Italy’s 15 Most Famous Pasta Dishes
In the early 1940s, a renowned Italian author claimed that we should not thank Garibaldi for the unification of Italy, instead, we owe it to the invention of pasta. Another Italian author, founder of the Futurist Movement, asserts that pasta is the gastronomic religion of Italy (“…la religione gastronomica italiana”).
Indeed, with only the mutual love for pasta in common, this incredible invention continues to unify people from north to south as strongly as a religious creed. In its simplicity and humbleness, pasta holds a traditional value of unquantifiable importance, being one of the major cultural symbols of Italy.
The history of pasta goes back a long way, with roots in the Greek civilizations of Magna Grecia and Etruria, where in the year 60 BC the venerated philosopher Cicerone was already speaking of lasănum, a large cooking pot which gives its name to the current lasagna.
Despite this, the invention of pasta is unanimously associated with the Arab domination of Sicily at the beginning of the 12th Century. The Arab geographer Edrisi spoke of a type of food made from flour that has a long, thin shape called tyriah; but it was really when Marco Polo returned from China in the early 1200s that pasta entered into the social culture of the country.
Interestingly enough, it became popular following the 17th century famine that broke out in the Kingdom of Naples: the population was starving and could no longer afford meat so they began to eat pasta, which was cheap and available in massive quantities.
From the south of Italy, pasta soon spread throughout the whole country, adapting to the ingredients and foods specific to each regional cuisine. Many of the world renowned pasta dishes are in fact traditional of Rome: it’s hard not to think of the iconic scene from the 1954 film “Un Americano a Roma”, with Alberto Sordi gobbling down a massive dish of Maccheroni pasta.
So let’s go and see which are the most popular pasta dishes in Italy!
1. La Carbonara
With a creamy consistency and a deliciously smoky and peppery aftertaste, Carbonara is the number one pasta dish both in the country and outside of Italy!
According to the original recipe, you fry up small dices of guanciale (and not pancetta!), mix the eggs with parmesan and pecorino romano, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and nothing else!
Though originally from Rome, Carbonara may well have originated from the carbonai, the woodcutters who lived in the Apennines and who would cook their pasta over charcoal fire, hence the name, derived from carbone (charcoal).
2. Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e Pepe is another culinary symbol of the Italian capital, a simple yet incredibly satisfying dish uniquely made from two ingredients: Cacio cheese and pepper, to which, most importantly, a small amount of cooking water is added to the sauce to confer its deliciously creamy and melting consistency.
The American chef Anthony Bourdain went as far as saying that Cacio and Pepe may well be “the greatest thing in the history of the world”, and it would be hard to contradict him.
3. Bucatini all’Amatriciana
It is interesting to observe how in Italian cuisine, every pasta sauce is traditionally and strictly paired with a specific type of pasta; it’s the case again with Bucatini all’Amatriciana, thick and hollow spaghetti-like pasta drenched in a rich tomato sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes and flavorsome dices of cured pig jowl called Guanciale. Deliciously irresistible!
4. Penne all’Arrabbiata
A few simple ingredients, tomatoes, garlic and dried chili flakes, are wonderfully blended together to create the ultimate irresistible and easy pasta sauce.
Typically savored with penne pasta, which strategically encapsulates all the richness of the sauce, Penne all’Arrabbiata will, quite literally, blow your head off! And not only for its deliciousness: the term “arrabbiata” in fact means “angry”, referring to the spiciness of the chili, thus be careful when adding the flakes!
5. Tagliatelle al Ragù AKA Spaghetti Bolognese
This delicious pasta dish is simply what most people outside of Italy call “Spaghetti Bolognese” and which, in Bologna, is really made using tagliatelle, a type of pasta similar to spaghetti but flat and wider.
This irresistible dish truly is a marriage of two of the most classic recipes from Emilia, and in particular from the city of Bologna: Tagliatelle and Ragù alla Bolognese. With a long and fascinating history rooted in the Renaissance, this dish has been a staple for Italians for centuries!
