In Italy, they know how to make pasta sauces. It’s not exactly an instinct – it’s a culture, which can mean almost the same if you’re deeply enough imbedded in it!

Those with a father or grandmother who made pasta sauces three, four, five days a week while they grew up can count themselves among this number. It’s not a question of getting the recipe right.

It’s a matter of calmly improving on a process that’s been second nature since they were first allowed in the kitchen. For the rest of us, we know a half-decent pasta sauce is only a supermarket jar away.

But who wants to put up with half-decent? Or rely on mass-market manufacturers to spice up their home cooking? Nobody’s saying you can make up for a lifetime of pasta sauce preparation in two weeks.

However, convincing yourself you can do it is the toughest part. The second toughest part is persevering through a few mediocre sauces while you get the hang of things.

But actually, as long as you follow one key rule – use good quality, fresh ingredients – you can’t go too far wrong on your path to getting things very, very right.

Let’s take a look at a fortnight’s worth of classic pasta sauces to help you get the basics down.

The Pomodoro

Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, which is at the heart of many Italian pasta sauces. While, as its name, the Pomodoro sauce is relatively straightforward and can be whipped up in just a few minutes, you’ll still need more than just tomatoes to get started! However, the simplicity of the sauce means that it goes with just about anything.

Start by heating some oil and garlic, then add a handful of grape tomatoes, halved-lengthways, and salt and pepper. After five minutes, add basil and grated Pecorino, stir it in, and you’re ready to go.

The Ragu Alla Bolognese

The first written reference to this meat sauce from the city of Bologna appeared in an 1891 book named ‘The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well.’ That’s what you’re looking for, right?

The rainy, humid climate of the region around Bologna has led to simple but comforting dishes that rarely fail to satisfy. Simply put, if you have a big family with competing for emotional needs, Bolognese can be a great leveler.

The first step is to fry the onion, celery, and diced carrot, before adding ground beef and cooking until it has browned. After this, tomato puree, garlic, and red wine are added to make the sauce irresistible; the whole thing needs to simmer, covered, for around an hour to bring out the flavors.

The Carbonara

Introduced to the Lazio region by traveling charcoal sellers (Carbonari means ‘coal men’), this sauce proteins-up your evening meal so you can put in a solid day’s work on the morrow.

Begin by cubing and frying pork meat (guanciale or pancetta), then put it on the side while you whisk together eggs, cheese, and pepper. Add cooked pasta to the frying skillet and make sure the meat mixes evenly throughout, then let it cool slightly before adding the egg and cheese mix.

The Marinara

You’ll really prove your stuff by learning to distinguish between Marinara and Pomodoro sauce. Both are straightforward pasta sauces, although marinara is arguably more versatile should you want to add extra ingredients to the mix.

Originating in the south of Italy, marinara appears to have been named after marinai – sailors – since the ingredients travel well without spoiling, so probably served many a deckhand.

Like the Pomodoro, start by heating the garlic and then add tomatoes and seasoning as you go. But there’s no cheese element in this one. If you’re planning to improve on the recipe with extra ingredients, you might get away with using tinned tomatoes and puree, but if you’re keeping it simple then use fresh tomatoes to get the kick you need.

The Pesto Alla Genovese

‘Pesto’ comes from the Italian word pestâ, to crush. For that’s what you’ll be doing.

Originating in Genoa, pesto is usually referred to in its shortened version – although you might include the ‘alla Genovese’ part to indicate you’re keeping to the traditional recipe, rather than one of the variations you can find on the supermarket shelf.

Using either a mortar and pestle or a blender, grind basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, and grated Parmesan together; then add salt, Pecorino, and oil, and keep on grinding.

The Aglio Olio e Peperoncino

This one is part of Italy’s Cucina Rustica – rustic kitchen, or home-style cooking. It’s traditional to the middle and south of the country.

You can keep it super-simple, by heating just oil, garlic, and chili in a pan, or bulk it up with finely-chopped anchovies before mixing it into spaghetti.

