I used to think that macaroni was macaroni - pasta was pasta. In a strictly physical sense this is true. Even though most pastas are made of the same ingredients there is indeed a difference in taste generated by the various shapes.
There are also differences in sauce retention. For example a spaghetti will not hold marinara sauce in the same way a shell will hold it. Twirly noodles are great with white sauces and can take the place of egg noodles in many dishes.
When picking a pasta it is best to understand your objective. A thin sauce requires a more contoured noodle, pinwheels, elbow macaroni or shells. For thick sauces flat noodles are permissible - spaghetti and linguini. Even these, though, can differ in size and effect. Making a dish with the wrong noodle can be like trying to play baseball with a football. A football won't fly very far when hit by a baseball bat. By the same token macaroni doesn't fly very far in a clam sauce.
Some pastas are numbered as to their size. Linguini sizes are especially important. There are numbers 12, 13 and 14. 13 is the optimum size. 12 is insufficient in width to hold an adequate amount of sauce and 14 is too thick. No. 13 is not generally considered a lucky number. Builders have been known to leave the number off from elevator buttons. Yet for linguini it is the best possible pasta.
Many pasta packages mention "al dente". This is the transcendental state of cooked pasta, above dried and below soggy. In Italian "dente" means dentures and graphically depicts what you will need if you eat the pasta before it is cooked to this level.
There is one final rule - in the end - pasta is indeed pasta. If you run out of the optimum pasta, just toss in a different one. It will still work - perhaps not as well, but it will work. You see, you can play baseball with a football. It will just make the game a little more physical - and sometimes even more fun.
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