Why is spaghetti in marinara sauce the go-to romantic Italian dish? It’s awfully hard to eat gracefully; you’re going to get sauce on your shirt, you’ll probably get splotches on your face, and you’ll likely splash red onto the table. In thousands of years of culinary tradition, Italians have come up with more than just red sauces. Various historians including Linda Civitello, author of Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People have discovered that though the first Italian cookbook was written in the first century, the first mention of pasta in tomato sauce wasn’t until 1781. Further invention has created scores of pasta recipes that don’t just rely on tomatoes for flavor, and there are plenty of reasons to give them a try. Both fresh and dried pastas, which are meant to be a star ingredient and not just a substrate for sauce, shine through in dishes where the sauce is lighter than a blanket of tomato.
There’s nothing wrong with a great marinara, but there’s more to consider than just the same old thing out of the same old jar you pick up off the supermarket shelf. Fresh pastas, specifically, are silky wonders of the world and not meant to be drenched in a heavy red sauce. Whether you’re looking for something new, you’re feeling adventurous, you’re cooking with the seasons, or you just want to avoid getting red spaghetti stains on your shirt when you invite someone special over for dinner, give these recipes a try.
1. Cacio e Pepe
One of the simplest recipes around. Literally translating to cheese and pepper, this classic recipe presented by Bon Appétit is basically the easiest and classiest mac and cheese out there. Whether you’re looking to impress with simple, off-hand sophistication or you just desperately need a bowl of noodles, cacio e pepe is a go-to worth committing to memory.
There are two secrets to great pastas that can’t hide behind a heaping ladle-full of tomato sauce. First, you need to salt the pasta water. Heavily. Like the sea. If tasting the pasta water doesn’t make your face scrunch up, it’s not salty enough. Go get a big box of kosher salt and throw a handful into the boiling water before the pasta goes in. It’s the only way to season the pasta itself. Second, you’ll want to stop cooking about 2 minutes before the package says it’ll be al dente so you can finish it in the pan with the sauce. The starches will help the sauce thicken and the sauce will marry with the pasta.
- Kosher salt
- 6 ounces pasta such as egg tagliolini, bucatini, or spaghetti
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed, divided
- 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- ¾ cup finely grated Grana Padano or Parmesan
- ⅓ cup finely grated Pecorino
Directions: Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Season with salt; add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes before tender. Reserve ¾ cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta.
Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add pepper and cook, swirling pan, until toasted, about 1 minute.
Add ½ cup reserved pasta water to skillet and bring to a simmer. Add pasta and remaining butter. Reduce heat to low and add Grana Padano, stirring and tossing with tongs until melted. Remove pan from heat; add Pecorino, stirring and tossing until cheese melts, sauce coats the pasta, and pasta is al dente. Add more pasta water if sauce seems dry. Transfer pasta to warm bowls and serve.
2. Aglio e Olio
Garlic and oil. How can you go wrong? Aglio e olio is a favorite of chefs after close because it’s so good and so easy and so quick. It’s the perfect late night meal to eat over the stove. Remember that scene in Chef where Jon Favreau is cooking for Scarlett Johansson in his apartment? That’s aglio e olio. Here, Ina Garten makes it for the Food Network.
- Kosher salt
- 1 pound dried spaghetti
- ⅓ cup good olive oil
- 8 large garlic cloves, cut into thin slivers
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- ½ cup minced fresh parsley
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
Directions: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt and the pasta and cook according to the directions on the package. Set aside 1½ cups of the pasta cooking water before you drain the pasta.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a pot or pan large enough to hold the pasta. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until it just begins to turn golden on the edges. Don’t overcook it; it shouldn’t brown. Add the red pepper flakes and cook for 30 seconds more. Carefully add the reserved pasta water to the garlic and oil and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, add 1 teaspoon of salt, and simmer for about 5 minutes, until the liquid is reduced by about a third.
Add the drained pasta to the garlic sauce and toss. Off the heat, add the parsley and Parmesan and toss well. Allow the pasta to rest off the heat for 5 minutes for the sauce to be absorbed. Taste for seasoning and serve warm with extra Parmesan on the side.
3. Pasta With Brown Butter and Fried Sage
Browning butter isn’t scary, it’s just not something you can walk away from. The result is a decadent, nutty, aromatic butter sauce that freckles the pasta with little browned bits of glorious flavor. Fried herbs look so fancy, too. How do you fry sage? Easy. You toss it into the browning butter. This recipe from The Kitchn recommends using a textured, short pasta for this so the sauce really has something to adhere to, like penne. It also adds a touch of brown sugar, which doesn’t make the pasta sweet so much as it just adds an extra level of depth to the flavor. It’s so good.
