When it comes to pasta, size and shape matter. There are so many pasta shapes and we really don’t get bored of talking about them because each one holds onto sauce in its own wonderful way—becasue of those little nooks and ridges, the spirals, the holes, the surface irregularities, and the curves that are unique to each and every shape. And we all agree that even the greatest shape is nothing without its accompanying sauce.
These saucy pasta dishes are the ones we come back to time and time again. Some of these dishes have been passed down through the ages by generations of Italians, thereby earning their rightful place in the sauced pasta canon. Are there other great Italian sauces and pasta types not on this list? Of course. But these are some standouts to start with as you cook your way through this year's Starch Madness tournament.
As Daniel lays out in his guide to making pesto alla genovese, this sauce originates from the Ligurian city of Genoa and its environs. Its rich green color and tantalizing aroma is due to the fistfuls of basil that get pounded into the sauce. The only other ingredients are olive oil, nuts (usually pine nuts), cheese, garlic, and salt. Grab a mortar and pestle for the best results, or use a food processor for the quickest version. Then use the sauce to dress pasta and any of your favorite vegetables.
The mere mention of tomato sauce might conjure up images of a slowly simmering sauce, going on its third or fourth hour of cooking. While an Italian-American red sauce really does cook for hours, a more typical Italian tomato sauce, made either from fresh tomatoes or a very briefly cooked passata, spends much less time on the stove, which produces a fresher, less deeply sweet flavor. In our recipe, which uses the fresh fruit, a sauce made from ripe plum tomatoes is enhanced with two other components: a slowly baked tomato purée that's intensely flavorful and sweet, and a barely cooked sauce that maintains some fresh-from-the-vine brightness. Lightly coat al dente spaghetti with the sauce, pour yourself a glass of wine, and call it a day.
Cooks in Southern Italy have been making variations of a puttanesca sauce for hundreds of years, and for good reason: it's simple and delicious. You bloom olives and garlic in plenty of hot olive oil along with red pepper flakes and briny capers. Add tomatoes and simmer the mixture until your spaghetti is almost done cooking, then add both the pasta and a few spoonfuls of the starchy cooking water and stir and toss until velvety sauce coats each noodle. The pasta is finished with salt, pepper, and big chunks of optional—but highly recommended—canned tuna.
If you were to strip many of the most classic Italian pasta sauces down to their bones, you’d be left with some variation of aglio e olio—a gloriously simple combination of garlic (aglio) and oil (olio). For an ideal weeknight meal, when you don’t feel compelled to pull more than two or three ingredients from the shelf, spaghetti aglio e olio never disappoints.
If there were a king of meat sauces, it would be ragù Bolognese. Its roots—and its name—can be traced back to the northern Italian city of Bologna. The basic sauce of slowly cooked ground meat, butter, onions, and carrots has spawned countless variations both in Italy and the States. Chefs will choose different kinds of meat, opt for more or less wine, or go heavier or lighter on the tomato (though let's be clear: Bolognese is not supposed to be a tomato-heavy sauce with meat). But at its core, the meaty, filling sauce is all about comfort, and it's frequently served one of two ways: either intermingling with long ribbons of fresh tagliatelle or layered into a classic lasagna Bolognese.
Like many of the best Roman pasta sauces, carbonara’s beauty is in its sheer simplicity. You render some form of cured pork (most traditionally guanciale, but pancetta or even bacon can be used) while spaghetti cooks. While that happens, you whisk whole eggs and yolks, Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and black pepper together until thoroughly combined. Then, to finish the pasta, you mix everything up and heat it enough to thicken the luscious sauce but not scramble the eggs (and we have a special foolproof technique to help you nail the perfect consistency every time).
Anyone who has tried it knows that cacio e pepe embodies the definition of an essential dish. The ingredient list is short, calling for little more than cheese (that's the cacio) and black pepper (pepe), but the finished dish explodes with flavor. To make it, you bloom black pepper in olive oil, then you add water from a pot of boiling spaghetti to the pan. When the spgahetti is cooked perfectly al dente, you add it to the sauce finish with lots of salty Pecorino Romano cheese. And just like that, a humble combination of fat, starch, and cheese transforms into one of Italy’s most beloved pasta sauces.
Combining brown butter and sage in a hot pan is so simple that to call the mixture a "sauce" almost feels like a stretch. But there’s no denying the deep pleasure produced by the combination: The sage imbues the butter with all of its woodsy flavor just as the butter is beginning to brown and become nutty-tasting. At that point, you could pour the butter on more or less anything, but in the world of pasta, your best bet is to use it with the fresh stuff, not something out of a box. Two of the more traditional pairings are gnocchi (homemade, of course) and ravioli (also homemade, also of course!).
