Spaghetti are the most iconic pasta shape in Italy. Follow us on a culinary journey through 10 traditional spaghetti recipes (and where to eat them).
Dressed with tomato sauce, pesto or with clams.
Spaghetti is the most iconic pasta shape of the whole Italian gastronomy. It's so important to have given its name to a movie genre (the "spaghetti-western") and to star on movies alongside famous Italian actors like Totò or Alberto Sordi.
There are two main ingredients: durum wheat flour and water. Dozens of variations are born from such a simple base and every Italian region has its favorite.
January 4th has even been declared National Spaghetti Day in the US. To celebrate this day we decided to show you 10 absolutely unmissable spaghetti recipes.
But where does spaghetti come from? Who invented them?
Spaghetti: the origins
The origins of spaghetti are neither clear, nor easy to trace.
The most popular opinion gives great importance to a clash of cultures: the Italian culture, with various types of long pasta already in use in the Middle Ages, the Chinese culture with the classic "soy noodles" (Marco Polo also reported their use) and the Arab one, with its durum wheat sold in Sicily to cook the "vermicelli".
From this mix of cultures a middle ground emerged in the heart of the Mediterranean: spaghetti as we know them today.
An inexpensive, versatile and nutritious food - perfect for feeding the people.
In the 18th century, the countryside of the Kingdom of Naples was redesigned to enhance agricultural production. The foundations of Neapolitan gastronomic traditions were launched thanks to the resulting surplus of raw materials, including durum wheat.
Artisan pasta factories were opened throughout Campania, and the famous shape of spaghetti became first a culinary symbol of Naples, and then of the whole of Italy.
The icing on the cake comes from the cultivation of spaghetti's best friend: the San Marzano tomato, the ideal condiment.
Here are our favourite recipes!
10. Spaghetti puttanesca
Contested between Campania and Lazio, the recipe for spaghetti puttanesca is simple, colourful and very tasty.
The basic recipe from Campania (known in slang as "aulive e chiapparielle") seasons the spaghetti with tomato sauce, oil, garlic, black Gaeta olives, oregano and capers, with the addition of parsley and chilli pepper. The Roman recipe also adds salted anchovies to boosts the flavour.
The literal translation of the name "puttanesca" is "in the style of the prostitute". The origins of the name are difficult to trace. Some sources suggest that the preparation of this pasta was perfect for retaining customers of the brothels of the Quartieri Spagnoli in Naples - as it's quick to prepare and very tasty. Others believe that the name of the sauce derives from the speed with which it is prepared, almost a fridge-empty recipe.
Spaghetti puttanesca contain all the colours and peculiar scents of Mediterranean cuisine.
You can taste the two variants of spaghetti alla puttanesca in many restaurants between Lazio and Campania, a safe bet everywhere you go and a wallet-friendly classic.
9. Spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli pepper
Spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli pepper are the timeless protagonists of night-time spaghetti dinners with friends.
Success is guaranteed, thanks to the sharp garlic flavour and the fact that's almost impossible to cook it wrong.
This is one of the most loved recipes by Italians (not just by students or hasty cooks), and combines speed of preparation with the unmistakable scent of sautéing garlic and the flavour of chilli pepper (fresh or dried).
The origins of the recipe are to be found in Campania, a perfect example of "poor people" cuisine. Today this first course has crossed regional borders and is prepared in kitchens throughout Italy.
It is rare to find spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli pepper on the restaurant menu. The best way to enjoy this pasta is to cook it at home, perhaps by inviting friends and uncorking some fresh white wine, such as Trebbiano or Falanghina.
8. Spaghetti with pesto
All of Liguria in just one dish.
The colourful and delicious pesto sauce is a must if you are in Genoa.
Genoese pesto is in fact the traditional condiment of this area of Italy: its main ingredient is Genoese Basil which gives it its unmistakable smell and green colour.
In addition to the basil, the recipe for this sauce calls for pine nuts, garlic, salt, Parmesan and extra virgin olive oil. All the ingredients retain their aroma and characteristic flavour because they are not cooked, but raw pounded and cold blended.
The pesto recipe also boasts several variations. For example, walnuts are used in more in-land areas, instead of the more expensive pine nuts, while another version features green beans and potatoes.
