16 Classic Italian Pasta Sauces You Should Try

If you have ever opened an Italian cookbook, visited Italy, or simply Googled “Italian pasta sauces,” you will most likely have noticed how many there are (hundreds) and each one probably has more than one spin-off or variation. So which ones are authentic and which ones are not? How might you even start to comb through them all?

For a country so obsessed with culinary tradition, it’s actually difficult to pinpoint the origins of Italian dishes and sauces. Most are steeped in myth and legend, with colorful tales favored over what is probably the truth. It’s no surprise (Italians are natural storytellers) and you can forgive the odd embellishment for the sake of bringing a dish to life through history.

Many of Italy’s most historic dishes involve its greatest culinary gift to the world, pasta. International chefs and cooks are chastised by Italians for changing their beloved traditional recipes into something completely different, but many of these dishes have evolved over the years within the country, too. Just think, tomatoes were only introduced to Italy in the 1800s. Before that, pasta sauces contained no tomatoes at all.

It would take a whole series of thick encyclopedias to properly chart the history and origin of all the Italian pasta sauces out there, so instead we are going to go over the most popular, beloved, and used sauces in Italy (by actual Italians).

So the next time you want to make an authentic pasta dish for a crowd, stun your Italian mother-in-law with your pasta knowledge, or make sure you’re eating well in Italy (or the U.S.) read on about the classic Italian sauces you should know by heart.

Pesto Genovese

Pesto Genovese is a sauce with origins in the Italian city of Genoa. Traditionally, it consists of basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and cheese such as Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino. Its name stems from the word pestare, meaning to pound or crush, referring to the original method of making the sauce with a mortar and pestle.

It is said that pesto originated from the ancient Romans who ate a pasta called moretum, made by crushing together ingredients such as cheese, herbs, and garlic.

Serve with: tagliatelle, spaghetti, linguine, fusilli.

Carbonara Sauce

The most beloved sauce in Rome (and all over the world) is a cornerstone dish of Italian cuisine that has been imitated, debated, and confused with lesser sauces.

Legend has it that it was an invention of the creative chef Renato Gualandi, who made it in 1944 for American troops in Rome to lunch on.

The carbonara is prepared with guanciale (salt-cured pig jowl) cooked until it becomes slightly crispy. The other ingredients are egg yolks, grated pecorino cheese, salt, and pepper. The use of cream is absolutely forbidden in traditional carbonara. Moreover, in order to prepare the perfect carbonara, the pasta should be long.

Serve with: spaghetti, bavette, bucatini


The unami-laden sauce of tomatoes, anchovies, capers, olives, and garlic is a fan favorite because it’s easy to make and is mostly made from pantry staples, but it also has the most colorful history of any pasta dish. Originally from Lazio (or Compania depending on who you ask), Spaghetti alla Puttanesca (which roughly translates to “whore’s spaghetti”) started becoming popular after WWII.

There are a few stories behind this dish, the most famous states that it was originally made by prostitutes in brothels as it was quick to make between clients and the incredible smell would lead men to their doors. As with any origin story, it’s hard to know if this is actually true. Others believe that the sauce gets its name from puttanata qualsiasi (Italian for “just make us whatever”) which led to a sauce made from a mishmash of leftover pantry ingredients.

Serve with: spaghetti, linguine


Named after Amatrice, a provincial town in the Sabine Hills northeast of Rome, the iconic Amatriciana sauce is often considered part of the “holy trinity of Roman pasta,” together with carbonara and cacio & pepe.

Pasta Amatriciana was said to be born out of gricia sauce which is made with just guanciale, black pepper, and pecorino cheese. Legend has it that people in Amatrice added tomatoes to their gricia sauce, creating this deliciously rich dish. Eventually, the people of Amatrice while traveling back and forth to Rome to sell their produce, cheeses, and cured meat introduced their famous sauce to the cuisine of Rome.

Over time, this classic Italian dish became so popular it was featured in several movies, from the 1954 film An American in Rome to Eat Pray Love in which Julia Roberts joyfully wolfs down a portion of spaghetti Amatriciana while sitting on the terrace of a typical Roman osteria.

Serve with: spaghetti, bucatini

Cacio & Pepe

Both the name of the dish and the name of the sauce itself, cacio & pepe is made using just three ingredients: cacio (cheese specifically from sheep’s milk), pepe (black pepper), and pasta. Popular theories claim that it was Italian shepherds who invented the cacio & pepe that we know today. Traveling for several months of the year in the Apennine Mountains, they carried with them dried pasta, black pepper, and cheese – ingredients easy to transport and easy to store which produced a saucy dish that was warming on cold nights. Some food historians believe that the cheese was made fresh daily from sheep’s milk.

The ingredients are simple, but the technique takes a bit to master. Pecorino cheese is made into a creamy sauce with the addition of pasta, water, and plenty of freshly cracked black pepper.

Serve with: spaghetti, tonnarelli

Alla Norma

This is down-home, primal, Sicilian cooking using inexpensive and commonly available ingredients: olive oil, eggplant, tomato, and pasta. A showering of grated ricotta salata and toasted breadcrumbs elevates this humble yet famous dish.

The Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini adored it with such passion that it was eventually named after his 19th century opera Norma (or so goes the story).

Serve with: rigatoni, ziti, penne

Vongole Sauce

This is a typical sauce for linguine with clams, a classic dish of Campania cuisine, widespread, and very much loved on all Italian coasts. The origins of this “poor dish,” is unknown – a testament to the irony of the Neapolitan.