With a delicate heat and meaty notes of cured pork, bucatini all’amatriciana is a simple yet flavorful way to get dinner on the table. The classic Roman dish starts by cooking guanciale with red pepper flakes before adding dry white wine, which helps you to scrape up the tasty browned bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. Using whole, peeled tomatoes that you crush yourself makes a quick sauce with a bright flavor that contrasts nicely with the rich pork. Finishing the pasta in the sauce, along with some grated Pecorino Romano, ensures that the noodles are coated evenly.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the ingredients—this pasta still delivers big on flavor. It leans on anchovies and estratto, a tomato concentrate, for its salty, savory, and sweet flavor profile. After you cook down the anchovies in oil and add the tomato concentrate, a little bit of pasta water will help transform the mixture from a paste to a sauce. Toss your pasta—we chose bucatini, here—until well-coated, then throw in some golden raisins and pine nuts, additions that, while optional, offer some sweetness and nuttiness, as well as textural complexity. Sprinkle with toasted breadcrumbs for a crunchy finish.
Arrabbiata—which means “angry”—is nothing more than tomato sauce with a hefty capsaicin kick to it. The beauty of the sauce is that you can make it as “angry” as you’re comfortable with. You can even swap out the dried chiles with fresh red ones if you like. While the sauce calls for canned tomatoes, we like to swap in the same amount of fresh ones during peak season.
Ricotta gnocchi is one of the easiest fresh pastas you can make. While they can be served numerous ways, they're perfect for showing off your best spring produce. The key to light and tender gnocchi is good quality ricotta—a lot of the mass market stuff has a gritty texture and lacks flavor, so you’ll want to reach for a brand like Calabro or something from your local farmer’s market. The sauce comes together very quickly: sautée the prosciutto and asparagus and add heavy cream and parmesan before mixing in the gnocchi. To finish it off, stir in lemon juice and zest, chives, and a bit of pasta cooking water before serving.
Gnocchi alla bava's rich and creamy sauce leans on the earthy, nutty, and buttery flavor of Fontina cheese. Since it’s easily meltable, the cheese doesn’t require any extra fussing to turn it into a smooth and stable emulsion—just whisk it into cream over heat, along with some butter, black pepper, and nutmeg. As for the gnocchi, we do (strongly) recommend making them from scratch, but the tender and lightly sweet potato dumplings are well worth the effort. (And they're really not that hard to make!)
A classic duo in Italian peasant cuisine, beans and greens join forces in this quick, easy, and hearty pasta dish that doesn’t skimp on flavor. As always, we recommend using dried beans and their cooking water for the best results, but canned beans and store-bought stock will also work. Garlic, anchovies, and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes give the sauce a savory depth, while a splash of white wine adds sweet acidity. The sauce is combined with torn kale, tubular pasta, starchy pasta water, and funky Pecorino Romano cheese to make a deliciously comforting meal that makes use of some common pantry staples.
With a name like boscaiola, which comes from the word for "woodcutter" or "woodsman," it’s no wonder this pasta is smoky, earthy, and deeply satisfying. It relies heavily on mushrooms, so we reach for both fresh and dried ones. Soaking dried porcini in wine to rehydrate them and then using that infused wine in the sauce maximizes the mushroom flavor, and the addition of bacon, tomatoes, and a touch of cream make a rich dish that'll have you coming back for seconds.
Here, aglio e olio gets all dressed up with the help of bottarga, a salted, pressed, and dried delicacy that we like to call the parmesan of the sea. It starts with garlic, which you fry in olive oil and then remove once the oil is infused. You then bloom red pepper flakes in the oil, take the pan off the heat, and add a generous handful of grated bottarga. Toss the mixture with cooked pasta and some starchy pasta cooking water and you produce an emulsion that highlights the inimitable flavor of bottarga.
This savory-sweet sauce is made with a host of Sicilian staplees—anchovies, pine nuts, raisins, saffron, and toasted breadcrumbs—some of which are a nod to its North African influence. The base is made from cauliflower florets that are simmered until tender, making them easy to break down into a thick sauce once mixed with the other ingredients. When finishing the pasta in the skillet with the sauce, toasted breadcrumbs are added to give everything more body, and then sprinkled on top for an extra crunch.
Cacio e uova is essentially Naples’ meatless version of carbonara. Its silky sauce is made of eggs—two whole eggs plus an extra yolk keeps everything creamy—and a mixture of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano. To prevent the eggs from scrambling, we toss the mixture with the pasta in a bowl, allowing the hot pasta cooking water and the residual heat of the pasta to gently cook everything. A handful of chopped parsley adds a freshness that cuts through the rich sauce nicely.
