Rigatoni vs Penne

Rigatoni vs Penne

*This post likely contains affiliate links; I may earn a small commission at no cost to you. More info: HCK disclaimer.

I could explain why pasta was able to cross oceans and edge its way into the hearts of people all over the world (including my own), but I think the great Anthony Bourdain summed it up best: It actually takes quite an effort to make poor linguine pomodoro.”

And isn’t that the truth! Out of any food on this amazing, it-takes-all-kinds planet of ours, pasta is the hardest to screw up. Even if you break every rule in the book, I’d bet on the fact that you’d still have a tasty dish when it’s all said and done.

Rigatoni vs Penne

So if you’re standing in the aisle at the store, googling “rigatoni vs. penne”, asking yourself if you really need to buy even more shapes of pasta when you already have so many in your cabinets … relax. Whatever you’re making will still be delish, I promise.

But, now that that’s out of the way, we should probably discuss the differences between rigatoni and penne in more detail. Not because the type of pasta you use is the difference between a pasta flourish or a pasta flop. Because a food that loves each of us as much as pasta does deserves to be loved back with respect to all its beautiful intricacies.

So let’s jump in!

What is Rigatoni Pasta?

Rigatoni is a tubular extruded pasta of the short-cut variety. It borrows its name from the Italian word for “ridged”, rigato, a reference to its signature grooved surface.

Rigatoni is one of the largest kinds of pasta, aside from the obvious culprits like manicotti and lasagna. Because of its large size, cylindrical shape, and quintessential ridges, it’s a great pick for chunky pasta sauces, robust meat sauces, and dishes with lots of veggies that can hide out in its spacious hollow center.

Like most other beloved dried pasta, save for egg-based pasta like fettuccine, pappardelle, and tagliatelle, rigatoni comes from a simple combo of semolina flour and durum flour. These flours are the secret sauce that makes pasta incorporate perfectly with…well…sauce!

However, if you want to go full old-country and make your own from scratch (a a personal lifelong goal), most rigatoni recipes are egg-based, too. I mean, they call for a half dozen eggs – if that’s not enough to be considered egg-based, then I don’t know what is!

Rigatoni Pasta

What is Rigatoni Pasta Traditionally Used For?

Rigatoni stars in some of the most iconic Italian and Sicilian dishes of all time.

It’s great for Carbonara since its large tubular crevices make for unparalleled pancetta and pea pockets. Every bite is an explosion of perfectly contrasting, drool-worthy flavor.

Rigatoni Alla Norma is a Sicilian favorite that features rigatoni heavily. It’s a saucy swirl of marinara, fried eggplant, and grated ricotta salata cheese, finished with fresh basil. Fun fact: in Sicily, Rigatoni is called maccheroni, said to be derived from the Greek makaria, meaning “food made from barley”.

And rigatoni is an excellent pasta for pasta all’Amatriciana, a traditional dish that graces trattoria menus all over Italy. This party on a plate is a testament to the elegant simplicity of Italian cuisine. The toothsome combo of guanciale (cured pork cheek), marinara, grated pecorino, and crushed red pepper perfectly accompany rigatoni’s hearty mouthfeel.

Rigatoni Pasta

What is Penne Pasta?

Thomas Jefferson might be credited with bringing pasta extruders to the US masses, but we have a pasta pioneer named Giovanni Battista Capurro to thank for penne. In 1865, he created and patented penne pasta, made on his specialized pasta extruder that could cut pasta at an angle. A truly monumental day in the history of pasta.

Like rigatoni, penne is a cylindrical, ridged, and hollow extruded pasta. But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike rigatoni, penne has angled, pointy end pieces. These points on either side can help direct sauce into its center. It also has a much smaller diameter.

Its “just right” size and shape make it a very versatile pasta. From minestrone to salads to traditional pasta dishes, it’s a safe bet for pretty much anything you can dream up.

Some sources claim penne can be smooth or ridged. But since we’re being technical here, smooth penne is actually a separate variety of pasta: mostaccioli.

Like the rest of its culinary family tree, penne is usually a semolina flour-based pasta. But not always! Penne is also available as gluten-free pasta or in whole-grain varieties.

Penne Pasta

What is Penne Pasta Traditionally Used For?

Like I said, you can use penne pasta in anything. Well, you can’t make a lasagna with it….okay, okay, you can use it in pretty much anything. So it should come as no surprise: that versatility carries over into traditional Italian cuisine, too.

You might be familiar with Penne All’Arrabiata, which pairs penne with a devilishly spicy tomato sauce (I sure am, after I ordered it once thinking I could take the heat and quickly got put in my place).

Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola, or penne in vodka sauce to you and me, showcases penne’s knack for balancing out the richest of sauces.

And then there’s the deceptively simple Penne Aglio e Olio: penne, olive oil, lemon, garlic, and anchovies/red pepper flakes. It’s like a cheat code to culinary sophistication for broke college students and tired office workers everywhere.

Penne Pasta

What are the Main Differences Between Rigatoni and Penne Pasta?

