Names of Pasta Sauces

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Italy’s broad canon of fresh and dried pasta calls for an equally wide range of sauces, with significant variation across the regions. Curiously, some of the favorite sauces from American cuisine are unknown in Italy.

Pseudo Sauces

Not so much a sauce as a fine sheen of garlic-infused oil on each pasta thread, _aglio e olio _is the simplest way to showcase good, fresh pasta. Usually served with spaghetti, the sauce requires only olive oil and garlic, with parsley to garnish. Source the best possible oil along with fresh, pungent garlic, and the result is surprisingly memorable.

Associated with the fertile countryside around Genoa in northern Italy, pesto brings together the area’s abundant resources of basil and pine nuts, pounded, along with garlic and olive oil, into an aromatic paste. Traditionally, pesto is served with thin trenette pasta, similar to linguine, but unique to the Liguria region.

Established Classics

Eating pasta with a rich tomato sauce is particularly common in southern Italy, where fresh tomato, garlic, olive oil and basil are close at hand. Known as sugo di pomodoro in Italy but marinara in the U.S., the sauce works well both with spaghetti and as a pizza topping.

A saltier, altogether naughtier, adaptation is Naples’ puttanesca sauce, which adds capers, olives, anchovies and red chili flakes to the mix. Spicy and full-flavored, the sauce goes best with a shaped pasta able to hold onto the olives and capers.

Vongole sauce is one of the few to marry pasta and seafood. Combining onions, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and clam sauce, often with a dash of white wine, vongole is briny and aromatic. Adding tomato makes it a red rather than white vongole.

American Hybrids

Sunday Sauces

  • Bolognese sauce has a loose connection with Bologna, but is above all an Italian-American creation, representing just one of many Italian slow-cooked meat ragu sauces
  • The key to ragu is low, slow cooking, starting off with fried pancetta, beef or chicken livers, and building aroma with wine, and herbs. 
  • While Bolognese sauce is heavy in tomato, Italian ragus highlight the meat. In fact, some versions, such as Venetian game ragu, have no tomato at all. 
  •  Serve ragu with wide noodles such as tagliatelle or fettuccine.

Alfredo sauce might often be sold as a stir-in pasta sauce in supermarkets, but it is unknown in Italy. Usually served over tagliatelle or fettuccine, this butter, cream and cheese sauce owes its fame to Americans who championed its qualities after an impromptu serving in a Roman restaurant.

Spaghetti alla carbonara is an established Roman classic that has been adapted to a North American style. In Italy, the sauce starts with fried pancetta and garlic and finishes by stirring in raw egg and grated Parmesan cheese to the freshly drained pasta, usually with dry pasta to better hold onto the sauce. Overseas versions might add onions and cream to build volume, but in Italy the sauce leaves just a trace.

Primavera sauce is uniquely an American creation, first served in New York City’s Le Cirque restaurant in the 1970s. Served ideally with penne or farfalle, the sauce gathers spring vegetables and herbs, finished off with a cream and stock sauce.

Selecting Pasta

  • Thick ragus with lots of meat or vegetables will slide off ribbon pasta, so they should be eaten with tube pasta or pasta with ridges such as penne or rigatoni.
  • Ribbon pasta such as tagliatelle or linguine pairs best with creamy sauces, while round, thin pasta such as spaghetti is perfect for oil- or tomato-based sauces.
  • Dry pasta, which contains no egg, tends to be more robust and able to cope with heavy sauces, while fresh pasta will absorb creamy sauces.

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