetta, and mushrooms, heavily oversauced in the heavy-portioned Chicago spirit. I was suddenly entranced.
At first, I thought the sauce was the star of the show. It was generous on the fennel-dosed sausage Chicagoans like me can’t seem to get enough of, as well as the cream, but after a while, I realized that this wasn’t why I kept shoving forkfuls of it in my mouth. It was the rigatoni itself.
The thick tubes of starch are roughly grooved, which allows sauce to cling tightly to its surface. And since the pasta was expertly tossed in the sauce, the interior of each noodle was also dressed perfectly. Think about it: Rigatoni gives you twice the surface area and a wide enough opening to access it. That’s double the sauce, baby! The right amount of sauce applied to the right amount of noodle makes for instantaneous bliss.
Macaroni is nice and all, but those noodles are pretty small, and sometimes their interiors don’t get as much sauce love as they should (particularly when it comes to the thicker sauces we like to apply to them). Penne has nice chew, but again, unless you have a very thin sauce, its interior just doesn’t get the coverage that rigatoni does. Plus, penne is pretty thick for its size and can teeter on the verge of being too chewy.
Rigatoni hits a Goldilocks zone of thickness. It’s also the right size for a moderate forkful each time because it’s eminently jabbable (new word, credit me when you use it), unlike a slippery dense penne or macaroni, which are small enough to slip away from the tines of a fork.
For the novice home cook, it’s easy to ensure rigatoni is cooked perfectly. I made a wildly faithful rendition of Trattoria Poretta’s boscaiola sauce the other night—the secret is a shameful amount of heavy cream—and while the noodles take about 15 minutes to cook to al dente, their medium thickness meant that they were forgiving when I went slightly over that time limit. I don’t recommend wandering off while you’re cooking, however distracted you might be as you sing along to “The Boys of Summer” at the top of your lungs. It’s just that rigatoni might give you a little bit more time for your air guitar solo.
I know not everyone will agree with me. There are spaghetti enthusiasts, baked ziti diehards, newfangled cascatelli converts, but you’re all wrong, and this is the hill I will die on. It’s a hill covered in delicious pink boscaiola sauce. Fight me on this one (politely, please). What’s your favorite pasta shape? There should be only one answer.