One of the best parts about cooking and eating Italian food is the simplicity. Most Italian dishes are super simple; the secret is in the characteristics of the ingredients. High quality, local goods made with love infuses the quality of the final product. Use an excellent quality pasta, fresh herbs, organic vegetables and some ripe tomatoes and you have everything you need for a feast. Don’t forget the bottle of wine! Master these 10 easy classic Italian pasta dishes, and you will have an excellent working knowledge of Italian cooking.
First, a brief discussion about dry vs. fresh pasta. Any of these dishes will be perfectly authentic and delicious with dried pasta. During my travels in Italy, I came to understand that dry pasta is just as valued as fresh. Many Italian markets stock a huge array of dried pasta in every shape imaginable. If you can buy fresh pasta or if you want to make it yourself, it is always so delicious but sometimes that is just not feasible. Nevertheless, the lack of availability of fresh pasta should not deter us from enjoying these yummy dishes.
Here are my top 10 favorite, simple Italian pasta dishes (all vegetarian)
Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino- Spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and peppers
A classic. Any Italian cookbook worth its salt will have an aglio, olio e peperoncino recipe. Just as Mozart or Beethoven are necessary ingredients in any pianist’s repertoire, aglio, olio e peperoncino should be at the fingertips of any Italian home cook. This recipe from Food Network gives the basics. No frills. Remember to use high quality extra virgin olive oil.
Pasta e Fagioli – Pasta and Beans
Technically this is a soup, but it is truly a pasta classic. Pasta and Fagioli, pasta and bean soup comes from the cucina povera tradition. In the poorer rural areas of southern Italy, food was made from hearty but inexpensive ingredients. Creations such as pizza and pasta grew from necessity. There are countless variations of this soup; mine is a vegetarian version made with borlotti beans.
Classic Pasta with Simple Tomato Sauce
Pictured here, drenched in tomato sauce, are curly fusilli which are designed to hold onto lots and lots of sauce. This fresh salsa di pomodoro (tomato sauce) accommodates any and all pasta, gnocchi and ravioli.
Cacio e Pepe
When in Rome… eat as much cacio e pepe as humanly possible. Simple magic describes this dish made with three ingredients: spaghetti, black pepper, pecorino cheese. That’s it. Done. In a bowl combine grated pecorino (sheep cheese) and several grinds of black pepper. While the pasta is cooking, add a ladle or two of pasta cooking water and stir very vigorously to the emalgomate the cheese, pepper and water until creamy. When pasta is done, add it to the cheese sauce and mix again. Top with a few more grinds of black pepper. The magic part is the creamy sauce that results from the cheese and pasta water combo. Serve piping hot.
Pasta alla Puttanesca
This dish has an interesting history; legend has it that puttanesca, loosely translated as “lady of the evening,” was a quick and easy dish to prepare between customers. The classic version of puttanesca calls for three little anchovies to be heated in olive oil. My vegetarian version, in my opinion, is just as tasty. The capers, olives and tomato sauce create magnificant umami.
Pasta al Limone – Fettucine with Lemon Cream Sauce
This deceptively simple dish can be made in the time it takes to boil your pasta noodles. The combination of lemon juice and lemon zest in heavy cream creates a lovely sauce. Fettuccine is the perfect vehicle; the sauce coats the long, flat noodles in a very satisfying way.
Baked Rigatoni and Mushrooms
Baked, cheesy and full of flavor. A very simple dish that comes from Avellino province in Southern Italy. Many recipes call for sausage; here is my vegetarian version.
True for many Italian American dishes, fettuccine Alfredo has its share of lore and mystery. The most consistent version dates back to 1914 in Rome. A chef named Alfredo di Lelio threw this dish together with his homemade pasta, butter and parmigiana cheese. It worked wonders for his wife suffering from morning sickness. Over the years, many adaptations ensued and the recipe includes heavy cream instead of butter. Nevertheless, I love this comforting dish because my grandmother loved it, too
Pesto alla Genovese
The fragrance and flavor of basil compares to no other. Although there are several varieties of basil, the variety from Genoa in Northern Italy seems to make the best pesto perhaps because the leaves are so delicate and full of flavor. Once you make the pesto sauce, it can be used on anything from fettuccine to gnocchi to ravioli.
Spaghetti with Broccolini rabe, olive oil, garlic and peppers
Another classic and a healthy variation on the spaghetti, olive oil and peppers. If you have seen How Not to Die, the new book about curing disease with foods? Broccoli robe, a cruciferous vegetable, is on the list of foods to eat every day that provide huge health benefits.
I hope you enjoy each of these beloved recipes. Do you have any favorite pasta dishes? I would love to hear from you!