Detail of fusilli and rotini noodles side by side.

Fusilli Vs. Rotini

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If you’re looking for further proof that all shapes are beautiful, look no further than pasta. From lasagna to pappardelle to cannelloni, I’ve never seen a variety of pasta that didn’t dazzle me. It blows my mind to think about how something with three ingredients can be molded and morphed into over 350 distinct varieties! But when you compare some types of pasta to others, that distinction can become hazy- none more so than fusilli vs. rotini.

But in the spirit of seeing all types of pasta as the unique individuals they are and honoring their traditional roots, let’s explore the differences between the two a little bit closer.

What is Fusilli?

Fusilli pasta gets its name from the Italian word for spindle: ‘fuso’. Hailing from Southern Italy, it’s a semolina flour-based short-cut pasta. 

Now, here’s the part where the definition of fusilli gets muddled. Put “Fusilli” into Google Images, and you’re most likely going to get mixed results: some pictures will feature true fusilli, but a good chunk of them will be pictures of rotini.

That’s because, at some point, US-based pasta manufacturers decided to use lump fusilli and rotini together. Most of the “fusilli” you see on the grocery shelves is technically rotini (because rotini is easier to mass-produce if I had to guess). 

So, this begs the question: what is fusilli, actually? 

Well, going by the traditional definition, fusilli is spaghetti spun around a small rod during shaping. This gives it a spring-like twisted shape. Fusilli can also be made with flat noodles, which is probably why it gets so easily confused with rotini

But the key quality that sets fusilli apart is the way it’s made. It’s molded to create its signature curly spirals, not extruded.

It can come in a variety of food-derived colors: green/spinach, red/lentil, and black/squid ink

But, once again, most colored “fusilli” available in the US is actually (say it with me, now!) rotini. 

There are also a few variations on fusilli you might see if you hit up an Italian specialty shop for pasta.

There’s Fusilli Bucati, which is fusilli made from hollow tubes. Kind of like a spiral-shaped macaroni noodle. Fusilli Lunghi is a solid, long-cut fusilli. And don’t forget Fusilli Col Buco, AKA Fusilli Lunghi Bucati! Think Fusilli Bucati…but make it spaghetti-length. 

A pile of Fusilli noodles on a wood table.

What Is Fusilli Traditionally Used For?

Fusilli is a dense, hearty pasta, and needs a dense, hearty sauce to match! 

In traditional dishes, it’s usually paired with a thick, spicy Arrabiata sauce or a meaty lamb ragu- something with lots of flavorful little vittles that get caught in the gaps between the twists.

It’s best used in situations where the flavor of the pasta won’t overwhelm the sauce, so avoid thinner sauces.

How to Cook Fusilli Pasta

You can cook fusilli the same way you cook any other pasta: boil water in a large pot with a generous helping of salt, add the pasta, and cook it til it’s al dente.

For dried fusilli, that sweet spot is somewhere between 10-12 minutes. If you have the pleasure of having fresh fusilli on hand, 3-4 minutes should be just right. Set a timer! You don’t want overcooked pasta on your hands.

Once the pasta is cooked, whip out your colander and drain before they overcook. Add in your sauce/oil/cream/whatever right away, otherwise they’ll get stuck together. 

A pile of Fusilli noodles, detailed.

What is Rotini?

Rotini might be a dead ringer for Fusilli to the untrained eye – it’s twisty and short. But beyond first looks, it’s actually pretty different.

Rotini originated in Northern Italy in the post-industrial wave of pasta innovation that came with the advent of the pasta extruder. Its name translates roughly to “little twists”.

It has a tighter spiral than fusilli, with flatter ridges, and comes out of the extruder in its twisted shape. 

Like fusilli, rotini is usually semolina flour-based, but it can also be made from a wide variety of healthier substitutes: whole wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, brown rice, etc. 

Rotini can also be colored with vegetable-based dyes or squid/cuttlefish ink.

A pile of rotini noodles on a wood table.

What Is Rotini Traditionally Used For?

Rotini is the pasta of choice for cold pasta salads! With all its ridges, it holds onto dressing well and ensures every bite is packed with flavor. 

Rotini was actually originally created for feeding children. Its fun shape adds a little bit of cheer to kid-friendly dinners. And it can be paired with pretty much any kind of sauce, making it a real picky-eater pleaser.

But like Fusilli, dishes with hearty, chunky sauces are where Rotini really shines. All that sauce gets trapped in all of its many layers, marrying the elements of the meal in one tasty divine union. 

How to Cook Rotini Pasta

Cooking rotini pasta is pretty much the exact same process as cooking fusilli; just boil it in salted water for 10-12 minutes. For fresh rotini pasta, keep the boiling time around 3 minutes.