Instead of spaghetti, other forms of pasta are often used, such as trenette, gnocchi or trofie. Pesto is considered the second most popular pasta sauce in the world, beaten only by tomato sauce.
The best places to enjoy spaghetti with pesto are Genoa and the whole of Liguria. Look for a traditional inn or trattoria and enjoy the explosion of taste, perhaps combined with a Ligurian white wine (such as the Pigato della Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC).
If you are intrigued by pesto's history and taste, we recommend you to visit the World Championship of Genoese Pesto, an event celebrating this sauce and the whole Ligurian food culture.
The Championship is held every two year in Genoa: you can take a look at the chefs in action as they prepare their version of pesto and sample unbeatable pasta with pesto.
7. Seafood spaghetti
The spaghetti allo scoglio (literally "sea rock spaghetti") are the king of seafood pasta.
You can find them in all fish restaurants in Italy. The recipe is typical of Campania cuisine, but is now widespread throughout Italy, especially in coastal areas. Thanks to the over 8000 kilometre of coastline, you'll be surprised by how many variations of seafood spaghetti exist.
The cornerstones of the recipe remain spaghetti and seafood, including shellfish (prawns, scampi) and molluscs (above all squid, clams and mussels). Seafood must obviously be very fresh in order to obtain the best possible flavour.
The delicious and irresistible seafood flavour of this recipe is given above all by the use of the shellfish cooking water and by preparing a delicious fish broth.
Each chef offers his own variant of this pasta: some of them experiments by combining rarer and more expensive crustaceans and molluscs (such as mantis shrimp), while others prefer the version with cherry tomatoes.
The end result remains the sea dish par excellence, perfect for those who love the sea and want to get on their plates all the flavours and smells of the Mediterranean.
To get the best of the seafood spaghetti, match it with a fragrant white wine, such as a Greco di Tufo or a Gavi.
Spaghetti allo scoglio can be also cooked at home: just visit your preferred fish market and chat with the fishmonger to get advice on the freshest seafood.
6. Pecorino and black pepper spaghetti
Pecorino and black pepper spaghetti (known as "cacio e pepe") is a typical first course from Lazio.
This pasta puts together simplicity and strong flavour and it's one of the favourite in central Italy.
The recipe is linked to the peasant traditions of the Roman countryside and to the transhumance of shepherds in the mountainous regions of Lazio. For the shepherds it was in fact important to cook with food that was easy to find and could last a long time in their travel saddlebags. In the original recipe, the "cacio" (meaning "cheese") is therefore Roman pecorino, easy to get and long lasting, and black peppercorns.
The smart owners of Roman taverns used to serve very salty cacio e pepe so as to make customers thirsty and pour them abundant cups of wine.
Today spaghetti with Pecorino and black peppercorn is an integral part of Roman and Lazio cuisine.
The preparation speed makes it an easy pasta to make even at home, while the DOP ingredients and the final creaming with the cooking water from the spaghetti (or tonnarelli) give the recipe its renowned creaminess.
5. Spaghetti all'amatriciana
Only “spaghetti, guanciale from Amatrice, pecorino cheese and peeled tomatoes”.
This was certified by the European Union as a Guaranteed Traditional Specialty.
Spaghetti all'amatriciana is a recipe with a fiery flavour and ancient history: a history that goes hand in hand with the evolution of the Italian territory.
It was born without tomato sauce in the village of Amatrice, a town in the Kingdom of Naples, and was called "gricia".
Subsequent trade with the Kingdom of Naples led to a wider use of the tomato which became the best friend of the guanciale, creating the strong-flavoured condiment we know today.
After two different region re-shapements, Amatrice was first moved to Abruzzo and then to Lazio, establishing itself in Rome with the 'matriciani, who were the shepherds of Amatrice who sold their products in the Capital.
This was the takeoff for the spaghetti all'amatriciana: the classic recipe resists countless variations (Pancetta? Onion? Don't tell the Romans!) and becomes one of the symbolic dishes of Rome.
You can taste spaghetti (or bucatini) all'amatriciana in almost all tavernas and restaurants in Lazio and Rome, perhaps combining it with an intense red wine like Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.
