What are the must-try Italian sauces to elevate your dishes? In this article, I’ll tell you about nearly all of them, from classic favorites to hidden gems.
You’ll learn about:
- My homemade italian sauce recipe.
….and more! Let’s uncover all that, one sauce at a time 🙂
Classic Tomato-Based Sauces
Fresh tomatoes are essential to a number of Italian recipes, and this is especially evident in the renowned tomato-based sauces. The three best known are:
A classic staple of Italian cooking, Marinara or Red Sauce is an origin from the south of Italy. It’s extremely easy to make and incredibly versatile – all you need are tomatoes, garlic, oregano and olive oil.
You can use it for everything: as a pasta sauce with lots of delicious variations like Puttanesca (with olives/capers/anchovies) or even cherries. Also great on pizza or just as dipping sauce!
- Origin: Naples, Italy.
- Main Ingredients: Tomatoes (fresh or canned), garlic, olive oil, and herbs (typically basil).
- Cooking Time: Quick-cooking sauce, usually simmered for about 20-30 minutes.
- Uses: Commonly used with pasta, pizza, and as a dipping sauce.
Pomarola sauce is a traditional Tuscan dish of simple and delicious ingredients: tomatoes, garlic, basil and extra virgin olive oil.
Perfect for pasta dishes, the specialness of this uncomplicated recipe makes it stand out as an aromatic delight with its variations including red pepper flakes to add spice.
This age-old Italian specialty combines high quality olives into a flavorful combination which will bring any meal alive!
- Origin: Tuscany.
- Main Ingredients: Tomatoes, onions, carrots, celery, olive oil, and sometimes basil.
- Cooking Time: Slow-cooked for a longer period, often for 1-2 hours, to develop a deep flavor.
- Uses: Typically used as a base for many Italian dishes, especially pasta.
Amatriciana (Sugo all’Amatriciana)
A timeless Italian favorite, Amatriciana sauce is a classic Roman dish hailing from Rome that has guanciale (cured pork cheek), tomatoes and pecorino cheese as its main components.
It’s usually eaten with bucatini pasta and offers an array of unique flavors. The hint of chili pepper provides some heat to balance out the other ingredients.
This iconic sauce proves just how powerful traditional Italian cuisine can be – combining simple elements together for something delectable.
- Origin: Amatrice, in the Lazio region.
- Main Ingredients: Guanciale (cured pork cheek), pecorino cheese, tomatoes, chili pepper, and white wine.
- Cooking Time: Medium duration, simmered until the guanciale is tender and flavors meld, usually 45 minutes to an hour.
- Uses: Traditionally served with bucatini or spaghetti pasta.
Homemade Tomato Sauce – My Own Recipe
In my quest for an authentic, yet simple tomato sauce, I’ve found that simplicity often yields the best results. A delicious tomato sauce doesn’t need hours on the stove; it’s about using fresh ingredients and letting them shine.
My go-to recipe involves some basic chopping, a food mill for texture, and just enough cooking time to meld the flavors. The key is to sauté onions slowly, letting their natural sweetness complement the tomatoes.
Fresh herbs and garlic add depth, while basil stirred in at the end keeps it vibrant. During tomato season, I recommend using fresh tomatoes, processed in a food mill for chunkiness.
If you don’t have one, simply peel, de-seed, and coarsely chop the tomatoes. Off-season or for convenience, opt for high-quality canned Italian plum tomatoes without added flavors.
Creamy and Cheesy Sauces
For those with a passion for decadence, Italian cuisine has much to offer. Sauces like Carbonara, indulgent Alfredo or classic Cacio e Pepe represent this category well:
Carbonara is a classic Italian dish beloved by food lovers all over the world. It’s made from eggs, pecorino cheese, guanciale (a type of cured pork) and black pepper, usually served with spaghetti or rigatoni to enveloped in its rich creamy sauce.
This delightful recipe has been enjoyed for decades since it was believed that an inventive chef created Carbonara during WW2 when American troops were present in Rome – making this traditional Roman delicacy part of treasured cuisine worldwide.
- Origin: Lazio, particularly Rome.
- Main Ingredients: Eggs, pecorino romano cheese, guanciale (or pancetta), and black pepper.
