When you need a last-minute dinner, pasta and a jar of marinara are your best friends. There’s even a phrase for it: back pocket pasta. It’s simple to take that plain plate of spaghetti over the top by simply swapping in an unusual pasta shape. There are as many pasta shapes as there are regions in Italy—namely because each region has its own specialty shape. Here’s your ultimate guide to the shapes you’ll most likely find in the supermarket or a specialty foods store—and the sauces that pair best with each.
Another way to jazz up your plate of pasta? Look for pastas made from unusual grains (rye, spelt, or whole grain), or ingredients (beets, basil, porcini, cocoa, ramps, or saffron). You can also buy dried cuttlefish ink pasta (that black-colored pasta you’re seeing at restaurants) from specialty retailers like Sfoglini Pasta Shop.
Try keeping an arsenal of relatively shelf-stable toppings on hand—in addition to marinara sauce. Think of ingredients that add texture, color, and heartiness. Toasted chopped nuts like almonds or pistachio add delightful crunch, while toasted panko breadcrumbs add buttery crispness. Flaked tuna, capers, and a drizzle of olive oil instantly transform your plate into a Mediterranean feast. Dried mushrooms are potent flavor boosters as well: you can use their soaking water to cook the pasta, and add layers of umami.
Finally, if you do have a bit more time for meal planning and grocery shopping, check out our easy pasta dishes.
Illustrations by Melinda Josie