6. Spaghetti allo Scoglio
Literally translated as “rocky spaghetti”, Spaghetti allo Scoglio is a classic seafood recipe, encapsulating all the flavors of the rocky shorelines of the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian coasts, where clams, squids, and shrimps are freshly fished and cooked for this mouth-watering recipe.
Sautéed with cherry tomatoes, parsley, and a dash of white wine and paired with traditional spaghetti, this simple seafood dish is undoubtedly inimitable!
7. Trofie al Pesto
The essence of Liguria is wonderfully embodied by this classic pasta dish called Trofie al Pesto, originating from the city of Genoa.
Pesto is freshly made by grounding (pestare in Italian, hence the term “pesto”) basil leaves with oil, parmesan, pecorino romano, garlic and salt, resulting in a delicious sauce that pairs perfectly with these thin twirls of pasta called trofie.
8. Ravioli Burro e Salvia
Typically made with wheat flour and egg, ravioli is another quintessentially Italian type of pasta but with a square shape.
The original ravioli recipe calls for a filling made of ricotta cheese and spinach, though nowadays they can be found with a great variety of different fillings. As we all know, Italians love simplicity and once again this is evident in this simple and humble sauce made with butter and sage.
9. Gnocchi alla Sorrentina
The wonderful taste of homemade gnocchi is ever more enhanced in this simple dish bearing all the flavors and colors of Italian cuisine.
Originally from Sorrento, the beautiful coastline area near Naples, Gnocchi alla Sorrentina is made with a rich and tasty tomato sauce to which mozzarella is added when still piping hot, creating an irresistibly melting consistency that will literally melt in your mouth!
10. Tordelli al Ragù
A symbol of the Tuscan Cucina Povera, Tordelli al Ragù is one of the most popular dishes in the region. Formerly a staple dish for peasants and farmers, tordelli has now become a prestigious culinary excellency all around the world! Tordelli is similar to ravioli, but has a half-moon shape typically filled with minced meat and covered in a rich ragù sauce.
A must-try when stopping in a typical trattoria on the rolling hills of Chianti.
11. Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is a classic Neapolitan recipe, a richer version of the classic pasta al pomodoro with the addition of oregano, capers, and succulent black Gaeta olives.
The origin of the name, deriving from the Italian term for “prostitute”, has long been disputed, but according to several food historians, it was probably an easy and popular dish served in many brothels of the Quartieri Spagnoli.
12. Pasta alla Norma
Pasta alla Norma is by all means the most popular Sicilian pasta dish: a rich and garlicky tomato sauce with sautéed aubergines, quite possibly the ingredients of happiness.
This irresistible sauce is typically savored with rigatoni or paccheri and is typically garnished with flakes of ricotta salata and a few leaves of fresh basil.
13. Orecchiette con le Cime di Rapa
This delicious pasta dish is a classic culinary symbol of the southern Puglia region. Literally meaning “little ears” for their shape, this small and hollow type of pasta is traditionally relished with a local and seasonal vegetable called rapa, which is very hard to find elsewhere, but don’t worry, something like tenderstem broccoli will work perfectly!
14. Pappardelle ai Funghi Porcini
Succulent porcini mushrooms in an onion, white wine, and parsley sauce, paired with typical Tuscan pappardelle: an iconic dish of this beautiful region.
Derived from the verb pappare, meaning “to eat with great enjoyment”, this mouth-watering recipe definitely lives up to the expectations of its name!
15. Spaghetti alla Nerano
Often regarded as the “vegetarian Carbonara”, this wonderful pasta dish from the Amalfi Coast may not be particularly well known outside of Italy but is definitely up to the same standards of culinary excellence!
Sautéed courgette in a creamy parmigiano and provolone sauce, deliciously spiced with garlic and pepper, it would be hard to imagine anything more simple and more flavorsome!