- 1 pound pasta
- 1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- ¼ cup chopped, fresh sage
Directions: Cook pasta in well-salted water. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Swirl occasionally to keep the butter cooking evenly. Add salt and brown sugar and whisk to combine.
Continue cooking the butter, still swirling or whisking occasionally, until it turns a light caramel color and the solids at the bottom of the pan are slightly darker brown. This should take about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on your pan and stove. Toss in the sage, wait for the butter bubbling to subside, and cook for another minute or two.
Drain pasta, put in a bowl, and toss with the butter and sage. Salt to taste, if necessary.
4. Spaghetti alle Vongole
This classic Venetian clam dish benefits from very fresh clams. It started as a peasant dish, but it’s a classic worth its salt on any table. Jamie Oliver warns that the hardest thing about this dish is the timing: You want perfectly steamed clams and al dente pasta, and it comes with practice. Practice cooking delicious spaghetti? We don’t see that as a bad thing at all.
As always when cooking with shellfish, raw clams that aren’t closed or don’t close when given a good tap on the counter are potential hazards and should probably be thrown away. When it comes to cooking with wine here, you can use any dry, unoaked northern Italian wine.
- 2¼ pounds small, fresh clams, scrubbed clean
- 1 small bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 4 cloves garlic
- 10 cherry tomatoes
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 box dried spaghetti
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 to 2 dried chillies
Directions: Put water on to boil in a large pot and sort your clams. Slice parsley stems finely and set aside. Roughly chop the parsley leaves. Peel and chop the garlic, quarter the tomatoes. Put a large pan with a lid on high heat and let it warm.
Salt the pasta water and add the pasta. Pour 4 tablespoons olive oil in the pan and, 5 minutes before the pasta is ready and working quickly, add garlic, parsley stems, a pinch of salt, and pepper. Crumble the chilis into the pan and add the tomatoes. Stir.
As soon as the garlic starts to take on color, add the clams and the wine. Give it a good shake and add the lid to prevent splattering and let the clams steam. After 3 or 4 minutes, the clams should start to open. Keep shuffling the pan until all the clams are open. Take the pan off the heat and remove any clams that didn’t open.
Drain the pasta, which should be perfectly al dente, and add to the pan with the clams and toss in the parsley leaves. Add another drizzle of olive oil and toss for a minute or 2, letting the pasta meld with the sauce and letting the sauce thicken a touch. Best served with hunks of crusty bread.
5. Spaghetti with Bread Crumbs
Pasta doesn’t need a bunch of butter and cheese to be delicious and decadent. It’s the perfect dish for creating an impressive supper when there’s nothing in the pantry. It also only takes 15 minutes and really, truly isn’t much harder than opening a jar of tomato sauce and heating it up. Seriously, get on this. Leite’s Culinaria suggests making your own bread crumbs from stale bread whizzed in a food processor or with your fingers, but you can definitely use panko here instead. The cheese is optional for a vegan pasta. This recipe serves one, so scale up as necessary.
- 2- to 4-inch-length dried-out, day-old bread, preferably baguette
- 2 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus lots more for drizzling
- 3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ teaspoon coarsely crushed fennel seeds
- Salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Generous pinch red pepper flakes
- 4 ounces spaghetti, linguine, or other similarly shaped pasta
- Chunk of Pecorino Romano, for grating
Directions: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta until just barely al dente.
Using a serrated knife, carefully saw the baguette, if using, into thin slices. Using your fingers, crumble the bread to create a nice mixture of coarse and fine crumbs. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the crumbs and gently fry them, stirring occasionally and letting them slowly take on color. You may need to add up to 2 more tablespoons oil to the skillet, depending on how many bread crumbs you have. When the bread crumbs are golden and crisp, add the garlic and fennel seeds, stir, and cook for a minute or so more. Season the crumbs quite generously with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Remove from the heat.
Drain the pasta, reserving a cup of the cooking water. Toss the pasta in the skillet with the bread crumb mixture. Drizzle with oil. If the mixture seems dry, add a bit of the pasta cooking water. If using, sprinkle with grated Pecorino Romano to taste.
6. Spaghetti alla Foriana
Cookbook author and food writer Eugenia Bone shared her father’s recipe for spaghetti alla foriana with Food52, claiming that she often serves it to vegetarians for the epiphany they have. This is the sort of sauce that gets better and better when it sits in the fridge under a layer of olive oil. Bone uses it for everything from this pasta dish to stuffing pork chops and seasoning seafood stew. It’s a classic southern Italian sauce that, according to Saveur, hails from the island of Ischia off the coast of Naples and is often eaten during Lent.
