As an Italian food blogger, many of my recipes include pasta. But sometimes I think short pastas seem to get the short end of the stick. In this post I want to talk specifically about rigatoni vs penne to help you have a better understanding of when and how to use them for Italian cooking.
If you’re thinking these two pastas are interchangeable, think again. You’ll be quite surprised.
Let’s get started!
Rigatoni vs Penne: The Basics
Well, first off, let’s go over how rigatoni and penne are alike.
- Both types are considered “short” pastas
- Both are tubes, meaning they are hollow in the center
- Both have ridges (penne can also be smooth, but more on that later)
- Both can be used with homemade spaghetti sauce or a meatless marinara sauce
But that’s where the similarities, in my opinion, stop. So, let’s dive into the differences between them and what makes each of them unique.
Shape and Size Differences
Rigatoni and penne are short in length, but rigatoni is longer than penne.
I use rigatoni in my Italian pasta bake recipe and am always surprised at how large they actually get when fully cooked. Much wider than penne.
Look at how each pasta is cut and you’ll notice rigatoni is cut straight across while penne is cut at a diagonal. This isn’t a decision by manufacturers for marketing purposes, it’s one of the criteria that define these shapes.
Rigatoni has ridges or grooves that run lengthwise down the outside of the tube, but penne can go either way – smooth or with ridges.
Different Types of Penne
If you go to the store, you’ll see one type of rigatoni, but you may see different types of penne. Here are three types.
Penne refers loosely to penne types in general. Penne comes in different forms but remember that penne means “pen”. This will help you remember the shape.
This is the form of penne that has ridges. Rigate means “ridges”. So that should be easy to remember.
Penne lisce or mostaccioli
This type of penne doesn’t have any ridges at all! It’s smooth on the outside. In fact, lisce translates as “smooth” in Italian. Mostaccioli means “small mustaches”, I guess because mustaches look smooth or maybe it’s the shape?
Mezze translates into “half”, meaning half size. I love this type of penne and use it as my go-to when I’m not in the mood for a long pasta like vermicelli or angel hair, but don’t want a thick one either.
Mezze penne is smaller than regular penne in size in both thickness and length. You can spear a bunch at once with a fork, and they cook faster due to their size. According to Sharethepasta.org, penne mostaccioli originates from the Campagnia region in southern Italy.
History of Penne and Rigatoni
Although we all assume pasta’s birthplace is Italy, the fact is that no one is fully sure. For the Italians, we hear the word pasta and we think of spaghetti, lasagna, penne, etc. But other ancient cultures also used pasta but more as noodles, like in ancient China.
The first evidence of pasta recipes from Italy were from cookbooks dated in the early 13th century. I’d love to have one of those cookbooks!
And here’s another fun fact, according to the National Pasta Association, the first Italian pasta manufacturing facility that was located in Brooklyn, NY was run by a French immigrant Antoine Zerega in 1848! Read the article on the NPA site for a quick history.
When to use Rigatoni or Penne
There are a few factors when deciding to use rigatoni or penne to use in your Italian recipes.
Sauces and Meat
Pasta shapes that have ridges work well with thicker sauces that have bits of cheese or meat. With the exception of penne mosticiolli, penne and rigatoni work fine.
The chunkier the sauce, the better off you are with larger shapes. In this case rigatoni wins.
In the picture I took above, you can see the ridges of my penne help keep the sauce from sliding off. Since it was a meatless sauce, I wasn’t concerned about the size of the pasta.
For smooth pasta shapes such as penne mosticiolli or even ziti, opt for lighter and creamier sauces. Think of an alfredo sauce that would coat the pasta more evenly, unlike a sauce that has lots of small clumps of meat.
Typically, baked pasta dishes use larger and thicker shapes. This is why rigatoni is often used for these dishes. However, if you don’t have rigatoni, you can use penne rigate.
When to use Mezze Penne?
Since mezze penne doesn’t fit in either category due to its size, I recommend using this type of pasta with recipes that use vegetables or light sauces such as zucchini with pasta, pesto, or pasta with fresh tomatoes and garlic.
If you follow many of my recipes, you’ll see that I frequently tell you that in the end, what matters most is what you like personally. There are no hard and fast rules, but guidelines when it comes to cooking easy Italian recipes.
Although the definitions of rigatoni and penne are defined, how we use them ultimately comes down to personal preference. Use my advice as a guideline, but feel free to get creative and deviate if you want.
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I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and learned some new insights about rigatoni vs penne. There are over 600 pasta shapes out there and now you’ve got 598 more to go! If you’ve got your own tips, be sure to comment below and let me know!