Another pantry staple-centric dish is this Roman version of carrettiera. The sauce consists of canned tomatoes, olive oil, dried porcini mushrooms, and olive-oil packed tuna that are sautéed and simmered together, along with minced garlic and parsley for some freshness and red pepper flakes for some heat. Feel free to add in whatever else you have on hand—olives, capers, cheese—to keep with the spirit of the dish.
When plum tomatoes are at their peak, this easy Sicilian pasta sauce is the best way to show them off. They’re mixed with raw minced garlic, chopped basil, olive oil, and red pepper flakes and then tossed with cooked spaghetti and, as always, some starchy cooking water. Though the sauce isn’t cooked at all, once it’s mixed with the hot spaghetti, it will easily emulsify while retaining its fresh flavors. Like many Italian pasta dishes, the variations of this recipe are endless—parsley can be substituted for basil, Pecorino cheese or ricotta salata can be added for more flavor, and tomatoes can be omitted for a in bianco (white) version.
A product of Puglia’s cucina povera, or “poor cuisine,” this dish relies on ingredients that are inexpensive and easily accessible to the people of the region, like broccoli rabe and breadcrumbs made from stale bread. We start by quickly blanching the leaves and florets of the broccoli rabe, helping them tenderize while keeping their color, and then putting them to the side. The orecchiette is then cooked in the same liquid while garlic, anchovies, and chile flakes cook in olive oil. These three components are finished together and topped with the breadcrumbs instead of cheese—an ingredient that was historically expensive for use in cucina povera—for a satisfying mix of bitter, peppery, and savory flavors.
This pasta dish is what happens when aglio e olio gets an umami boost. The no-cook sauce is essentially a vinaigrette that incorporates the savory flavors of colatura, an aged Italian fish sauce that goes a long way with just a little. It’s mixed with garlic, pepper flakes, olive oil, and pasta water before dressing the cooked pasta. Toasted breadcrumbs are incorporated to help strengthen the sauce’s emulsion and offer a slight crunch. Chopped parsley and lemon zest add the final touch to this simple yet flavor-packed dish.
Though this dish is more commonly made with lobster at restaurants, subbing in shrimp is an easy way to make the Italian-American classic at home. Our trick for snappy shrimp that’s never rubbery? Marinating them in baking soda. Beyond that, we sautée the shrimp shells in oil to infuse their flavor in the sauce, and then add bottled clam juice for even more shellfish flavor in every bite. As for the spiciness of the tomato sauce, you can always adjust the quantities to your liking.
Despite the mushrooms in this recipe, pasta ai funghi is one of those comforting dishes that’s good any time of year. Aside from cooking the mushrooms in aromatics and white wine, this recipe shows off some of our best tricks. We like to add gelatin to the chicken stock to give the sauce an added glossiness that helps coat the pasta, while also incorporating a splash of fish sauce for a boost of umami. Butter and parmesan are the perfect finishers to this dish, giving it a creamy richness that you’ll come back to time and time again.
Gricia is minimalist pasta at its finest. One of the four main pasta dishes of Roman cuisine, it calls for just a few ingredients: guanciale, black pepper, pasta, and Pecorino Romano. Rich guanciale fat and starchy pasta water are what help create a silky emulsion that will beautifully glaze every piece of pasta. Despite its minimalism, the low-effort dish manages to maximize on flavor.
A hefty dose of onions makes up much of the flavor of this Neapolitan ragù. Not only do the onions offer their sweetness, but their natural moisture creates a braising liquid for the beef when trapped under the lid of a Dutch oven, eliminating the need for any stock. Beef chuck is preferable over shanks here, especially given its cost and availability. It’s important to braise the beef in large pieces, gently cutting it up when tender instead of shredding, which allows some bits to meld into the sauce while others remain intact. The addition of tomato paste offers a savory backbone, while the acidity of fresh cherry tomatoes plays well with the sweetness of the onions. Though cheese isn’t required, a little sprinkling of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or salty Pecorino Romano never hurt anyone.
Pasta al limone takes classic buttery and cheesy pasta and brightens it up with help of some lemon. We incorporate both the juice and the zest, and then add our not-so-secret ingredient for sauciness without any cream: pasta water. By cooking the pasta in a smaller volume of water than normally recommended, we’re left with even starchier water which helps better emulsify the sauce. Top with more lemon zest and cheese before serving.
