16 Types Of Pasta Sauce Explained

It is assumed that over 600 types of pasta exist in the world (via Share the Pasta). Depending on the shape of each pasta, Italian cuisine is careful to pair it with the right type of sauce. Thin and delicate pasta requires equally light butter or oil-based sauces, whereas cream and cheese sauces are best left to sturdier strands (via Dellalo). Tube-shaped pasta is ideal for meaty or chunky tomato sauces that can nestle inside the hollow centers. Pairing your pasta shape with the right type of sauce can make all the difference between a dry plate of pasta and one that generously packs the sauce in each bite.

The pasta and sauce pairing aside, different regions of Italy are famous for different kinds of pasta sauces. In northern Italy, cold temperatures, mountainous terrain, and a preference for gamey meats mean that the region is home to meaty sauces. In contrast, ingredients like tomatoes, eggplants, and olives grow in abundance thanks to the warm climate of southern Italy (via Food Lover's Market). Southern Italy also tends to use more pepper than the north, and the region's coastline makes seafood a popular ingredient.

Interestingly, some of the most common pasta dishes — like spaghetti and meatballs or fettuccine alfredo — were actually invented in America! An influx of Italian immigrants in the U.S. has given rise to an entire cuisine known as Italian-American (via Food52). As a result, there are a ton of pasta sauces today, each of which is meant to serve a saucy purpose of its own!

Bolognese

Bolognese sauce is famously served as spaghetti bolognese (or spag bol as the lingo goes). But it may surprise you that the saucy pasta is quite a controversial dish not just outside of Italy but within the country too. A few years ago, Chef Antonio Carluccio had non-Italians in an uproar when he stated that spaghetti bolognese simply did not exist in Italy (via The Telegraph). Meanwhile, others claim that the closest thing to the dish you'll find in Italy is Ragù alla Bolognese served over wide tagliatelle noodles (via The Local). 

Ragù is any sauce that is made by simmering meat over low heat for a long period of time. While several types of ragús exist in Italy, Ragù alla Bolognese hails from the city of Bologna and is easily the most famous. Others, however, insist that spaghetti bolognese, or spaghetti al ragù, is indeed an authentic Italian dish that has been around for at least five centuries (via The Guardian). 

Interestingly, tomatoes are not central to traditional bolognese (via MarthaStewart). Instead, finely chopped pork, beef (sometimes veal), and pancetta are slow-cooked with vegetables, spices, and milk for three to five hours into a rich and hearty sauce. Traditionally, bolognese doesn't contain any herbs or garlic.

Alfredo

You'll be surprised to know that the original version of the alfredo sauce is said to have looked nothing like the cheesy and creamy mix that we know of today. According to Forbes, the sauce was invented in 1914 by Rome-based restaurateur Alfredo Di Lelio. In an attempt to make a pasta dish that would please his wife, who had lost her appetite after giving birth, he made a dish called Fettuccine all'Alfredo with all but three ingredients that she could stomach — butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and fettucine. Shockingly, the original version of alfredo sauce had no cream, flour, or herbs — it didn't even have garlic! All that gave the sauce its flavor was a rich triple cream butter and cheese that was cut from the core of a Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel.

When alfredo sauce and Fettuccine all'Alfredo made their way to the U.S. — thanks to Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford whose love for the dish gave it a press boost — American cooks were faced with a problem. According to Saveur, the cheese and butter in the states were far inferior in quality to the Italian ingredients of the original Di Lelio recipe. As a result, it's likely that Americans added cream to the sauce to mimic the creaminess of the original alfredo. To date, most restaurants in Italy will have two kinds of alfredo sauce on their menu — al burro (with butter) or alla creama (with cream) for the tourists. What both versions have in common though, is the use of fettuccine pasta.

Amatriciana

While alfredo and bolognese sauces have non-Italian influences on how they are prepared and served, amatriciana is one of the most famous traditional Italian pasta sauces that are often left untouched. According to The Guardian, shepherds from the Italian town of Amatrice would carry with them pecorino cheese, pork jowl (guanciale), pasta flour, and an iron pan when they traveled away from home. The sauce they made from these ingredients was called amatriciana, named after the town that it came from. While this version is best known as white amatriciana, the spicy red amatriciana famous today appeared around the 18th century when chili and tomatoes were introduced to the country from America.

According to the Italy Magazine, Amatrice passed a resolution in 2015 officially recognizing both red and white versions of the sauce. While both versions are made with spaghetti, neither use onions and garlic. The rules to making amatriciana sauce are so strict that when chef Carlo Cracco — whose Milanese restaurant earned two Michelin stars — admitted that he used garlic as the secret ingredient in his amatriciana, all of Amatrice was scandalized. In fact, The Guardian reports that the mayor of the town even released a statement hoping that the admission was a faux pas on the chef's behalf. Instead, officials of the town say that amatriciana should be made with only six ingredients: guanciale, pecorino cheese, San Marzano tomatoes, white wine, pepper, and chili. To mess with the sauce not only messes with the flavor but also messes with the history of the town.