But if you’ve read anything else on this blog, then you probably know what I’m going to say: the product packaging is always your first line of defense! Check the cooking instructions specific to your pasta so you don’t overboil. 

Overcooked pasta is a one-way ticket to sauce that doesn’t incorporate well, mushy pasta, and questioning your will to live. Or is that just me?

A pile of rotini noodles on a wood table, detailed.

What Is The Difference Between Fusilli and Rotini?

How they’re made, and what they’re made of, is the biggest difference between fusilli and rotini. 

Fusilli can be either extruded or hand-cut in its early stages as straight pasta. But it’s what comes after that makes it fusilli – it’s manipulated to get its distinct spiral shape. 

Rotini is a fully extruded pasta, meaning it’s formed and twisted in one step

Since this is a largely automated process, rotini can be made with all kinds of alternative grains or carb-free ingredients. Like fusilli, though, it’s most commonly semolina-based.

Can You Use Fusilli and Rotini Interchangeably?

There really isn’t a situation or recipe where you couldn’t swap rotini for fusilli or the other way around unless the fusilli in question is a specialty variety (fusilli lunghi, fusilli bucati). 

Rotini is a tiny bit better for pasta salads, but fusilli will still work well in a pinch.

Even if your recipe does call for fusilli lunghi, you’ll probably be safe to use rotini. 

You’ll just need to adjust the volume of your sauce or boiled pasta accordingly. The dried volume vs. cooked volume of the two pastas could very well be different. 

So be prepared with extra sauce or be ready to part with some of your boiled pasta if the ratio seems off.

Single Fusilli and Rotini noodle side by side on a wood table.

Substitutes For Fusilli or Rotini

Don’t have Fusilli or Rotini on hand? That’s quite alright! Another beautiful thing about pasta I didn’t mention yet: it’s famously forgiving. Depending on what you’re using the pasta for, these are some of the best substitutes for fusilli and rotini, in no particular order. 

Cavatappi

Cavatappi is another silly springy pasta. It’s very similar to fusilli bucatini, except it has ridges on its surface that give it extra sauce-snuggling power. Cavatappi is great with pesto or cheese-based sauces or in dishes with lots of veggies, i.e. Cavatappi Primavera.

Rotelle

Fusilli and rotelle have a pretty big thing in common: they both get mistaken for rotini. That’s probably because Rotelle kind of sounds like rotini. At least, I’m assuming, because it sure doesn’t look like it.

But trust me, once you’ve been shown the ways of this wheel-y fun pasta, it’s hard to forget it! The spaces in between its “spokes” are the perfect sauce snares, so rotelle is best in dishes with a robust, chunky meat sauce.

Rigatoni

Rigatoni is a hollow, tube-shaped pasta with ridges on its surface. With its roomy interior and its grooved surface, it’s basically a sauce and fixin’ magnet. It has a special place in traditional Italian cuisine, where it’s the pasta of choice for Pasta Alla Carbonara and Pasta All’Amatriciana.

Ziti

Ziti is like if the elbow used as the reference for elbow macaroni were extended straight – small, smooth tubes of pasta. It’s fairly delicate and has little to no frictional resistance, so it’s not the best for chunky sauces or pasta salad. Ziti is a safe pick for baked pasta dishes, though! So if that’s what you need it for, have at it!

Penne

Penne is similar to rigatoni, except it’s narrower and cut at an angle. Penne can be used in pretty much any pasta dish, from pasta salad to cacio e pepe, to minestrone and everything in between. No matter what you’re using pasta for, penne is a solid sub. 

Conchiglie

All shapes (of pasta) are beautiful, no doubt about it. But conchiglie, aka shell pasta, might just be the most aesthetically pleasing of them all. And Conchiglie isn’t just another pretty face…she’s got substance! 

From the grooves on her exterior and her unique shape, she envelopes sauce and other flavorful goodness. Conchiglie is a great substitute for fusilli or rotini…however you’re using them. 

Detail of fusilli and rotini noodles side by side.

Final Thoughts

The difference between Fusilli and Rotini mostly matters if you’re going to prepare them from scratch since it has more to do with the method than the finished result. 

You can pretty much use them interchangeably, and most “fusilli” isn’t actually fusilli, anyway. 

But now that you know the difference, you’re armed with all the knowledge you need to be THAT person should this ever come up at a cocktail party: “ACTUALLY, that’s technically not fusilli; that’s rotini.” 

About Author

TiaGoodnight

Hey! I'm Tia, and I started this site to bring you the best information on all things kitchen so you can enjoy and elevate your everyday life.

I love trying new techniques and tools, living for the thrill of pulling off a new skill. On weekends you'll find me at the local farmer's markets or hosting friends and family for an evening of yard or card games and delicious food.

If you're looking for honest, real-world advice on all things kitchen and cooking, you're in the right place!