When it comes to pasta, size and shape matter. There are so many pasta shapes, and as you might have noticed, we really don’t get bored of talking about them. But so much of why we care has to do with how a piece of pasta holds sauce—those little nooks and ridges, spirals, holes, and curves unique to each shape. Even the greatest shape is nothing without its accompanying sauce.
These ten saucy Italian pasta dishes are the ones we come back to time and time again. Some of these dishes and sauces have been passed down through generations of Italians while others are Italian-American classics and have earned 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 the ones we think just about every cook should know.
There are plenty of pesto variations out there, but when someone says “pesto,” this Ligurian classic is what everyone assumes is being referred to. As Daniel lays out in his guide to making pesto alla genovese, this sauce originates from the Ligurian city of Genoa and its environs. It’s a rich green color, thanks to lots of basil, with a powerful and tantalizing aroma. The only ingredients in this sauce apart from basil are olive oil, nuts (usually pine nuts), cheese, garlic, and salt. But with those few ingredients, a well-balanced pesto packs a big punch. 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 its origins are undoubtedly in Italy, the slow-cooked tomato sauce served in the red-checked tablecloth restaurants up and down the East Coast (not to mention the homes in New Jersey) is as American as it gets,” Kenji explains in his guide to making a slow-cooked Italian-American red sauce.
And 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 (purée), spends much less time on the stove, resulting in a fresher, less deeply sweet flavor. In our recipe using fresh fruit, a sauce made from ripe plum tomatoes is enhanced with two other components: a slowly baked tomato purée that’s insanely flavorful and sweet and 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. Its history is full of interesting tidbits, like the fact that “puttanesca” literally translates to “in the style of prostitutes.” Allegedly, the sauce’s delightful aroma drew in customers. Whatever the real history of this dish is, the pasta itself is quite simple.
As soon as you turn the stove on and heat your oil, the sauce’s fragrance will find its way into every corner of your home. Olives and garlic bloom in hot olive oil (and plenty of it), along with red pepper flakes and briny capers. Tomatoes are added to the fragrant oil, and the mixture simmers while your spaghetti finishes cooking. Once it’s done, you’ll add both pasta and a few spoonfuls of the starchy cooking water to the tomato sauce and stir until velvety sauce coats each noodle. Because this sauce isn’t trying to fly below the flavor radar, 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 to their barest of bones, you’d be left with some variation of aglio e olio—a gloriously simple combination of garlic (aglio) and oil (olio). Though many sauces build on a base of sautéed garlic in oil, aglio e olio demands nothing more than what you likely already have in your pantry and on your counter, plus maybe a little minced fresh parsley if you have it.
Despite its widespread popularity in Italy, this most basic and delicious of pasta has yet to find a major non-Italian audience in the States. Perhaps Americans are more familiar with the offspring of this Italian mother sauce. Maybe you’ve tucked into a plate of spaghetti alle vongole —strands of spaghetti coated in a sauce of garlic, white wine, and chili flakes and studded with juicy clams. And if you dig a little deeper into the aglio-e-olio family tree, you’ll experience the joy of spaghetti con la colatura di alici, another pasta dish that begins with olive oil but adds Italian fish sauce (colatura di alici) for an umami boost.
All of these sauces are fantastic. But on a weeknight, 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 certainly be ragù Bolognese. The sauce’s 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, 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.
Bolognese is frequently served one of two ways: either intermingling with long ribbons of fresh tagliatelle or layered into a classic lasagna Bolognese. The latter isn’t a lasagna heavy with tomato sauce, ricotta, and melted mozzarella cheese. Instead, it’s a more reserved baked pasta, simply alternating the ragù with béchamel (white sauce), fresh lasagna noodles, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you hadn’t yet found a reason to make this velvety sauce, consider lasagna Bolognese your calling.
Choosing just one Roman pasta sauce and calling it “essential” is like giving an MVP award to just one player on a winning basketball team. What’s that you say? That’s actually how basketball works? Oh, okay. Carbonara is one of the many valuable players on the Roman pasta lineup, and we’ve done the difficult work of choosing just a few favorites for this list. While so many Italian pasta types are hundreds of years old, carbonara came into popularity in the 1950s. And though some Italians might have been skeptical of
the newcomer at first, it was delicious and simple enough to find wide and long-lasting popularity.
Like many of the best Roman pasta sauces, carbonara’s beauty is in its sheer simplicity. Some form of cured pork (most traditionally guanciale, but pancetta or even bacon can be used) is rendered while spaghetti cooks. In the meantime, whole eggs and yolks, Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and black pepper are combined. To finish the pasta, all the ingredients are combined and heated just enough to thicken but not scramble the eggs (we have a special foolproof technique for doing that).
Anyone who has tried it knows that spaghetti with cacio e pepe is really, truly 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, black pepper is bloomed in olive oil, then water from a pot of boiling spaghetti is added to the pan. After perfectly al dente spaghetti is added, the sauce is finished with lots of spicy, 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.
When we talk about fettuccine Alfredo in the States, we’re usually referring to those bowls of pasta so heavily laden with cream and cheese that it’s unclear whether you’ll be able to stand up once you finish your meal. Sometimes, this sauce comes in a jar; sometimes it’s listed on the “most popular” section of a neighborhood Italian joint; sometimes we make it ourselves. This rendition of fettucine Alfredo does have roots in Italy, but you’ll most likely find it only on the menus of Italy’s most touristy restaurants.
In Rome, where it’s from, you’ll taste a more pared-down version of the dish. While a heavier fettuccine alfredo is rich with cream, egg, cheese, butter, and even cornstarch, the Roman-style sauce contains only two of these ingredients: butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Combining 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 of browned butter and frizzled sage, a combination that’s way more delicious than a mere two ingredients deserve to be. The sage will impart the butter with all of its woodsy flavor just as the butter is beginning to brown and take on a nutty taste. At this point, you could opt to pour the butter on more or less anything, but in the world of pasta, your best bets are fresh ones. Two of the more traditional pairings are gnocchi and ravioli. Give that recipe a try, then think of 50 more ways you’d like to use this sauce. I promise it won’t take you long.
In its simplest form, baked ziti is an oven-baked pasta dish layered with cheese and plenty of tomato sauce. But as we discovered during testing for our own baked ziti recipe, the difference between one cook’s ziti recipe and another’s can be huge. Our recipe offers up the option to make this casserole with an Italian-style fresh tomato sauce, though we’re just as partial to the more typical rich and sweet Italian-American tomato sauce.
Like all great baked ziti, ours is loaded with creamy pools of melted mozzarella cheese and a sweet and tart tomato sauce. But like so many other cooks have done, we took some liberties when it came to core ingredients. We did away with the classic ricotta cheese, which all too often becomes grainy as it cooks (especially some of those terrible brands sold in American supermarkets). Instead, we replace ricotta with two kinds of mozzarella (one fresh for flavor, the other low-moisture for stretchy strands), and finish each plate of baked ziti with a Parmesan cream sauce. That said, there’s so much disagreement about what makes a great baked ziti that we have another baked ziti recipe that’s nothing like this one, just in case.
We may never agree on exactly what makes this dish so wonderful. But maybe that’s part of the fun.
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