Flavorful meat sauce on a weeknight schedule is possible thanks to the power of spicy 'nduja. Its spreadable texture quickly and easily emulsifies into the sauce’s tomato passata base, offering a meaty flavor without the hours-long process required of most meat sauce recipes. The sauce is best paired with ziti, broken-up candele, or any other short tubular pasta. Finish with Pecorino Romano for a salty, savory, and funky dish that’s as easy as it is delicious.
The key to this hearty pasta dish is a homemade pork sausage, which is a lot easier to make than you might think. It simply involves aggressively mixing store-bought ground pork with seasonings by hand to help bind the meat, then letting it sit in the fridge to allow the flavors of the seasonings to come through. This creates a milder sausage than the “Italian” variety that’s commonly sold in the states. White wine, cream, and Pecorino Romano form the sauce, and a bit of black pepper and nutmeg offers a hint of warm spice to finish everything off. Traditionally, the dish is served with a generous shaving of black truffles, but for homemade cooking, this ingredient is completely optional—the pasta is just as impressive without it.
Pasta alla norma is all about the eggplants. When shopping, pick small, dense ones to guarantee an intense, meaty texture. Start by browning the eggplant in a skillet, low and slow to allow them to tenderize without burning. A quick tomato sauce and a dry, ridged, tubular pasta such as rigatoni or penne rigate is all you need to complement the eggplants. Ricotta salata is the traditional final touch, but if you’re unable to find it, you can substitute caciocavallo, or a mix of feta (preferably sheep's milk) and Pecorino Romano cheese.
Whether or not this is a soup, a stew, or a pasta dish depends on who you ask, but what we do know is that pasta and chickpeas paired together make a comforting meal. Though we normally recommend using dried beans, we found that canned chickpeas worked quite well in this recipe—just make sure to blend some of the cooked beans with the broth to create a creamy base to substitute for the cooking liquid that comes from making dried beans. For an umami boost and a touch of color, we like to add a bit of tomato paste. Finish with a swirl of olive oil and a sprinkle of grated Pecorino Romano for a guaranteed rib-sticking meal.
Though pasta e fagioli varies depending on the region, province, and household, the secret to this version of the classic Italian soup is in the beans. Using dried beans and cooking them with plenty of aromatics will give you the best results: The bean-cooking water is essentially a flavorful vegetable stock that'll become the base for your soup. Some of the cooked beans are puréed with their cooking liquid to create the creamy base, while the rest are kept whole. Make sure to hold off on adding the pasta until right before serving to prevent it from getting bloated and waterlogged in the soup.
This easy dish is a Sicilian summertime classic. It highlights the fresh flavors of swordfish, as well as peak tomatoes and eggplants, so you’ll want to seek out the ingredients in their best form to prevent the dish from falling flat. Once these components are cooked, they’re tossed with rigatoni or spaghetti until the sauce has reduced to a silky glaze, and topped off with a drizzle of good olive oil.
Sicily’s version of pesto is similar to Liguria’s more famous basil-rich sauce: it features basil, nuts, olive oil, garlic, and cheese. The difference here is the use of almonds instead of pine nuts, as well as the addition of juicy tomatoes for a lighter and more refreshing flavor. We recommend saving this recipe for peak tomato season, since their quality will make or break the dish. Though you can use a food processor, the sauce is best made by pounding the ingrdients together with a mortar and pestle, which does a better job of releasing the flavors of the ingredients. Make sure to finish the pasta off the heat to preserve the fresh, uncooked taste of the pesto.
A dish as easy and rich as this should be saved for those treat-yourself days. Since prosciutto crudo (the slices normally associated with cheese boards and sandwiches) tends to have a stronger, saltier flavor, we opt for prosciutto cotto here instead. Meanwhile, the sauce is nothing more than reduced cream and starchy pasta water. Frozen peas—the final touch—are incorporated off the heat to prevent them from overcooking.
Since raw tomatoes are the star of this dish, it’s best made in the summertime when they’re at their peak—though you can occasionally get away with top-notch cherry or cocktail tomatoes. You’ll want to combine the tomatoes with olive oil, basil, garlic, and salt, then let the mixture sit for 15 to 30 minutes to allow time for the salt to soften the tomatoes and draw out their juices. This will also help infuse the olive oil with the aromas of the garlic and basil. Unlike most other pastas, this simple and light dish doesn’t rely on starchy pasta water, though you can add some when mixing the pasta with the sauce if it becomes too dry.
Consider this Italy’s version of mac and cheese, though more thoughtfully prepared. The key to success here is using a mix of cheeses with different flavors and textures. The one cheese to avoid? Mozzarella. Though it melts well on pizza, it’s characteristically milky stretch will get in the way of the creamy and smooth cheese sauce this dish requires. Our recipe calls for Taleggio, Parmigiano-Reggiano, gorgonzola dolce, and Gruyère or Fontina, but you can easily replace any of these with similar cheeses.