- Cooking Time: Quick-cooking sauce; the pasta is tossed with the ingredients off the heat to create a creamy sauce without scrambling the eggs.
- Uses: Traditionally served with spaghetti, though rigatoni and fettuccine are also used.
Alfredo sauce demonstrates how an exquisite dish can be made from simple components. Composed of butter, Parmesan cheese and usually cream, this luxurious delicacy is a suitable accompaniment for fettuccine pasta, creating an opulent dining experience.
Originating in Italy as Alfredo al burro (with just butter) or alla crema (combined with cream), Americans have adapted the recipe to recreate its creamy consistency which has been so enthusiastically accepted by many people across the world today.
- Origin: Rome.
- Main Ingredients: Butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
- Cooking Time: Very quick; butter is melted into cooked pasta and then cheese is added to create a creamy sauce.
- Uses: Fettuccine is the classic pasta used, resulting in the famous “Fettuccine Alfredo.”
Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e Pepe, a classic in Rome’s cuisine, is renowned for its minimalist approach. Cheese from Pecorino Romano and black pepper are the only two elements that make up this sauce. Served usually atop tonnarelli or spaghetti noodles to truly emphasize their flavor.
This dish exemplifies how less can indeed be more when it comes to creating an unforgettable meal, something Cacio e Pepe has certainly accomplished.
- Origin: Rome.
- Main Ingredients: Pecorino romano cheese and freshly ground black pepper.
- Cooking Time: Quick; hot pasta is tossed with cheese and pepper to create a creamy, emulsified sauce without any added liquid.
- Uses: Traditionally served with tonnarelli or spaghetti.
Pesto and Herb-Based Sauces
The delicious flavors of Italian cuisine are exemplified in the range of pesto and herb-based sauces. My top three in this category are Pesto Genovese, Sicilian Pesto alla Trapanese and Salsa Verde. I also adore Besciamella!
Originating from Genoa, the capital of Liguria, Pesto Genovese is a unique and vibrant green sauce. This traditional recipe consists of basil leaves blended with pine nuts, garlic cloves combined with parmesan cheese to which olive oil is then added for that all important flavourful kick.
This delicate combination makes pesto genovese a fantastic addition when topping your favourite pasta or salad dishes. Adding in plenty of freshness as well as aroma too.
To ensure the flavours are properly balanced and texture just right it’s recommended to use an old fashioned marble mortar along with wooden pestle while making this authentic Italian condiment.
Pesto Genovese can be used in various ways – either cooked into sauces or even served raw over roasted vegetables – whatever way you decide on enjoying this delicious treat I know one thing’s sure: it will elevate any meal like no other sauce can do.
- Origin: Liguria, specifically Genoa.
- Main Ingredients: Fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano and/or Pecorino cheese, olive oil, and coarse salt.
- Cooking Time: No-cook sauce; ingredients are traditionally ground together using a mortar and pestle.
- Uses: Typically served with trofie or linguine pasta, but also used as a spread or topping for various dishes.
Pesto alla Trapanese
Pesto alla Trapanese, a distinct take on the classic pesto popularized by Italians, calls for tomatoes and almonds to be used instead of pine nuts with fewer basil leaves.
This unique condiment is suitable for both pasta meals and bruschetta toppings. Bringing forth an added level of flavor in traditional Italian recipes due to its use of refreshing components such as lemon juice along with aromatic herbs.
- Origin: Sicily, specifically Trapani.
- Main Ingredients: Almonds, fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil, and olive oil.
- Cooking Time: No-cook sauce; ingredients are blended or processed together.
- Uses: Often paired with busiate pasta, but can be used with various pasta types or as a spread.
Salsa Verde, a vibrant green sauce with an ancient history stretching back more than two thousand years, is filled with aromatic ingredients like parsley, capers, anchovies and garlic. Not only does it pair deliciously as a condiment for grilled meat or fish dishes but its also great as dip or spread on toast sandwiches and pizza adding flavor to any meal.
Did you know that this zesty sauce was first introduced by the Roman legionaries when they brought it from their adventures in the Near East over 2000 years ago?
- Origin: Various regions have their own versions, but it’s common in Northern Italy.
- Main Ingredients: Parsley, capers, garlic, anchovies, vinegar or lemon juice, and olive oil.