If you want to know more, visit the Museum of popular arts and traditions in Configno, small village near Rieti, where there is a section dedicated to spaghetti all'amatriciana. It shows original pasta-making machines and kitchen utensils related to preparation of this historic recipe.
4. Spaghetti alla siracusana
Spaghetti alla siracusana can literally be translated with "spaghetti the Syracusan way".
This a Sicilian specialty with few local ingredients like anchovies, garlic, oil and the delicious addition of breadcrumbs toasted in a pan.
The crunchiness of the toasted breadcrumbs and the salty taste of the anchovies make this dish a staple of the Sicilian cuisine.
In one of its best-known variations, the spaghetti are also fried in a pan to make it tastier and crunchier.
Simple and quick to make at home, to best way to enjoy this Sicilian recipe we recommend ordering it in a trattoria in the wonderful city of Syracuse (and while you're at it, take a look at our tips to explore it).
Finally, do not confuse the spaghetti alla siracusana with the "pasta alla siracusana", a gargantuan display of culinary art combining anchovies with peppers, tomatoes, aubergines, olives, capers and caciocavallo cheese.
3. Spaghetti omelette
The spaghetti omelette is one of the greatest leftovers feast you can find in Italian cuisine.
This recipe is a great classic to make at home with leftover spaghetti from the previous meal, adding eggs, Parmesan and maybe pancetta or smoked salami to boost the flavour.
This "recycled" omelette is typical of Campania cuisine, a region where there's an art in turning leftover food into something delicious: the taste of spaghetti and eggs cooked in a pan creates a crunchy, golden-brown surface and an irresistible taste.
But this recipe is not only limited to the kitchens of Italians!
Walking through the streets of Naples you can find it in the "friggitorie" (aka fry shops) cook take-away food: the spaghetti omelette gives its best wrapped in the paper cone paired with the other succulent fried foods (potato crocchè, fried mozzarella and courgette flowers), ideally sipping a beer and walking through the alleys of the city.
2. Spaghetti with clams
Spaghetti with clams are the queen of seafood pasta.
The quality of the clams is vital to the success of this dish and the best type of clams are called “verace” (meaning of the genus Ruditapes decussatus).
The ingredients revolving around this succulent mollusc are garlic, oil, parsley, chilli pepper and tomatoes (only for the red version). The spaghetti must be drained al dente and the final part of their cooking must be completed by creaming them in the pan with the sautéed clams.
This recipe is typical of the Campania region, but is quite widespread in all Italian coastal areas, including Veneto where local chefs uses lagoon or sea clams.
Spaghetti with clams are a delicious classic first dish of Italian cuisine: if you are nearby any coastal area and you have to choose a single fish dish to try in a restaurant… order them and you won't be disappointed.
1. Spaghetti alla carbonara
The spaghetti alla carbonara are the uber-Roman dish.
The carbonara is an unmissable dish for anyone visiting Rome, present in the menus of literally ALL restaurants and adored by Romans and tourists alike.
The base of the recipe is made by just a handful of ingredients, mixed together in the right ways (and at the right times): spaghetti, guanciale, egg yolks, pecorino cheese and freshly ground pepper.
Best to enjoy a carbonara in a traditional restaurant in Rome and match it with a fresh white wine, like Vermentino, to better contract the strong flavour of the pasta.
In home cooking, the recipe of carbonara is sometimes customised with additions and personal touches (single/double cream is a firm "no" unless you want to make your Italian guest suffer).
This makes it one of the most discussed pasta dishes in Italy.
The carbonara is quite a new recipe. In fact, there is no trace of this dish in pre-World War II cookbooks.
According to cooking historians, this is the most probable origin of the recipe: in 1944 the American soldiers fighting in Italy crashed into the Nazi-Fascist troops along Gustav line (a set of fortification cutting Italy in two, extending from Lazio to Abruzzo). They were forced to stay in central Italy for months and they got to know the pasta “cacio e ova” (cheese and eggs), typical of those areas.
They used the smoked bacon of their rations to enrich the pasta, and they ended up creating a rough carbonara. Finally, they arrived in Rome and brought carbonara with them: the recipe found fertile ground to evolve and establish itself in the Capital, becoming the delicacy that today makes us lick our lips.