All of the endless varieties of pasta derive from a combination of only three ingredients: flour, salt, and something wet to bind it into a dough.
Though there are a lot of different flours and wet things you can choose from (salt is pretty much just salt, though), for the most part you can make any type of pasta you like if you master just two different combinations of these ingredients. The first, semolina dough, is made of semolina flour and water. The second, egg dough, is made from egg and either all-purpose flour or, if you can find it, Italian “00 flour.” It’s a bit odd referring to one dough based on its flour and another based on its moisture source, but that seems to be the convention so let’s go with it.
There are variations on these themes, of course. You can play with flours—wheat, spelt, and chestnut are three fun ones—or use a combination of water and egg, or add moisture from a creative source like puréed spinach or squid ink. But all pasta dough is basically just a riff on one or both of these two “master” doughs.
The differences in the character of the pasta that these two doughs produce are pretty vast. Semolina dough yields a hearty, rustic pasta emblematic of the Italian peasant cooking style known as cucina povera. Egg dough produces a rich, silky, refined pasta that, when cooked properly, has that classic texture and mouthfeel known as al dente. The concept of al dente is much less rigid (excuse the pun) with semolina dough pastas, which ideally have an almost chewy texture and are more tolerant to slight over- or undercooking.
Perhaps inspired by the iconic image of eggs swimming in a mound of flour, folks usually envision egg dough as the default starting point for handmade pasta. Perhaps not coincidentally, handmade pasta has a reputation for being frustrating and time consuming, and most home cooks attempt it only for special occasions if at all. Working with egg dough can take some real practice. Using something protein-rich like eggs as a moisture source is bound to yield a stiff dough to begin with, and since you want to add only enough moisture to barely bind the dough, you’re making a tight, tough dough by definition.
Indeed, I would argue that pastas based around semolina dough offer a more accessible entry point for those relatively new to handmade pasta. It’s a softer dough that’s quite a bit easier to work with than its eggy counterpart, more forgiving of too much or too little moisture. And this dough is not passed through a pasta roller, thus eliminating what many people find the most confounding part of the process. If you’re new to handmade pasta or simply looking for some new ideas, a simple semolina dough-based shape like cavatelli or trofie is probably a great place to start. There aren’t a lot of steps to get it right, and with just a little practice you’ll find yourself producing consistent results and building up speed. As you start to get bored and crave variety, start mixing in egg pastas from time to time, having already flattened the learning curve a good bit with the easier dough.
While there are many classic pairings of a pasta and a sauce, in practice you can (and should!) pair any sauce or condiment with a wide range of pastas. With practice, you’ll start to get a feel for how sauces and pastas complement one another, and you can start to experiment with unique and expressive combinations. The first and most impactful choice to be made is whether to start with a semolina dough, an egg dough, or something in between. By defining where a dish will fall along the rustic-refined spectrum, the choice of dough ultimately determines the character of the finished dish.