Arrabbiata

From Rome and the Lazio region, arrabbiata is a simple sauce made from equally simple ingredients: tomatoes, pecorino cheese, garlic, and oil (via Eat & Walk Italy). However, the most significant ingredient that goes into the making of arrabbiata sauce is chili. In fact, MasterClass says that the word arrabbiata is Italian for angry, meaning spicy and arrabbiata go hand-in-hand. 

While American versions of arrabbiata tend to leave out the meat, MasterClass says that Roman arrabbiata usually has pancetta. Whether or not you choose to add pancetta, the simplicity of arrabbiata sauce means that it's important to nail the few ingredients that go into its making. Choosing fresh tomatoes in season over canned ones, whole dried peperoncini rossi or hot red peppers over chili flakes, and pecorino romano over parmesan can make all the difference. Best eaten tossed in penne pasta, arrabbiata sauce will go down easier with a glass of red wine to alleviate its spicy heat.

Carbonara

A few years ago, Nigella Lawson got into hot water when she added cream and nutmeg to her carbonara (via Eater). A little later, The New York Times faced the wrath of furious Italians when the site suggested adding tomatoes to a traditionally tomato-less carbonara for some tang (via The Guardian). The controversial sauce, though popular around the world, is a hotly disputed topic amongst traditionalists and those willing to experiment with ingredients.

Made with pecorino romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano, eggs, pepper, and guanciale or pancetta, each ingredient in the making of carbonara is contentious (via Italy Magazine). The stage at which you choose to beat in the eggs, whether you add the yolk or the pasta you choose for the sauce, are all heavily scrutinized. Even the origin of carbonara is debatable. According to Taste, some believe that carbonara is named after carbonai — coal miners who are credited with inventing the sauce using ingredients that didn't require refrigeration. Others think that carbonara was made using the army rations of American soldiers stationed in Italy during World War II, which included powdered eggs.

There's no universal agreement on anything related to carbonara. If you're eating the sauce outside, be prepared for it to taste different depending on where in the world you are or even the restaurant you're at. However, if you're making it at home, go ahead and make it to your liking — cream or no cream, no one's judging!

Pesto

Pesto is one of the rare pasta sauces that doesn't call for tomatoes or meat, and it doesn't need to be cooked either! In fact, Paesana brand pasta sauces state that pesto should never come in contact with any heat that's not the residual warmth of freshly cooked pasta or meat. Also called pesto alla Genovese, pesto comes from Genoa, the capital of the Liguria region (via Allrecipes). According to Saveur, pesto gets its name from pestare, the Italian verb for "to crush." 

The traditional bright green-colored pesto consists of pine nuts, basil, hard Italian cheese, and garlic, all ground together in a coarse paste using extra virgin olive oil (via Eat & Walk Italy). As with most pasta sauces, however, plenty of pesto variations exist, including versions made with pistachios, walnuts, fruits, and vegetables. According to Allrecipes, the most famous versions include pesto Modenese made with salami and rosemary or thyme and red pesto Rosso using tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and almonds.

Pasaena says it's best to use pasta shapes with curves and ridges with pesto. The reason is that these shapes will help the oil-based pesto sauce cling onto them better, which is why fusilli, rotini, bow tie, and farfalle are popular types of pasta to serve with pesto. You may even want your pesto to linger around in the refrigerator for a few days before you use it, as the sauce's flavor will only intensify over time.

Puttanesca

With an interesting name, puttanesca sauce has an equally interesting story attached to its origin. According to Thrillist, puttanesca roughly translates to "lady of the night," insinuating a sex worker. Some historians believe that the sauce originated somewhere around the time of the Second World War when women turned toward sex work. Loose theories suggest that puttanesca sauce was easy enough to throw together between a change of clients. Others believe that the sauce gets its name from puttanata qualsiasi (Italian for "just make us whatever"), which led to a sauce that is made from a mishmash of leftover pantry ingredients (via Do Bianchi).

Regardless of its origin, there exist two versions of the puttanesca sauce (via Eat & Walk Italy). Naples' version of puttanesca calls for tomatoes, black Gaeta olives, garlic, capers, oregano, and olive oil which is then tossed into spaghetti, linguine, or vermicelli noodles. Rome uses the same recipe, except it adds salted anchovies and prefers penne and spaghetti. Slate says that the use of anchovies and olives with tomato gives puttanesca a sweet but pungent and umami flavor. The lack of anchovies in the Neapolitan version is also why puttanesca often goes by the name of aulive e cchjapparielle aka olives and capers in Neapolitan (via The Local).

