Sicilian-Style Spaghetti Alla Carrettiera (Fresh Tomato and Garlic Sauce) Recipe

Fresh tomatoes, basil, and a few other pantry staples are all you need to whip up a wonderfully fresh Sicilian pasta sauce.

A plate of Sicilian spaghetti alla carrettiera made with fresh tomatoes.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Why This Recipe Works

  • Grating the tomato flesh releases its juices while leaving it somewhat chunky.
  • Rapidly mixing the hot spaghetti and its water with the fresh ingredients creates an emulsified sauce that clings to every strand of spaghetti.

I learned about carrettiera sauce when I was working for the chef Cesare Casella, who had me scouring old Italian cookbooks from Italy's Maremma valley—a geographic expanse that runs along the country's western coast from northern Lazio (home region of Rome) up into southern Tuscany—for a new restaurant he was opening.

What Is Spaghetti Alla Carrettiera?

The story behind the recipe is that it was invented by the carrettieri, cart drivers who more than a century ago would journey from town to town, selling anything and everything citizens might need. Cooking and eating while on the road takes ingenuity, and they would put together easy pastas using shelf-stable pantry ingredients they had tucked into their carts. 

But the more research I did, the more puzzled I became. Different recipes varied so much, I wasn’t sure why they shared the same name. Sometimes fresh tomatoes appeared instead of canned ones, maybe basil instead of parsley, and sometimes instead of cooking the sauce everything was tossed raw with the hot pasta and cooking water. Which one, I wondered, was the real carrettiera?

The Differences Between Sicilian and Roman Spaghetti Alla Carrettiera

Then I realized there were geographical influences. The fresh sauce versions tended to come from Sicily while the canned tomato ones seemed to center around Rome. What they had in common was the cart driver who had different ingredients in their cart depending on where they traveled. Farther north meant preserved mushrooms and fish and tomatoes. But perhaps in the south, fresh tomatoes were more abundant. 

A bowl of Sicilian-style carrettiera with tomatoes, basil, and breadcrumbs clinging to it.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

This Sicilian version couldn't be quicker or easier to make: Grate some tomatoes, mix with raw minced garlic, chopped basil, olive oil, and red pepper flakes, then toss with cooked spaghetti and some of its starchy water as soon as it's cooked. Some toasted breadcrumbs, meanwhile, help thicken and emulsify the sauce.

Because the sauce is heated only by the pasta and its cooking water, it retains all of its fresh tomato and basil flavor. It reminds us a little of tomatoey pesto alla Trapanese, except this recipe is even simpler and faster to whip up.

Variations of the Recipe

This is just one example, though. Some Sicilian recipes add grated Sicilian Pecorino cheese or ricotta salata, while others omit the tomatoes. The variations are endless (as you travel farther north to Rome, the sauce shifts to a cooked version packed with shelf-stable ingredients like canned tomato, canned tuna, and dried porcini mushrooms).

Keep that in mind when you make this: You can make your own version based on what you have on hand. Don't have fresh basil? Some fresh parsley works well, too. Low on tomatoes? Make an in bianco ("white") version without them. Just like the cart drivers of long ago, your carrettiera sauce can be whatever you need and want it to be.

March 2020

Recipe Details

Sicilian-Style Spaghetti Alla Carrettiera (Fresh Tomato and Garlic Sauce) Recipe

Prep 5 mins
Cook 25 mins
Active 25 mins
Total 30 mins
Serves 4 servings

Fresh tomatoes, basil, and a few other pantry staples are all you need to whip up a wonderfully fresh Sicilian pasta sauce.


  • 1 1/4 pounds (566g) plum tomatoes (about 5 tomatoes)

  • 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling if needed

  • 1/4 cup loosely packed, roughly chopped fresh basil leaves

  • 3 medium cloves garlic, finely minced

  • 1 large pinch red pepper flakes

  • Kosher salt

  • 1 pound (450g) dried spaghetti

  • 1/2 cup (1 1/4 ounces; 35g) lightly toasted panko breadcrumbs, divided

  • Grated Sicilian Pecorino or ricotta salata, for serving (optional)


  1. Grate tomatoes on largest holes of a box grater into a large heatproof mixing or serving bowl until only the skin remains in your hand; it's okay if some slightly larger pieces of tomatoes and some skin get through, though you can discard the large pieces of skin. Add olive oil, basil, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Stir well and season with salt to taste. Set aside.

    A mixing bowl containing grated tomatoes, parsley, chile flakes, and olive oil.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  2. In a pot of lightly salted boiling water, cook spaghetti, stirring frequently, until al dente. When pasta has almost finished cooking, transfer 1/4 cup (30ml) pasta cooking water to tomato mixture and whisk to form an emulsion.

    Adding pasta cooking water to sauce for Sicilian-style spaghetti alla carrettiera.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  3. Using tongs, transfer pasta to tomato mixture along with an additional 1/4 cup (60ml) pasta cooking water. Vigorously toss and stir pasta to emulsify sauce and coat noodles. Add half of the breadcrumbs and toss to combine. The pasta should be well coated with creamy, emulsified sauce. If it seems dry, add extra pasta water and olive oil, 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time, until it reaches the desired consistency. Taste for seasoning.

    A collage: transferring pasta to saucepan, adding olive oil and pasta cooking water to adjust the sauce consistency.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  4. Transfer pasta to warmed plates and sprinkle with remaining breadcrumbs. Top with cheese, if desired. Serve right away.

Special Equipment

Box grater, tongs

Make-Ahead and Storage

This sauce is best made fresh, and the pasta is best enjoyed right away.

Read More

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
642 Calories
20g Fat
97g Carbs
17g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 642
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 20g 26%
Saturated Fat 3g 15%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 393mg 17%
Total Carbohydrate 97g 35%
Dietary Fiber 6g 21%
Total Sugars 7g
Protein 17g
Vitamin C 21mg 103%
Calcium 63mg 5%
Iron 5mg 27%
Potassium 624mg 13%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)