This Southern Italian tomato sauce is chock full of beef, pork ribs, and sausage. It comes together slowly to give the beef and pork time to cook in the tomato sauce until they achieve fork-tender perfection. The sausage is incorporated at the end to keep it juicy and not tough. When served with spaghetti (or even some fresh tagliatelle or pappardelle), the finished product makes for one heck of an Italian-American Sunday gravy.
Like pasta chi vruoccoli arriminati, the inclusion of ingredients like pine nuts, raisins, and saffron in this dish is an indicator of its heavy Arab influence; the pasta, sardines, fennel, and anchovies are what make it Italian. Though some recipes use canned sardines as a shortcut, we found that their texture doesn’t hold up well when cooked into a sauce. Fresh fish cooks better, leaving you with tender chunks of sardines throughout. For a complex fennel flavor, we use diced fennel bulb, fennel fronds, and fennel seed. To finish everything off, we drizzle the pasta with a generous amount of olive oil and an even more generous handful of breadcrumbs.
Here, orecchiette con le cime di rapa gets a meaty twist thanks to the addition of pork sausage. Though the anchovies aren’t required, we like to break one or two fillets down in the oil for a subtle savoriness. A splash of white wine gives the sauce a slight acidity and sweetness that balances the bitterness of the broccoli rabe. While the meatless version of this dish skips out on the dairy, this recipe makes an exception with a small handful of grated salty cheese like Pecorino Romano. Don’t mind if we do!
The flavors of the sea are on full display in this mixed seafood pasta. A mainstay along the coast of Italy, it features clams, mussels, shrimp, and squid, and the briny seafood flavor is enhanced thanks to bottled clam juice and acidic white wine. Cooking the pasta risotto-style—in the skillet along with the shellfish—infuses it with the flavors of the seafood, and everything is finished with the sweet juices of halved cherry tomatoes.
This Southern Italian dish is like pizza margherita in pasta form. You start by making plump potato gnocchi that hold their shape while remaining tender—crucially important, given how much the gnocchi go through in this recipe. Then comes the tomato sauce, which relies on high-quality passata for its bright, fresh flavor. And of course, when it comes to the mozzarella, we recommend getting your hands on the freshest one you can find to guarantee the best flavor—the low-moisture kind just won't do here. Once assembled and baked in the oven, it's glorious, and in retrospect we guarantee you'll find it worth the little effort it required (gnocchi ain't hard!).
Vegetables form the base of sugo finto’s meatless ragù. It starts with a soffritto made from diced onions, celery, and carrots—taking the time to cut the vegetables by hand is important here, ensuring a texture that’s neither mushy or crunchy after cooking. The soffritto is then cooked, with the onions getting a head start, before adding a garlic and herb battuto, or paste, for that distinct Tuscan flavor. Although this dish is traditionally served with a thick, hand–rolled pasta called pici, dried varieties like spaghetti alla chitarra, bucatini, or spaghetti will do in a pinch—just make sure to add a drizzle of olive oil at the end for a rich, peppery finish.
This pantry-friendly pasta comes together quickly with just a handful of ingredients, making it the perfect weeknight meal. In Italy, this dish has endless variations—the only givens are the canned tuna and the dried pasta. In this version, we call for a red sauce that takes on a subtle allium aroma thanks to whole garlic cloves that are toasted in olive oil and then discarded. To prevent the tuna from breaking down into a paste, we incorporate it into the sauce just as it finishes cooking. Finally, the pasta is tossed with the sauce, along with some pasta water, to ensure that the noodles are well-coated.
While we love this Italian classic, we’ve always been frustrated with its construction. Instead of leaving whole shells in the dish, we remove most of the clams from their shells and add the meat back to the pasta at the end, leaving just a few clams in their shells for garnish. You still get the flavor of fresh, briny clams without the hassle of navigating around their shells. As for the sauce, this white version calls for little more than olive oil, garlic, white wine, and chile flakes.
Pasta alla zozzona is what happens when Roman amatriciana and carbonara decide to collaborate and sausage makes an appearance. After slowly cooking guanciale and sausage over medium-low heat, we add in tomato passata for a quick sauce with a fresh tomato flavor. While the sauce simmers, we stir starchy pasta water with a mixture of egg yolks and Pecorino Romano to help temper the eggs. We then finish cooking the pasta in the sauce before folding in the egg mixture off the heat, and make sure to serve with more grated cheese at the table.
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