It goes without saying that food is an intrinsic part of Italy’s culture. So central are their culinary creations that Naples has become synonymous with pizza, Liguria is inextricably linked to pesto and Bolognese has put Bologna on the map. The Italian government have even nominated their beloved cuisine for inclusion on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Pasta rivals the aforementioned Neapolitan pizza as the nation’s most well-known (and well-loved) dish, so it’s no surprise that Italians take this tasty carb very seriously. In fact, the commercial manufacturing and labelling of pasta is highly regulated here and there are strict standards that must be met before the starchy shapes reach shop shelves. Eating pasta dishes in Italy is like enjoying fresh sushi in Japan or sampling seafood paella in Spain; there’s nothing quite like consuming traditional fare at its source. And while narrowing down a list of our favourite pasta dishes was no mean feat, consider this our compilation of flavour-packed comfort food…
- Bolognese, Bologna
- Cacio e pepe & carbonara, Rome
- Spaghetti alle vongole, Naples
- Tortelli & Tortellini, Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna
- Gnocchi, Veneto
- Orecchiette con cime di rapa, Puglia
- Busiate alla Trapanese, Sicily
- Tajarin al tartufo, Piedmont
Originating in Bologna, the region’s eponymous dish of Bolognese has become a household name. Yet, the Italian version actually bears little resemblance to the spaghetti Bolognese found on restaurant menus worldwide. In Italy, ragù alla Bolognese meat sauce usually features a mixture of minced beef and pork, served atop fresh tagliatelle, fettuccine or pappardelle. The first written mention of the ragù was in La Scienza in Cucina e l'Arte di Mangiar Bene, a cookery manual written by Pellegrino Artusi in 1891, and the original recipe was first registered with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce in 1982. Once you’ve tried a twirled forkful of traditional tagliatelle al ragù alla Bolognese, you’ll realise that the real deal far surpasses any imitation.
Cacio e pepe is having its moment in the spotlight; it was voted the ‘Italian dish of the year’ in 2022 and has since had considerable social media fame, due to its delicious, three-ingredient recipe. The original Roman dish dates back to ancient times, and while the ingredients may appear simple, it’s all about technique and temperature when it comes to perfecting it.
Carbonara – cacio e pepe’s equally creamy counterpart – is another classic pasta dish from the Italian capital, made by tossing spaghetti with guanciale (cured pork jowl), egg yolks and Pecorino Romano cheese. The name is thought to have derived from the Carbonari – woodcutters who resided in the Apennine mountains to the northeast of Rome, and allegedly tossed their pasta with eggs and cheese, over a hardwood charcoal fire. More modern adaptations sometimes include cream as well, although pasta purists don’t dare stray from the Italian way.
Spaghetti alle vongole sounds fancy, and while this seafood pasta packs some serious flavour, the ingredients are actually fairly minimal. Vongole clams and pasta are the two key components, with tomato as a much-debated addition (the original is made bianco, with only garlic, parsley and olive oil). The one element chefs can agree on is that the spaghetti should be cooked al dente. Clams have formed a part of the local diet in Naples since ancient times, so it’s no wonder that they’ve made their way into one of the most well-known pasta dishes in Italy. This is the meal to whip up if you’ve got guests to impress.
At some point in the 1500s, Italians decided to take pasta to the next level by stuffing it with cheese, meat and vegetables, and they’ve never looked back. Ravioli is thought to have been the first iteration of these pasta parcels, with the name originating from the old Italian word riavvolgere, meaning ‘to wrap’. Tortelli is Lombardy’s take on stuffed pasta, filled with a slightly sweet mixture of pumpkin, crushed amaretti biscuits and cheese. In Modena, near Bologna, tortellini is the order of the day and certainly has the most interesting origin story. Venus, the goddess of love, supposedly spent a night in a local inn and while there, the innkeeper stole a peek at her through the keyhole of her door. He then rushed to his kitchen to craft tortellini, which is said to be sculpted in the shape of Venus’ navel.
Part potato, part pasta, gnocchi is often lumped into the dumpling category. But its widespread appeal and illustrious history warrant it a place on our list of pasta dishes in Italy. The basic formula for gnocchi (a rough dough that is cut up and boiled) dates back to antiquity, however the potato-based version is believed to stem from northern Italy, where the cooler climate favoured potato farming. A grain shortage around the time of Verona’s pre-Lent carnival prompted locals to make the delicious dumplings with boiled potato and flour. And to this day, the people of Verona celebrate Venerdì Gnocolar (‘Gnocchi Friday’) on the final Friday before Lent, to pay homage to these pillowy pasta pieces.
Pasta dishes in Italy can be guilty of going heavy on the carbs and meat, so if you’re after a veg-packed pasta recipe, orecchiette con cime di rapa is one to consider. Particularly popular in the region’s capital of Bari, the Puglian pasta is named after its shape, which resembles a small ear. The curved sides make it perfect for scooping up pieces of broccoli rabe, or rapini – the leafy cruciferous vegetable used to make the sauce.
Pasta alla Norma is Sicily’s best-known pasta dish and for good reason, as tomato, fried aubergine and ricotta salata combine to create the perfect pairing of textures and tastes. A lesser-known, but equally delicious, dish from the island off the ‘toe’ of Italy’s ‘boot’ is busiate alla Trapanese. The spiral shape of this pasta from Trapani, on Sicily’s northwest coast, has been likened to an old telephone cord or double helix DNA, and is most often served with pesto alla Trapanese (almond and tomato pesto).
The northern region of Piedmont also plays host to some of the more unusual pasta dishes in Italy. Akin to tagliatelle, tajarin is a thin, egg-based pasta, frequently topped with generous shavings of Piedmontese white truffle, butter and parmesan. Unlike other egg pastas, the narrow, noodle-like strands are made with a higher proportion of egg yolk, giving them a more vibrant golden hue and a richer flavour.
Written by Luisa Watts