When it comes to pasta recipes, no one does it better than grandma. For many people, the fanciest dish in the most expensive restaurant won’t compare to the comforting flavor of Nonna’s lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, or pasta carbonara. These recipes, it seems, were meant to be made at home and with love. They might not feature trendy ingredients or innovative cooking techniques, but grandma-approved Italian pasta recipes are comfort food at its best. Here are five of our favorites.
1. Ravioli With Oxtail Ragu
Chef Mario Batali shares his grandmother’s recipe for traditional ravioli with ABC’s The Chew. The pasta is filled with a mix of sweet Italian sausage, Swiss chard, and ricotta, but the real standout here is the ragu, a slowly simmered sauce of oxtail meat, red wine, and chicken stock. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can fill your ravioli with calves brains, as Batali’s grandmother sometimes did.
- Kosher Salt
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 large red onions (sliced)
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausage (crumbled)
- 1 bunch red Swiss chard (Cut into ½-inch ribbons)
- 1 cup fresh ricotta
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- Freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
- Pasta sheets
- 5 pounds oxtail (cut into 2-inch thick pieces)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Flour (for dredging)
- 2 medium onions (Sliced ¼-inch thick)
- 4 cups red wine
- 2 cups brown chicken stock
- 2 cups tomato sauce (such as Batali’s basic tomato sauce)
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
- Pecorino Romano for grating
Directions: To make the ravioli, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan. Add the onions and cook slowly until softened. Add sausage and cook until pink is gone, about 8 minutes. Add chard and stir to mix with sausage and then cover and cook 15 minutes until chard gives up its water. Remove lid and cook until dry, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool.
Add sausage and onion mixture to the ricotta, nutmeg, and salt and pepper. Mix well.
Divide the pasta dough into 4 equal portions and roll each out to the thinnest setting on a pasta machine. Lay 1 sheet of pasta on a work surface and use a pastry cutter to make 12 2½-by-1-inch rectangles. Place 1 rounded tablespoon of the filling on one side of each rectangle and fold the dough in half to form a square. Press firmly around the edges to seal, brush with a little water if necessary. Continue with the remaining pasta and filling. These can be set aside on a baking tray, the layers separated by dish towels, and refrigerated for up to 6 hours.
To make the oxtail ragu, preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Trim the excess fat from the oxtails and season liberally with salt and pepper.
In a 6- to 8-quart, heavy-bottomed casserole or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over high heat until it is just smoking. Quickly dredge the oxtails in the flour and sear them on all sides until browned, turning with long-handled tongs. This should take 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the browned oxtails to a plate and set aside.
Add the onions to the same pan and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook them until lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the wine, stock, tomato sauce, and thyme and bring the mixture to a boil. Return the oxtails to the pot, submerging them in the liquid, and return the pot to a boil. Cover the casserole and cook in the oven for 1 to 1½ hours, or until the meat is falling off the bone.
Remove the pan from the oven and carefully remove the oxtails with long-handled tongs. When they are cool enough to handle remove the meat from the bones and shred into small pieces with a fork. Discard the bones.
With a small ladle, skim the fat from the surface of the sauce. Return the shredded meat to the casserole. Place the casserole over medium-high heat, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and allow to reduce to a very thick ragu. Season with salt and pepper.
To finish the dish, bring about 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt. Meanwhile, in a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan, heat about 3 cups of the ragu. Gently drop the ravioli into the boiling water and cook at a gentle simmer for 3 minutes. Drain, reserving some of the cooking water. Add the ravioli to the sauté pan with the ragu. Toss very gently over medium heat to coat the ravioli with the ragu, 1 to 2 minutes. Divide among six heated bowls and grate pecorino over each bowl. Serve immediately.
2. Pasta e Ceci
Pasta with chickpeas is a filling, nourishing comfort food. This recipe from the Jersey Journal’s Nora Martinez DeBenedetto is inspired by the recipe her Italian babysitter used to make. This simple dish, which serves 4, is perfect for busy weeknights since it can be made with pantry staples you likely have on hand.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 (14½-ounce) can petite diced tomatoes
- 1 cup tomato purée
- 1 (15-ounce) can cece or garbanzo beans
- 1 pound spaghetti, strands broken into smaller pieces
- 1 cup reserved pasta cooking water
- Salt and pepper
- Parmesan cheese, for serving
Directions: Put a large pot of water over a high flame for cooking the pasta.
Meanwhile, place a large pan over medium heat. Add two tablespoons of olive oil to the pan, followed by the diced onion and the minced garlic. Sprinkle one teaspoon of salt in the pan, and allow the onion and garlic to cook until they are just beginning to brown. Add the petite diced tomatoes and the tomato purée to the pan, followed by the cece beans. Lower the flame to a simmer, and stir all ingredients to combine.
When the pot of water has come to a boil, add some salt and then the pasta. Allow the pasta to cook for about four minutes until it is still al dente, or not quite cooked through. Drain the pasta, but be sure to reserve one cup of the cooking liquid to thin out the sauce if need be. Add the pasta to the beans and sauce.