- Cooking Time: No-cook sauce; ingredients are finely chopped or processed together.
- Uses: Served as a condiment with boiled meats or fish, but also pairs well with roasted vegetables and grilled dishes.
Hey, What About Besciamella?
One of my favorites, Besciamella, also fits creamy category well. This white sauce (known as Bechamel in French cuisine) is made primarily from milk, butter, and flour. It serves as the base for many dishes and can be considered to fit the “Creamy” category.
Besciamella serves as the foundation for various sauces, such as the rosé sauce, and is a crucial component in many iconic Italian dishes, including baked pastas, savory pies, crêpes, and egg-based recipes. A staple in Italian kitchens since the Renaissance era, it enhances and binds flavors in numerous culinary creations.
My personal tip:
For the richest, creamiest besciamella, I always opt for fresh unsalted butter and top-quality whole milk. One trick I’ve learned over the years is the importance of pre-warming the milk before blending it with the butter and flour mix, known as a roux.
I made the mistake once of adding cold milk to the warm roux, and lumps formed instantly! Now, I make sure to whisk vigorously and consistently, especially up to the boiling point. And if any lumps do sneak in, I simply strain the sauce through a fine sieve while it’s still warm. It’s a game-changer!– Luca
Regional Italian Sauces
Italian cuisine is made up of a tapestry of flavors and ingredients, each region offering its own unique dishes.
Here I will focus on three regional sauces: Sugo alla Norma from Sicily, Ragù alla Napoletano from Naples and Salsa di Noci originating in Liguria – all three highlight the best that Italian cooking has to offer.
Sugo alla Norma
Sugo alla Norma, an iconic Sicilian sauce recipe hailing from Catania, is a scrumptious topping for pasta that incorporates fried eggplant, tomatoes and ricotta salata.
This dish has been said to have originated from the 19th century opera “Norma” by Vincenzo Bellini when Italian writer Nino Martoglio exclaimed it was “the real Norma!”.
The combination of simple ingredients in Sugo alla Norme demonstrates how easy it can be to craft together a flavor-packed meal. The right balance between savory flavors makes this delectable sauce memorable and enjoyable.
- Origin: Sicily.
- Main Ingredients: Eggplant (aubergine), tomatoes, garlic, basil, ricotta salata cheese, and olive oil.
- Cooking Time: Typically requires frying the eggplant and simmering the sauce for about 30 minutes.
- Uses: Traditionally served with macaroni or rigatoni pasta.
Ragù alla Napoletano (Neapolitan Ragù)
The classic Neapolitan Ragù, a slow-cooked Italian sauce with tomatoes, onions and various meats added for flavor, is renowned throughout the country.
Cooking this traditional dish in its own time creates an incredible blend of flavors to tantalize any palate when paired either with pasta or polenta dishes.
This famous meaty ragù from Naples pays homage to Italy’s love affair of taking their time over cooking.
- Origin: Campania, specifically Naples.
- Main Ingredients: Beef (often multiple cuts), onions, tomatoes, white wine, and olive oil. Some versions include pork.
- Cooking Time: Slow-cooked for several hours until meat is tender and flavors meld.
- Uses: Served with pasta, especially ziti or rigatoni, and the meat is often eaten separately as a main course.
Salsa di Noci (Walnut Sauce)
Originating from the Liguria region, Salsa di Noci is an Italian sauce made with walnuts, Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs.
This creamy combination provides a unique flavor that perfectly enhances fresh pasta dishes such as pansotti.
The versatility of Italian cuisine enables this rich nutty concoction to bring out its full potential in many recipes around the world, making it ideal for anyone looking to explore lesser known sauces.
- Origin: Liguria.
- Main Ingredients: Walnuts, garlic, bread soaked in milk, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese, and olive oil.
- Cooking Time: No-cook sauce; ingredients are blended or processed together to form a creamy sauce.
- Uses: Typically paired with pasta, especially trofie or pappardelle, but can also be used as a spread or topping for various dishes.
Italians have found a way to infuse great flavor and complexity into their dishes with this diverse selection of sauces derived from maritime ingredients. My favorite ones are:
Salsa di Vongole (Clam Sauce)
Salsa di Vongole, a delicate clam sauce made from clams, garlic and white wine is the ideal accompaniment to pasta dishes like spaghetti or linguine.