- 1 cup walnuts
- 1 cup pine nuts
- 5 tablespoons sliced garlic from about 10 large cloves
- 3 teaspoons dried oregano
- 3 tablespoons olive oil plus more for covering the jars
- ½ cup white or golden raisins
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 cup Foriana sauce
- ¾ pound spaghetti
- ½ cup grated pecorino cheese
Directions; First, make the sauce. Place the walnuts, pine nuts, and garlic in a food processor and pulse to a fine chop, until the nuts are like damp granola. Add the oregano and pulse a few more times to combine. Heat the olive oil in a medium-size skillet over a medium heat. Add the nut mixture, the raisins, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly to avoid burning or searing.
Cook the spaghetti in salted water until al dente. Drain and toss in a skillet or pot with the Foriana sauce. Garnish with cheese and serve immediately.
7. Spaghetti Carbonara
Spaghetti carbonara is a Roman classic that actually came about, according to The New York Times, due to American and Italian crossover. It’s basically a deconstructed bacon, egg, and cheese on pasta. It’s creamy and salty and rich without using a single drop of cream. The heat from the pasta just barely cooks the eggs, so if you’re worried about foodborne illness, use pasteurized eggs. What you really want to avoid is scrambling the eggs, because that would just be terrible.
- 2 large eggs and 2 large yolks, room temperature
- 1 ounce grated pecorino Romano, plus additional for serving
- 1 ounce grated Parmesan
- Coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3½ ounces of slab guanciale, pancetta, or bacon, sliced into pieces about ¼-inch thick by ⅓-inch square
- 12 ounces spaghetti
Directions: Place a large pot of salted water over high heat and bring to a boil. Fill a large bowl with hot water and set aside.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, yolks, and pecorino and Parmesan. Season with a pinch of salt and generous black pepper.
While the water is coming to a boil, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat, add the pork, and sauté until the fat just renders, on the edge of crispness but not hard. Remove from heat and set aside.
Add pasta to the water and boil until a bit firmer than al dente. Just before pasta is ready, reheat guanciale in skillet, if needed. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water, then drain pasta and add to the skillet over low heat. Stir for a minute or so.
Empty serving bowl of hot water. Dry it and add hot pasta mixture. Stir in cheese mixture, adding some reserved pasta water if needed for creaminess. Serve immediately, dressing it with additional grated pecorino and pepper.
8. Walnut Tagliatelle
The beautiful thing about rustic Italian food is that it can do so much with such simple ingredients. Here, walnuts, milk, bread, and cheese become a rich, silky, comforting pasta dish with big, sumptuous tagliatelle noodles. This dish was featured on PBS’s Mind of a Chef as a staple at London’s River Cafe. In an article from the Independent, we learn to make the recipe with actual measurements instead of April and Ruth’s intuition.
Wet walnuts here are not the candied dessert topping but just raw, fresh walnuts. They’re used over drier, older walnuts because they retain a fair bit of creaminess. They’re always in their shell, which is why the recipe seems to call for so many — the shells add a lot of the weight. If you can’t find wet walnuts, experiment with longer simmering times in more milk rather than just the quick blanching the recipe calls for. Regardless, the skin is quite bitter and should really be peeled. It’s traditionally made in a mortar with a pestle, but you can use a food processor.
- 1 pound fresh or dried egg tagliatelle
- 4½ pounds wet walnuts, shelled
- 1 loaf stale ciabatta bread, torn into chunks
- 5 ounces by volume of milk
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
- 5 fluid ounces of olive oil
- 4 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 4 tablespoons basil, roughly chopped
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Directions: Blanch the walnuts in simmering milk and let sit for a few minutes. Drain the walnuts, reserving the milk. Soak the bread in the milk while you peel the bitter walnut skins from the nuts.
In a mortar or a food processor, pound the walnuts with the garlic with a little salt and then with the parsley.
Squeeze the milk from the bread, reserving the milk, and add the bread to the walnut mixture. Add the olive oil gradually, plus a little of the milk to loosen the paste, stirring continuously; the sauce must be well-mixed. Finally, add half the Parmesan and basil, then season.
Cook the tagliatelle in a generous amount of boiling salted water, then drain thoroughly and return to the saucepan. Add the softened butter and stir in the sauce.
Serve with the rest of the basil, Parmesan, and a few pieces of uncrushed walnut.