Continue to cook over a low flame until the pasta is tender and has absorbed some sauce, another two minutes or so. Add some of the reserved pasta water to desired consistency.
Garnish with Parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper.
3. Grandma’s Lasagna
Lasagna recipes tend to be passed down through the generations like precious family heirlooms. If you have a treasured lasagna recipe, consider yourself fortunate, but if you weren’t lucky enough to inherit one, we suggest you try this version from Food & Wine. There’s nothing fancy here — just the time-honored combination of pasta, Italian sausage, and cheeses. But a few details, like a homemade sauce, elevate the dish and will likely earn it a permanent spot in your cooking repertoire.
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ pound ground beef chuck
- ½ pound ground sirloin
- 4 teaspoons minced garlic
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 (28-ounce) cans Italian peeled tomatoes, finely chopped, juices reserved
- 1 (28-ounce) can tomato purée
- 2 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 thyme sprigs, tied together with kitchen string
- Pinch of sugar
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1½ pounds sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
- 2 pounds fresh ricotta
- ¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped basil
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 pound packaged whole-milk mozzarella, shredded (3 cups)
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 12 dried lasagna noodles
Directions: In a large enameled cast-iron casserole, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the chuck and sirloin and cook over moderately high heat, breaking up the meat into large chunks, until no pink remains. Add the garlic, oregano, and crushed red pepper and cook until fragrant. Stir in the tomato paste and cook until the meat is coated. Add the tomatoes and their juices and the tomato purée along with the chicken stock, bay leaves, thyme, and sugar. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened and reduced to 8 cups, about 1½ hours. Remove the bay leaves and thyme sprigs.
Meanwhile, heat a large skillet. Add the sausage meat in large pieces and cook over moderately high heat until browned and just cooked through, about 10 minutes. Drain the sausage and break it into ½-inch pieces.
In a large bowl, combine the ricotta with the parsley, basil, and ¼ cup of the Parmesan. Add two-thirds of the shredded mozzarella and season with salt and pepper. Beat in the egg.
Cook the lasagna noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain the noodles and rinse under cold water. Dry the noodles between layers of paper towels.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Spread 1 cup of the sauce in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Line the dish with 4 overlapping noodles. Spread half of the ricotta mixture over the noodles, then top with half of the sausage, 1½ cups of the sauce, and another 4 noodles. Repeat the layering with the remaining ricotta, sausage, and another 1½ cups of sauce. Top with 4 noodles and cover with 1½ cups of sauce. Toss the remaining 1 cup of mozzarella with the remaining ¼ cup of Parmesan and sprinkle over the lasagna.
Bake the lasagna for about 45 minutes, or until the top is golden and crisp around the edges and the filling is bubbling. Let the lasagna rest for 20 minutes before serving.
4. Fettuccine Alfredo
Americans often add heavy cream or milk to their fettuccine Alfredo, but rich sauce is traditionally made with a simple mix of butter and cheese. That’s the way it’s done in this grandma-approved recipe from What’s Cookin’ Italian-Style Cuisine. For best results with this simple yet satisfying dish, make sure you use fresh high-quality ingredients.
- 1½ pounds fettuccine (preferably the fresh kind sold in the dairy case, or homemade)
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter softened and smashed with the back of a spoon
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 3¼ cups grated cheese, such as a Romano and Parmesan blend (about ½ pound)
- ¾ cup or more pasta reserved water
- Large shreds of Parmesan or Romano cheese, for garnish
- Fresh chopped or dried parsley, for garnish
Cook the pasta until al dente and drain it, reserving some of the pasta water. Transfer pasta to a large bowl or return to pot and set aside.
Place the butter in a large skillet and smash with the back of a spoon. Add ¾ cup of warm pasta water and turn heat to low. Cook for 2 minutes. Toss the sauce with the grated cheese and pasta for 2 minutes until coated. If necessary, add a little more pasta water to achieve the desired consistency for the sauce. Garnish with large pieces of grated cheese and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.
5. Shrimp Scampi
OK, so this shrimp scampi recipe from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Alison Sherwood isn’t technically grandma-approved — it’s grandpa-approved. Sherwood’s grandfather makes this classic Italian dish with broccoli and healthy whole-wheat pasta for a pasta dinner you don’t have to feel guilty about eating.
- Olive oil
- 1 head garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 to 2 heads broccoli or 1 bag frozen broccoli florets
- ½ cup white wine
- ½ cup breadcrumbs
- 1 pound whole-wheat pasta
- 2 pounds peeled, deveined, cooked shrimp
- Parmesan cheese
Directions: Pour enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a large pan and heat over medium heat. Place chopped garlic on a plate, cover, and cook in the microwave for 3 to 4 minutes. Add garlic and broccoli florets to pan and cook 2 minutes.
Add white wine and bring to a simmer. Add breadcrumbs, stir, cover, and simmer 20 minutes. In last 5 minutes or so, add cooked shrimp to heat through.
Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package instructions. When pasta is al dente, drain and add to pan. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.