To ensure you get maximum flavor it’s important to use quality ingredients as well as taking care when cooking in order for all the flavors come together in harmony.
Whether it’s an everyday meal or special celebration Salsa di Vongole remains one of those timeless Italian staples that never fails to impress diners with its unique taste and texture.
- Origin: Coastal regions of Italy, especially Campania.
- Main Ingredients: Clams (vongole), garlic, olive oil, white wine, and parsley. Sometimes includes tomatoes (for a red version).
- Cooking Time: Quick-cooking sauce; clams are cooked just until they open, usually within 5-10 minutes.
- Uses: Traditionally served with spaghetti or linguine.
Frutti di Mare (Seafood Sauce)
White wine is the key ingredient in Frutti di Mare, a delectable seafood sauce that transforms pasta and risotto dishes into something truly special.
Mussels, clams, shrimp and scallops make up this versatile blend of ocean flavors which provides an unforgettable culinary experience.
Whether you’re cooking for your friends or simply pampering yourself with some quality food. Frutti di Mare will take any dish to the next level!
- Origin: Coastal regions throughout Italy.
- Main Ingredients: A mix of seafood such as clams, mussels, shrimp, squid, and sometimes octopus. Garlic, olive oil, white wine (dry one), and tomatoes are commonly used for the base.
- Cooking Time: Varies depending on the seafood used, but generally quick-cooking to ensure seafood remains tender.
- Uses: Commonly paired with spaghetti, linguine, or other long pasta varieties.
Colatura di Alici (Anchovy Drippings)
The Italian culinary world boasts an unexpected delight known as Colatura di Alici, a savory anchovy sauce that originates from the Amalfi Coast.
The ingredients are fermented for up to two years in barrels – brining together and blending intensely flavorful components which when added to foods like pasta, focaccia or roasted vegetables impart remarkable depth and complexity.
This special umami-rich condiment provides any dish with distinct richness as well as a taste of the sea.
- Origin: Campania, specifically the Amalfi Coast.
- Main Ingredients: Anchovies and salt. It’s a liquid extracted during the anchovy salting process.
- Cooking Time: The production process is lengthy, involving salting and aging anchovies in barrels, but the resulting liquid is used directly without further cooking.
- Uses: Used as a seasoning or condiment, often drizzled over pasta, vegetables, or bread. It adds a deep umami flavor to dishes.
Sweet and Sour Sauces
Italy’s gastronomic tradition is famous not only for its scrumptious savory recipes, but also renowned for the unique sweet and sour sauces that give an added flavor to a dish.
Here, I am exploring two typical examples of Italian sweet and tart condiments: Agrodolce sauce which can be used in many different ways, and Venetian Salsa in Saor (known for its harmony between sweetness and acidity).
Agrodolce, a well-balanced mixture of sweetness and tartness combined with various ingredients like vinegar and sugar can enhance the flavors of roasted meat or vegetables.
This versitile sauce offers unique regional variations such as sautéed shallots, dried fruits, or even chocolate that you could adjust to your own preference in order to create just the right flavor for your dish.
If you want something new on the menu or add some extra zing into mealtime, Agrodolce is definitely worth exploring!
- Origin: Throughout Italy, with variations in different regions.
- Main Ingredients: Vinegar and sugar, often combined with wine, fruit, and sometimes spices.
- Cooking Time: Typically simmered until it reaches a syrupy consistency.
- Uses: Used as a glaze or sauce for various dishes, including meats, vegetables, and seafood. It’s particularly popular with dishes like pork and eggplant.
Salsa in Saor
Salsa in Saor is a Venetian speciality that combines sweet and sour flavours. It contains onions, vinegar, raisins and pine nuts to create an unforgettable taste of Italy’s rich culinary heritage.
This delicious sauce originated from Venice as it has had maritime connections throughout history which adds another layer of interest when served with fish dishes or any other savoury meal for the perfect accompaniment.
- Origin: Venice, in the Veneto region.
- Main Ingredients: Onions, vinegar, raisins, and Italian nuts (e.g. pine nuts). Sometimes includes other ingredients like spices or wine.
- Cooking Time: Onions are slowly caramelized, and then the other ingredients are added and simmered together.