Only five ingredients are used: garlic, oil, chili pepper, clams, and white wine. This may make it an easy dish to prepare, but it is not. All the ingredients must be of the highest quality and cooked perfectly. The clams must be sauteed for absolutely the right amount of time to get the perfect creaminess to bind the ingredients together

Serve with: linguine, spaghetti

Arrabiata Sauce

From Rome and the Lazio region, Arrabiata is a simple sauce made from equally simple ingredients: tomatoes, pecorino cheese, and olive oil. However, the most significant ingredient that goes into making the sauce is chili pepper. You may find the name Arrabiata (literally  “angry” in Italian) quite peculiar. Not so if you know that Italians also use the word for spicy, chili, and thirst-increasing foods.

This sauce works well not only for pasta but also for pizza and any food that needs a dipping sauce.

Serve with: penne, ziti, rigatoni

Ragu alla Bolognese

Ragu alla Bolognese was invented in the late 18th century by Alberto Alvisi, a chef of Pope Pius XII. The base of this classic is made with beef or pork (or a combination of both) pancetta, onions, carrots, as well as ripe fresh tomatoes or tomato puree, red or very dry wine, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. The sauce is finished with a splash of milk or cream.

Many Italian families will make up huge batches of ragu, freeze it in portioned out containers, and dinner is ready in 20 minutes

Serve with: pappardelle, fettuccine, farfalle, or use to make lasagna


Marinara is a red sauce consisting of olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and herbs. Onions might be sometimes added to the combination of these ingredients, and it also might be transformed into another sauce such as Arrabbiata or puttanesca with the addition of different ingredients.

Due to its simplicity, marinara acts as a versatile base for many Italian dishes. It originated in Naples in southern Italy, its name derived from the Italian word for sailors (marinara). Some say it was named after the sailors because marinara’s ingredients didn’t spoil easily, and the sauce could be prepared in about the same time it took pasta to cook, so the two made a flavorful and cheap meal for sailors on their voyages.

Serve with: spaghetti, ziti, penne, mozzarella sticks

Sugo di Noci (Walnut Sauce)

After pesto, walnut sauce is the next most traditional sauce of Liguria. It has very old origins and was in widespread use in ancient Persia. During the era of the Roman Republic, the Genovese discovered it thanks to their trade with the East, bringing the recipe back home. Originally, walnut sauce was called agliata bianca (a mix of walnuts and garlic).

Besides walnuts and garlic, the sauce includes breadcrumbs, milk, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. It has a creamy texture and sweet flavor. Traditionally, the sauce is served with pansotti, a famous, local, fresh pasta filled with chard and herbs, eggs, and ricotta cheese.

Serve with: pansotti, ravioli, fettuccine

Salsa al Limone

Salsa al Limone is a lemon sauce that comes from Campania (specifically the Amalfi coast) and Sorrento where lemons grow in abundance.

This is a 5 minute sauce, meaning you can make it while the pasta cooks and have dinner ready in 15 minutes. Some recipes call for cream others for butter, but either way a creamy, silky sauce is made from the lemon juice and zest, enriched with parmesan cheese and thinned out with a starchy pasta water. Italians eat this dish both in the winter when the lemons are newly ripe and also in the summer as a light and tasty meal.

Serve with: linguine, tagliatelle, rotini


Friggione is a traditional dipping sauce that started as a cheap peasant food before winning the hearts of Italians from all walks of life.

The magic of Friggione comes from a simple mixture of slow cooked tomatoes and onions.

True to its rustic roots, the sauce used pork lard in the paste. These days, locals usually opt for olive oil. But the onions are always the famous variety from Mediciana (a town near Bologna).

Friggione has an endless list of applications. It doesn’t make much difference whether you enjoy it with Italian sausage recipes and cured meats, as a main dish, or with toasts as an appetizer. Of course, serving it with pasta is equally pleasurable.

Serve with: tagliatelle or other egg pasta

Agrodolce (Italian Sweet and Sour Sauce)

Agrodolce is a combination of agro (sour) and dolce (sweet), so it isn’t difficult to guess the nature of this sauce. If you find it slightly different from the rest of Italian sauces, you’re not alone. This Italian sauce owes its creation to Arabic influences.

In 831, following the conquest, the Arabs established the Emirate of Sicily and ruled for two centuries. That period transferred local cuisine, with Agrodolce as a notable example.

From being a Sicilian sauce, Agrodolce is now a popular sauce all over Italy. Its main ingredients are balsamic vinegar, wine, and sugar. You can render Agrodolce pleasantly sweet or stimulating sour by mixing, heating, and reducing things according to your desired ratio.

Serve with: roasted vegetables, grilled meats, cheese tortellini, ravioli

Al Funghi

Since mushrooms grow so well in Italy, it’s only logical that Italians live for the moment every year when they can make their hearty mushroom sauce to serve with pasta.

This classic sauce is made with olive oil, garlic, onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes, and porcini mushrooms. The sauce is cooked over low heat and stirred with a wooden spoon until it thickens. It’s typically seasoned with oregano, basil leaves, parsley, salt, and pepper.

Serve with: tagliatelle, tagliolini, corzetti

Time to Spice Up Your Life with Italian Pasta Sauce

Italian pasta sauces are amazing! They are so diverse in many aspects from color to flavor and more. Whether you like it red or green, lean or fatty, sugary or sour, Italian pasta sauces have something to delight you.

Pasta is where these sauces shine best, for its delectableness rests solely on them. But the use of Italian sauces doesn’t stop there. You can enjoy them with pizza, appetizers, and countless main dishes, be it from Italy or other countries.