Rigatoni vs Penne Explained

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.  

rigatoni vs penne

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

penne vs rigatoni

Length

Rigatoni and penne are short in length, but rigatoni is longer than penne.  

Width

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.  

End cuts

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. 

Surface

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. 

types of penne
These are three types of penne pasta.

Penne

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.  

Penne Rigate

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 Penne

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

penne with meatless sauce
Last night’s dinner. Notice how the meatless sauce and cheese cling to the 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.  

Baked Pastas 

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. 

For stuffed pasta bakes, you wouldn’t use rigatoni, but you’d use it’s much larger cousin, manicotti – such as my spinach manicotti recipe or manicotti crepes recipe.

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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Pasta with fresh tomatoes is easy and delicious and goes great with penne.

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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! 

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Rigatoni vs Penne Explained

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