- Uses: Traditionally used as a marinade and sauce for fish, especially sardines (“Sarde in Saor”). It’s a combination of sweet, sour, and savory flavors.
For those that adore strong and full-bodied tastes, Italian meat sauces are a brilliant way to savor the best of Italy’s cuisine. The renowned Ragù alla Bolognese, Sugo di Carni and Sunday Sauce with its hearty flavorings, are amongst my favorite ones.
Ragù alla Bolognese
Ragù alla Bolognese, a slow-cooked sauce from the city of Bologna, is renowned for its flavourful and comforting qualities. This meaty blend combines ground beef, pork, tomatoes and vegetables to create an ideal complement to pasta dishes such as lasagna or tagliatelle.
With Ragù alla Bolognese you can bring that classic Italian restaurant experience into your home kitchen. Add it as a base layer when making lasagnas for added depth or simply enjoy spooned over steaming plates of fresh spaghetti – either way this beloved dish will have everyone at the dinner table begging for more!
No matter how you use it , one thing’s certain: ragú à la bologneise adds unmissable extra dimension.
- Origin: Bologna, in the Emilia-Romagna region.
- Main Ingredients: Ground meat (usually a mix of beef and pork), tomatoes, onions, celery, carrots, wine, and milk or cream.
- Cooking Time: Slow-cooked for several hours to develop deep flavors.
- Uses: Traditionally served with tagliatelle pasta. Also used as the base for lasagna alla Bolognese.
Sugo di Carni
For a soul-warming Italian dish, nothing beats Sugo di Carni. This hearty and flavorful sauce is made with ground beef, pork, vegetables simmered in tomatoes and red wine, an unbeatable combination of comforting tastes. Perfect for serving over pasta or polenta dishes. It’s sure to be the star of any meal.
A delicious way to experience classic Italian cuisine at its finest, Sugo di Carni features tasty meaty ingredients combined with succulent tomato sauce along with a hit of acidity from the presence of traditional red wine all blended together into one delightful flavor package. Any foodie who loves Italy has got give this delectable recipe a try!
- Origin: Throughout Italy, with regional variations.
- Main Ingredients: Various types of meat (can include beef, pork, lamb, or game), tomatoes, onions, and other aromatics.
- Cooking Time: Simmered for a long time, allowing the meat to become tender and flavors to meld.
- Uses: Served with pasta, polenta, or used as a base for other dishes.
Sunday Sauce (“Gravy”)
The classic Italian-American Sunday Gravy, also known as Sunday Sauce, is an incredibly flavorful concoction of tomatoes cooked for hours with meatballs and sausages.
Its roots can be traced back to the wave of immigration by Italians into America between 1870 and 1920 – now it’s become a cherished meal in numerous households across the country that bring together friends & family with its authentic taste from Italy’s cuisine heritage.
- Origin: Italian-American cuisine.
- Main Ingredients: Tomatoes, multiple types of meat (such as meatballs, sausages, pork ribs, and braciole), garlic, and herbs.
- Cooking Time: Slow-cooked for several hours, often on a Sunday morning, hence the name.
- Uses: Typically served over pasta, with the meats used in the sauce served as the main course or alongside the pasta.
For foodies seeking an exciting culinary voyage, Italy’s cuisine is full of hidden treats such as the rich Salsa Bolzanina, tasty Muddica Atturrata from Sicily and tantalizing Nero di Seppia, all of which I’ve decided to include as well.
This unique sauce, which hails from Northern Italy and is known as Salsa Bolzanina, creates an unexpected flavor with its combination of boiled eggs, mustard and chives.
Providing a rich yet tangy taste that compliments fish or meat dishes perfectly (particularly those featuring asparagus), this velvety condiment brings the culinary treats typically found in Italian’s northern regions to your plate.
- Origin: Bolzano, in the South Tyrol region.
- Main Ingredients: Mustard, apple, and horseradish. Sometimes includes boiled eggs.
- Texture/Flavor: Creamy with a tangy and slightly spicy kick.
- Uses: Commonly paired with traditional Tyrolean dishes, especially sausages and cured meats.