The Puttanesca

While the name of this sauce, as you might already have twigged, appears to refer to practitioners of the ‘oldest profession’, historians (and chefs) remain divided as to just how much of a connection there is between this flavorsome dressing and the culinary skills of sex workers.

What seems more likely is that the name refers to the casualness with which the ingredients are thrown together.

And those ingredients are pretty tasty: start with butter as well as oil, add garlic and anchovies, and finally capers, olives, and tomatoes. You’ll want to experiment with the timing to see what works for you, but with these ingredients, it’s hard to end up with a sauce that doesn’t satisfy.

The Arrabbiata

Another of the pasta sauces you can assemble in a hurry if guests arrive. This one can be prepared while the pasta cooks.

The name means ‘angry’ and it looks as furious as it sounds. Red pepper flakes are added to your simmering oil, garlic, and onion, followed by tomatoes and a bay leaf. Serve once the pasta’s done if you’re in a rush, or simmer the whole lot for an hour for more flavor if there’s time.

Basil, salt, and – don’t let an Italian catch you doing this – cheese can be added once cooked.

The Alle Vongole

Live near the sea? Fresh seafood is a must for this one. Originating in the town of Cetara on the Amalfi coast, you’ll want to spice it up with Colatura – an anchovy sauce from the region – if possible.

If not, you’ll still get by with plenty of clams and, if you fancy, fresh anchovies. Rinse the clams and leave them in a bowl of salty water for a couple of hours before discarding the unopened ones. Heat garlic, parsley stalks, and tomatoes in one pan, and then cook the clams with water, white wine, and pasta in another. Then put it all together.

The Allo Scoglio

This fruits-of-the-sea dish can be quite pricey when you eat out, so learn how to make it at home and you’ll have an instant (well, two hours or so) way to impress dinner guests.

You’ll need a good haul of shellfish to make a truly impressive allo scoglio; allow for at least a pound per person (and let’s face it, someone will want to go back for seconds). Clams, mussels, and scallops should see you well.

As with the alle vongole, rinse them and soak them. Meanwhile, heat oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes, before adding clam broth and tomato paste to the pan. Finally, add the shellfish and a little dry white wine.

The Quattro Formaggi

Ah, the two Italian words that everybody knows! There’s no big story behind four-cheese pasta. It just tastes good. And satisfies. And continues to taste good even once you think you’re satisfied.

The cheeses to have in mind are Gorgonzola, Emmental, Tilsiter, and of course Parmesan. As if this isn’t enough, you start by heating butter instead of oil. Add the cheeses, let them melt, then mix in a few tablespoons of milk and stir. What could be simpler?

The Norma

Named after Vincenzo Bellini’s opera, the only connection between the sauce and the musical is that both are rich, enchanting, and full of character. Hailing from Sicily, this one’s a good option for those turned off by the meat, dairy, or fish above.

Fry up some garlic and tomatoes, then shallow fry diced eggplant until it turns golden. Add the eggplant to the tomato sauce, and then add basil and ricotta salad.

The Alfredo

They say that Alfredo di Lelio first concocted his cheesy sauce to satisfy his pregnant wife. After he moved to New York and opened a restaurant, his dish became an international hit.

You, too, can please your pregnant wife, by simmering heavy cream, Parmesan, and garlic in a pan with salt and pepper. Serve it with fettuccini and – if the missus is so inclined – fried chicken strips.

Cacio e Pepe

One of the most ancient pasta sauces of them all, cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) was first enjoyed by the shepherds of the Roman Empire.

Again, cook this one with butter: add black pepper (plenty of it!) until it toasts, then cooked pasta and Grana Padano. Once it’s cooked, take it off the heat and mix in the Pecorino.


Once you know your way around a handful of these recipes, you’ll be ready to freestyle – adding and removing ingredients and adjusting cooking times according to your personal preferences (and those of your fellow diners). Check out the infographic below for more details on how to prepare these classic pasta sauces.

Pasta Sauces How to Make Them Infographic

What do you think? Which of these pasta sauces worked for you – and what will you do differently next time? Let us know in the comments!



Infographic source:

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