A meaty marinara sauce (what we call spaghetti in the Midwest) remains one of my favorite meals to reset a bad day. But beyond the world of “spaghetti” and Olive Garden classics are thousands of delectable sauces that are a much better representation of Italian cuisine. Sure, they may require more technique than dumping a jar of Prego and browning beef, but the taste will be so worth it. Lucky for me, my BF likes to experiment with new pasta sauce recipes almost weekly. We picked a few of our recurring favorites to share with you and keep you cozy all winter long!
But before we get to the good stuff, let’s talk about pasta and sauce basics. Spaghetti is everyone’s go-to pasta shape and rightfully so! It can be twirled, slurped and pasta sauce looks good adorning a pile of nested noodles. But that doesn’t mean we should disregard all the other pasta shapes that can be just as good of a vehicle for your pasta sauces. We have suggested pasta pairings for each recipe below. A new favorite of ours is rigatoni which sops up sauce in its tube-shaped tunnels like no other. As for pasta brands, look to De Cecco or Rao’s to step up your pasta quality game. Grabbing whatever pasta is on sale works for your basic Midwestern meat sauce, but quality Italian pasta will make your sauces shine + will create a more starchy water. More on that in a sec!
Many pasta sauces call for tomatoes. When making tomato based pasta sauces, a good quality can will make a huge difference. For a smooth tomato sauce, look for strained tomatoes or Italian Passata which has a more bright and vibrant tomato flavor when compared to your standard ketchup-y American tomato sauce. If those are hard to find, default to getting whole peeled tomatoes. These can be blended to get a similar taste and texture, or they can be drained and crushed by hand for use in chunky style tomato sauce. Red Gold/Redpack are often our go-to and easier to find than imported Italian tomatoes.
Lastly, all of the recipes below call for pasta water. Pasta water is literally the water that you cook your noods in.
Hot tip: stop draining your pasta water!! This water has all the starchiness you need to make your noodles and sauce bond together.
Instead, you’ll want to use kitchen tongs or a spider strainer to grab your noodles from the water. Then, pour the required amount of pasta water into your pasta + sauce mixture. This method of tossing with pasta water creates a nice, silky sauce.
Now, let’s get saucy!
For the lovers of a marinara meat sauce. This pasta sauce has a tomato base, accompanied by pancetta, aka non-smoked bacon. Crushed red pepper flakes and garlic infuse the sauce and give the dish a nice kick! Plus, it’s oh-so-easy!
Ingredients for two:
½ lb Spaghetti or Bucatini
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 oz of Pancetta or Guanciale
½ tsp Crushed red pepper flake
⅓ c Dry white wine
1 14oz can of Whole peeled tomatoes, drained and crushed by hand
2 Tbsp grated Pecorino cheese
Salt and Pepper
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat, add pancetta and cook until the fat renders (just before it becomes crispy).
Add the red pepper flake, let the oil infuse for ~30 seconds before adding the wine. Reduce until hardly any liquid is left.
Add the tomatoes and reduce to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper.
Once the pasta is cooked to al dente, transfer it to the skillet with the sauce with ¼ cup of pasta water, add cheese. Toss and combine over medium heat until desired consistency, adding more pasta water if too thick.
Serve and top with more Pecorino if desired.
For when you can’t make a decision whether you want a creamy or tomato-y sauce. Vodka sauce is easily in my top three pasta sauces. This one is an Italian-American, hence the non-Italian name. And yes it has vodka, which gives the dish sharpness, balancing out the heavy cream.
Ingredients for two:
½ lb Rigatoni
3 Tbsp Unsalted Butter, divided
1-2 Shallots very finely chopped, ¼ c
1 tsp Crushed red pepper flakes
1 large or 2 small Garlic cloves finely chopped
3 Tbsp Vodka
½ c Strained Tomatoes/Passata
½ c Heavy Cream
3tbs grated Parmesan, more for serving
In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 2 Tablespoons of butter and cook shallots making sure not to brown until soft, ~ 10min. Season with salt.
Add garlic and crushed red pepper. Cook until they become fragrant.
Add the vodka to the saucepan, being careful as it may catch fire (: Do not panic if this happens, just lower heat and let it burn out. Reduce until the majority of liquid is gone.
Add tomatoes and stir. Lower the heat and let the sauce simmer for ~5-10min.
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente.
As the pasta is cooking, add the cream to the sauce and stir. Season with salt to taste. Continue to simmer until pasta is finished.
Transfer the pasta and about ⅓ cup of pasta water to the saucepan with sauce. Bring to a medium low heat and add the remaining Tablespoon of butter along with the parmesan, then stir until everything is fully incorporated and the pasta is well coated. If too thick, add a little more pasta water. If too thin, raise the heat and let it thicken to desired consistency.
Serve and top with more parmesan if desired.
Cacio e Pepe
For that elevated mac n’ cheese experience. Cacio e Pepe translates to cheese and pepper, and that’s exactly what it is! While its ingredients are quite simple, this sauce requires the most technique to ensure no clumping of the sauce. Be patient with yourself. You will likely mess this up at least once, your cheese will clump and the sauce will become gummy. But don’t get discouraged – this pasta is well worth the practice, you will be rewarded with a creamy sauce that will make you wonder how something with so few ingredients can be this good. Here are some essential tips:
- Pasta Water \ In this recipe, pasta water is a MUST. The starch in the pasta water allows for the cheese to emulsify and form a creamy sauce. You want to cook your pasta in as little water as possible to create a high starch concentration.
- Cheese \ The traditional Cacio e Pepe will only use Pecorino, an Italian hard cheese made of sheep’s milk that is in a similar vein to Parmasean. I opt for half Pecorino and half Parmasean as the Parmesan brings a nice nutty and richness to the final dish. Make sure you grate your cheese using a grater that gives in the granular texture pictured to the left. This helps the cheese melt slower, making it less likely to clump.
- Prep \ Do it beforehand! This sauce comes together quick and any break in concentration can ruin your dish. So, get your cheese grated and plates ready before you start!
Ingredients for two:
½ lb Spaghetti
5 Tbsp of Olive Oil
Coarse and fresh cracked Black pepper
½ c grated Pecorino (1oz)
½ c grated Parmesan (1oz)
1c Pasta water
Boil just enough water to cook the spaghetti, ~ 5-6 cups. Salt the water lightly, less than you normally would for pasta as the cheese will be very salty.
As the water boils, add 4 Tablespoons of oil to to a non-stick skillet over medium heat. The non-stick skillet will simplify clean-up. Add around 1-2tsp of freshly cracked pepper to the oil and toast until it becomes fragrant. Set aside.
Drop the pasta in the boiling water, stir and cook until it is just shy of al dente, ~1 minute less than the time on the box.
Once the pasta is close, return the pan with the oil and pepper back to medium heat. In a separate bowl, combine the grated cheese and about 2-3 Tbsp of pasta water and stir so that a thick cheese paste is formed. Reference photo.
When pasta is just shy of al dente, transfer it to the skillet over medium heat along with ¾ cup of pasta water. Cook until the pasta becomes al dente. There should be ~ 1/3 cup of water/oil in the pan at this point. If not, add a little more pasta water.
Lower the heat to medium low and add in the cheese paste and 1 Tablespoon of olive oil. Stir rapidly to avoid clumping and to promote emulsification. Add pasta water a Tablespoon at a time as necessary to create a creamy sauce.
Serve immediately and top with grated cheese and freshly cracked pepper.
I hope these sauces sustain you through the winter ahead and inspire you to venture out of your spaghetti comfort zone! Bon Appetit!