Pasta consumption around the world is on the increase. Combine the growing vegan trend with our focus on sustainable food production and you’ve got an ingredient that’s in hot demand.

As our hunger for pasta increases, so too do the variety of pasta types. With an estimated 350 pasta types in Italy, it’s not surprising that some of them will look quite similar.

Two pasta shapes that are commonly confused are ziti and penne. In fact some recipes, and even stores, will use the two interchangeably. It’s easy to understand why: they’re both cylindrical shaped, hollow pasta. Although similar, there are subtle differences and they both have their specific uses in Italian cooking.

This article will look at the differences between ziti and penne pasta. But before we look at each of them, first let’s find out what each of their names mean when translated.

Pasta fact
The average Italian consumes 26 kg of pasta each year.

What does Ziti mean?

Ziti was first made in Campania, Italy. Its name originated from the word zito, which can be translated as “bridegroom”. Pasta is traditionally eaten at weddings which explains the association.

What does Penne mean?

Penne also originated in Campania and has a diagonal edge which looks a lot like a quill tip pen. It’s this shape that resulted in the name penne, which translates to pens.

The differences between ziti and penne

These two pastas have a similar taste and it would be quite acceptable to substitute one for the other in a recipe.

Comparing penne and ziti
Penne has diagonal ends. Ziti looks like a tube.

The differences lie in the shape; these subtle contrasts mean that each works better in certain dishes. Let’s look at these differences:

  1. The ends: penne has each end cut diagonally which differs to the straight cut ends of ziti. The ends of ziti make it look a lot like a tube.
  2. The length: penne measures about 1½ inches whereas ziti ranges from 1½ – 3 inches. It can also be sold in 10″ pieces or even longer which are broken into pieces when cooked.
  3. The Diameter: Ziti is ¼ inch whilst penne is larger at ½ inch.
  4. Their variations: Penne can be smooth or ridged whereas ziti is usually smooth.

The key differences summarized

How the ends lookCut diagonally like a quill penStraight ends like a pipe
Length1 1/2 inches1 1/2 - 10 inches, sometimes longer
Diameter1/2 inch1/4 inch
SurfaceSmooth or ridgedUsually smooth

How to use each pasta like a true Italian

In Italy, penne is traditionally boiled for 12 minutes until al dente then combined with sauce in a shallow pan.

Penne pasta with sauce
Penne is delicious used in a ragu.

Ziti is often cooked for only 5-8 minutes until it starts to soften but it still under cooked. It then gets added to a casserole dish with cheese and baked until deliciously browned on top. This dish is a lot like Mac n Cheese.

Penne pairs with

Although penne pairs well with almost any sauce, it works brilliantly with chunky sauce, chunky meat and vegetables. Oil-based or cream sauces both complement penne well.

Ziti Pairs with

Similar to penne, ziti pairs well in baked dishes with chunky sauces and meat. Ziti also makes a smart addition to stir-fries and salads.

Bonus Tips

  • Pasta with ridges allow sauce to stick to it better than smooth pasta.
  • You’ll find it’s easier to overcook ziti. Penne is thicker and can tolerate longer cooking times.

Final words

If you’ve only got penne in the pantry and your recipe calls for ziti don’t stress; you can use the two interchangeably. Most of us wouldn’t notice the difference. But if Nonna is coming to visit from Italy and you want to impress, you’d better not drop the ball on this one. She’ll notice if food is her thing – and let’s face it, food is always their thing!

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