Marinara

Often confused with a plain tomato sauce, Substitute Cooking says that marinara is less thick in texture and easier to cook than the former. Made with tomatoes, garlic, crushed red pepper, and basil, the name of the sauce is commonly believed to have originated from Italian sea merchants, giving the sauce its informal name, "mariner-style" sauce (via Paesana). Delighted Cooking also adds that marinara was preferred on ships, possibly because its lack of meat made it easier to store on long journeys before refrigeration.

Although marinara is delicious by itself, the sauce can also be used as a base for the more complicated tomato-based sauces (via Fork + Plate). According to Paesana, the classic marinara sauce uses San Marzano tomatoes that are low in acidity. While this makes marinara a simple sauce that is quick and easy to make, it also means that the sauce lacks the complex flavor profile of most other pasta sauces. However, the simplicity of marinara can work in your favor if you want a sauce that will allow the flavor of freshly prepared pasta to shine without overpowering it.

Vodka Sauce

As with most sauces, who exactly invented vodka sauce is a matter of great debate not just amongst different regions of Italy but amongst different countries too. The U.S., it turns out, also lays claim to having invented the possibly Italian-American pasta sauce. According to Foodicles, two individuals claimed to have invented the boozy sauce in the 1980s. One of them was a Columbia University student by the name of James Doty, and the second was Chef Luigi Franzese of New York-based Orsini Restaurant, who is said to have used a splash of vodka to thin a tomato sauce.

A restaurant in Bologna also credits itself for coming up with the sauce along with a Roman chef who insists it was he who invented it at the behest of a vodka company wanting to popularise the spirit amongst wine-drinking Italians. What is generally believed, however, is that vodka sauce was famous in Italy long before it was in the U.S., and now that it is popular in America, the sauce is rarely ever found in Italy!

No matter its invention, vodka (and alcohol in general) works as a brilliant emulsifier in sauces, says Paesana. This is why the addition of the booze to caramelizing tomatoes creates a smooth pink-colored sauce that is immensely rich and creamy, which sits between a basic tomato sauce and a white Alfredo sauce.

Aglio Olio

Quite simply the Italian word for garlic and oil, aglio olio is as simple as a pasta sauce gets. The Dickinson Press even compares the sauce to the grown-up version of plain buttered noodles. Sometimes, hot chili peppers get added to the mix, and the sauce is called aglio olio e peperoncino. According to The Pasta Project, along with puttanesca and scarpariello, aglio olio is considered to be a part of the poor man's recipes (cucina povera) from the cuisine of Naples.

Because aglio olio requires only a handful of ingredients, how and when you use them makes all the difference. Some prefer to coarsely chop peeled garlic into chunks, whereas others add entire garlic cloves to oil and pluck them out once the garlicky flavor is infused into it. Whatever you do with the garlic, make sure not to overcook and burn it though. Peperoncino, if used, is best when added fresh and deseeded. A fresh hard Italian cheese like pecorino romano or parmesan is ideal, and as for the olive oil, the better its quality, the better your sauce will taste. 

Traditionally, the sauce calls for long noodle-like pasta such as vermicelli, spaghetti, or linguine. It's also a good idea to save your pasta water for this sauce as the starchy water can help the oil-based sauce thicken and soften the garlic pieces so that they blend with the pasta.

Scarpariello

Scarpariello sauce gets its name from scarpari, Italian for shoemakers (via Giallo Aferano). Thanks to its peculiar name, there are several legends behind the invention of the pasta sauce. According to certain theories, scarpariello was invented at a time when it was common for Italian shoemakers in the Quartieri Spagnoli district of Naples to be paid in groceries. Using whatever scraps of cheese they had, leftover tomato sauce, and a handful of basil leaves, the shoemaker's sauce was born. 

The common factor amongst all theories is that scarpariello sauce is made from the meaty Neapolitan ragù that is leftover from the weekend before. To make the leftovers more filling, a generous amount of cheese is added to the sauce. Over the years, the recipe has evolved, creating variations like the addition of rich lard or scialatielli pasta and yellow tomatoes for a version popular in some parts of the Campania region. Whatever the version, one thing is ensured — scarpariello is always delicious. 

Quattro Formaggi

While quattro formaggi is a name famously given to four-cheese pizzas, it also happens to be a popular pasta sauce. According to Serious Eats, a possible reason why quattro formaggi may not be famous as a sauce suitable for pasta is because it is thought to be more suitable for at-home pasta cooking rather than something you'd find at a restaurant.

As the name suggests, quattro formaggi is made from four kinds of cheese. Unlike several other pasta sauces that come with a strict set of dos and don'ts — disregarding which is blasphemous — the four-cheese sauce surprisingly has no rules! As long as you're using four different varieties, The Wise Geek says that you could even mix soft and hard cheeses with different flavors and textures.