Given the fact that they’re both ridged tubes, rigatoni and penne are pretty easy to mix up.

But telling them apart is like taking a good selfie: you’ve gotta know your angles! Penne has angled edges; rigatoni does not.

There are also a few other key differences between penne and rigatoni, though. I don’t think being unaware of these would tip the scales into ruined dinner territory, but hey- ask (or Google) and you shall receive.

Rigatoni vs Penne Pasta

Cooking Times and Methods

Let me preface this section by saying that this won’t be a life-changing revelation to any pasta-heads out there. Cooking rigatoni and penne is just like cooking any other pasta: water, salt, boil it, throw the pasta in, set a timer, and boom. Perfect pasta.

But overcooked pasta is one of the only ways you could really mess up pasta. Almost everything else is pretty forgiving, so it’s important to get this step right!

On that note, you might be surprised to know that penne cooks a little bit quicker than rigatoni. Penne is usually al dente at the 10-12 minute mark. Rigatoni, on the other hand, may need as long as 15 minutes.

With all that being said, always double-check the instructions on the packaging before you set a timer! (I swear, I say this so much I should probably get t-shirts made.)

If you’re a master of patience and made your own fresh pasta, you’ll want to boil rigatoni for no longer than 4 minutes. For penne, keep it to 2-3 minutes. 

For store-bought fresh pasta, the instructions on the packaging will tell you more than I’ll be able to.

Volume

Just because your recipe calls for 6 ounces of dried pasta doesn’t mean you’ll have the same amount of penne as you will rigatoni once it’s all boiled. Assuming that will be the case can totally throw off your delicate balance of sauce and pasta!

Some pastas expand during cooking more than others.

So, which one is the heavyweight in this matchup? That would be one Mr. Riga “The Ridge” Toni.

If you’re swapping out penne for rigatoni, or vice versa, don’t just sub the exact amount and hope for the best.

If it’s a penne recipe, making slight adjustments to the amount of sauce/oil/whatever will keep that golden ratio in check.

Or, if it’s a dish without sauce, like Pasta Aglia e Olio, adjust the amount of pasta you boil. Use a little more or a little less depending on what the original recipe calls for.

Suitability

Both rigatoni and penne are utilitarian types of pasta, so you won’t run into too many situations where you’d be dead wrong to use either of them.

But like any true Renaissance man/woman, there are some scenarios where they shine just a little bit brighter than the others.

Rigatoni’s Best Uses/Pairings

Rigatoni can be used with pretty much any sauce or in any preparation. But it’s probably at its best when it’s paired with something chunky, and hefty.

As you might remember, rigatoni is one of the biggest kinds of pasta. Equally big accompaniments (in both flavor and physical size) guarantee the pasta doesn’t overpower the other flavors in the dish. Do right by your rigatoni and match it with a heavier sauce or ample meat and veggies.

Penne’s Best Uses/Pairings

Penne is great in all its iterations and with all types of sauces. But it doesn’t meld with a rich, meaty ragu quite like Rigatoni does, thanks to its smaller size.

Its smaller size is its secret strength, though: it won’t overpower lighter sauces or simple preparations without sauce.

It also makes for a mean pasta salad, since its hollow center is small enough to trap dressing, but not so big that it makes tossing the ingredients a challenge.

Rigatoni vs Penne Pasta side by side

Can You Substitute Penne and Rigatoni?

Yes! You can totally use penne and rigatoni interchangeably, with a little bit of finesse.

Rigatoni is bigger than Penne, so if you’re preparing a dish with sauce, adjust the amount of sauce you use accordingly.

And if you’re using rigatoni for a pasta salad, it might be wise to give it a little bit of extra chilling time. This will allow the flavors of the dressing/marinade to soak into the pasta since its center is a little too big for globs of it to hide out.

What About Ziti Pasta? Ziti vs Rigatoni vs Penne Pasta

Ziti pasta is a little bit rigatoni, a little bit penne, a little bit mostaccioli.

Picture long hollow tubes, without angled edges, like thinner rigatoni pasta. Now, make those tubes longer. But also, imagine it with a smooth surface, unlike both penne and rigatoni. That’s Ziti!

Ziti is a bit more delicate than both penne and rigatoni, so it should be used with simple tomato sauces. After all, you don’t want it to tear up into something you don’t recognize before you plate it up. That’s the risk you take when you pair ziti with chunkier sauces.

It’s a superstar when it comes to both baked pasta dishes and alfredo sauces, though. Its smooth texture allows creamy sauces or light marinara to glide right over it and coat every individual noodle consistently, making each bite exactly as yummy as the last.

Essentially, rigatoni and penne are the cylindrical pasta types for the folks who like each bite to be an adventure. Ziti is for the folks who want each bite to be comforting.

Rigatoni vs Penne Pasta side by side

Penne vs Rigatoni: My Final Thoughts

Rigatoni and Penne are as similar as two types of pasta can be, but there are slight differences in mouthfeel, cooking time, and size.

While you can use the two interchangeably, having a little bit of know-how about how they differ will go a long way toward making a tasty bowl of pasta.

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!