Muddica Atturrata, a Sicilian favorite sauce made from toasted breadcrumbs and spices is often used as the base of various pasta dishes. This unique flavor profile features olive oil for body, garlic and parsley for freshness, plus pepper to add some kick.
With its flavorful combination that boasts both rustic depth and brightness at once, this condiment brings authentic Italian cooking flair within your reach! You don’t have to be an expert cook or live in Sicily itself to try out Muddica Atturrata.
All you need are these few simple ingredients: Breadcrumbs, Olive Oil (essential!), Garlic Cloves, Parsley Leaves & Pepper – easy peasy lemon squeezy!
Those who wish explore more interesting aspects of classic Mediterranean cuisine should give Muddica Attruatta a go.
- Origin: Sicily.
- Main Ingredients: Toasted breadcrumbs, typically seasoned with garlic, olive oil, and sometimes anchovies or chili flakes.
- Texture/Flavor: Crunchy with a rich, savory taste.
- Uses: Often sprinkled over pasta dishes, especially those with a simpler base like aglio e olio or anchovies, to add texture and flavor.
Nero di Seppia (Squid Ink Sauce)
For a truly exceptional experience, why not try Nero di Seppia? This delectable black sauce is made from squid ink and originates in Sicily and Venice. It has an intense flavor that makes it perfect for pasta dishes or risotto, adding both boldness to the taste as well as providing your plate with stunning visual appeal.
If you want something different yet delicious on your dinner table, then give Nero di Seppia a go! Highly recommended sauce!
- Origin: Coastal regions of Italy, especially in Veneto and Sicily.
- Main Ingredients: Squid ink, squid or cuttlefish, garlic, tomatoes, and white wine.
- Texture/Flavor: Smooth, with a deep black color and a briny, oceanic flavor.
- Uses: Typically served with pasta or risotto, giving the dish a striking black appearance and a unique seafood taste.
There Are More Sauces…
There are many other Italian sauces I didn’t even mentioned yet, but if I were to choose, I’d also mention the following ten names:
- Puttanesca: A tangy and somewhat salty sauce made from tomatoes, black olives, capers, anchovies, and garlic.
- Arrabbiata: A spicy sauce made from tomatoes, garlic, and dried red chili peppers cooked in olive oil.
- Bagna Càuda: A warm dip made from garlic, anchovies, olive oil, and butter, often used for dipping vegetables.
- Gricia: Made with guanciale (pork cheek), Pecorino Romano cheese, and black pepper.
- Salmoriglio: A southern Italian sauce made from lemon juice, olive oil, minced garlic, chopped oregano, and parsley.
- Tonnato: A creamy sauce made with tuna, mayonnaise, and capers, often served with veal.
- Sugo al Pomodoro: A basic tomato sauce with tomatoes, basil, and sometimes a bit of butter or olive oil.
- Sugo Finto: A “fake” meat sauce made with tomatoes, celery, carrots, and onions.
- Salsa Rossa: A red sauce made with tomatoes, red bell peppers, and chili peppers.
- Sugo di Carne: A meat sauce typically made with beef, tomatoes, onions, and wine.
Italian cuisine is packed with an array of flavors and variations in sauces that offer something for all palates, ranging from classic tomato based ones to creamy or cheesy options. It’s hard to even list them all!
From seafood-inspired dishes to sweet and sour combinations or robust meaty sauces – there’s a world out there waiting to be discovered! Don’t be afraid of venturing away from the classics, like I did with my own variation of the tomato sauce. Enjoy!
What is the main difference between Marinara and Pomarola sauces?
Marinara sauce is typically made with tomatoes, garlic, oregano and olive oil. While Pomarola usually incorporates the same main ingredients but swaps basil for the oregano. Both of these sauces use extra-virgin olive oil as their base ingredient.
Can I use different nuts in my pesto sauce?
You can easily substitute your typical pine nuts for something else, like almonds, walnuts or pistachios when making a pesto sauce. The flavor profile will change slightly depending on which nut you choose to use but all three are excellent options.
Can I use Colatura di Alici as a substitute for soy sauce?
Colatura di Alici, a much saltier and more intense seasoning than soy sauce, should be used with caution in cooking to avoid over-salting dishes. Despite its difference from the popular condiment of Asian cuisine origins, it can still serve as an acceptable substitute for those desiring something new.