When it comes to which cheese is more suitable, however, Serious Eats warns that it's best to stray away from mozzarella in this case. While it melts marvelously on a pizza, its stretchiness will keep the cheese from blending into a smooth and creamy sauce. Instead, Serious Eats suggests Taleggio for the base, Italian Fontina or Gruyère for more flavor and texture, and then blue gorgonzola and parmesan to finish off the quattro formaggi.

Sunday Sauce

A quintessential part of Italian-American cuisine, Munchery says that Sunday Sauce or Sunday Gravy originated from the influx of Italian immigrants into the U.S. between 1870 and 1920. In America, these Italian immigrants could afford more beef than they could in Italy, creating a tradition of the meaty Sunday Sauce.

Sunday Sauce is traditionally prepared on a Sunday. By allowing browned meat to simmer in a tomato sauce for long hours, it gives the meat time to infuse into a thick sauce, giving families time to enjoy each other's company (via The Saturday Evening Post). In the past, the sauce was allowed to slowly cook while families went to church on Sunday mornings.

According to All Recipes, the key to packing loads of flavor into a Sunday Sauce is to start the sauce with a meat base. Browning the meat first before adding other ingredients helps the sauce start with a base that is already rich. The meat should then be cooked with other ingredients for several hours until tender, a surefire sign of a perfectly cooked Sunday Sauce.

Cacio e Pepe

Both the name of the dish and the name of the sauce itself, cacio e pepe is made using just three ingredients: cacio (sheep's milk cheese), pepe (black pepper), and pasta (via BBC Travel). Popular theories claim that it was Italian shepherds who invented the cacio e pepe that we know of today. Traveling for several months of the year in the Apennine Mountains, they carried with them dried pasta, black pepper, and cheese — three ingredients that were easy to transport, easy to store, and produced a saucy dish that was warming on cold nights. While they carried the pasta with them — usually tonnarelli — renowned chef Lidia Bastianich told Greatist that the cheese was made fresh from sheep's milk and was usually cacio or pecorino.

As the sauce made its way to the U.S., ingredients like cream, butter, and olive oil often got added to the sauce. Nevertheless, all a traditional cacio e pepe needs is good quality cheese and a generous sprinkle of black pepper. The Guardian says that while tonnarelli or a square cut of spaghetti is preferred in Rome's cacio e pepe, pici is another popular pasta that goes with the sauce. Some even prefer paccheri or rigatoni made from wholemeal flour, which is thought to go well with the salty flavor of the sheep's milk cheese.

Salsa di noci

Along with bright green pesto, Italy's northwest region of Liguria is also famous for its salsa di noci, a variant of pesto known as trofie con salsa di noci alla Genovese or walnut sauce (via The Pasta Project). In fact, some even believe that salsa di noci predates pesto alla Genovese.

Salsa di noci is similar to pesto in that it is a pasta sauce made using a mortar and pestle and requires no heating or cooking. The ingredients to make salsa di noci, however, are entirely different. Walnuts, parmesan, garlic, and olive oil aside, the sauce also calls for milk and white bread (via Inside the Rustic Kitchen). The bread is added to make the sauce thicker, and a mixture of milk and olive oil is used to make it creamier. It's also common for the sauce to be made with fresh walnuts rather than dried ones. Some even make their salsa di noci by boiling walnuts with their shells intact for a few minutes first, as this step is supposed to make the nut less bitter and sweeter.

According to The Pasta Project, salsa di noci is traditionally tossed in a type of Ligurian pasta known as pansotti, a ravioli stuffed with wild herbs and cheese. Although pansotti is the traditional preference, the walnut sauce goes just as well with any short and fresh pasta — think gnocchi, corzetti, or trofie.

Gricia

Made with only three ingredients, gricia is a peculiar pasta sauce in that it requires no tomatoes, oil, or eggs. Instead, the Roman sauce is made with pecorino romano, black pepper, and guanciale (via Italy Magazine). Some credit the town of Amatrice and its people with inventing gricia who, after moving to Rome, added tomatoes to the mix and gave the world the hot amatriciana. The Pasta Project even adds that gricia is often referred to as the white amatriciana.

Others say that the sauce comes from the town of Griciano situated close to Amatrice. Regardless of the theory you believe, gricia along with carbonara, cacio e pepe, and amatriciana, makes an important part of Rome's Lazio cuisine. It is even believed that gricia is the oldest of the four Lazio sauces, the base from which the other three sauces are made.

Because of its simplicity, it is important that you use guanciale and not pancetta if you're making the sauce at home. Additionally, while you could swap the pecorino for parmesan, the sauce will lack the sharp saltiness that is needed to balance the intensity of the guanciale. Some also tend to add red chili peppers, onions, and garlic to the sauce, but if you want it to be as close to the original Italian sauce as possible, it might be better to stick to just the three main ingredients. Once done, the sauce can be tossed into spaghetti or rigatoni and served.