How to Cook Pasta the Italian Way

Along with Two Authentic Sauces



Pasta and pizza are the most iconic of all Italian foods.

You all probably have heard spaghetti alla carbonara, or alla Bolognese, two of the most popular pasta recipes in the world (although we don't eat spaghetti with Bolognese sauce in Italy, we rather use tagliatelle or fettuccine. And we actually call "bolognese sauce" ragù!)


Spaghetti, the Italian way



I don’t have to tell you why pasta is good for your health. Nor why any kind of food, if consumed in excessive quantities is, on the other hand, not healthy at all. All you need to know from me is that pasta is quick to prepare, it comes in many different sizes and shapes and can be accompanied by an almost limitless number of sauces.


You can eat pasta every day and yet never have the same dish twice. Of course, pasta is very high in carbs, so it's certainly not a good idea to eat it every day, twice a day.


Anyway, I’m going to tell you how an Italian cooks his pasta, the Italian being me, my method being the quintessential way we cook pasta everywhere in the country. 


Cooking Pasta: Important Points


First point: “cooking pasta” means actually cooking the pasta and the sauce. While cooking the pasta itself is basically made by only one step “throw pasta in boiling water”, the sauce can be a more complicate affair. I will give you recipes for two easy sauces, very popular in Italy. Since the basic steps are more or less the same, you can go on and create your own sauce from there.


Second point: each kind of pasta has a cooking time, usually indicated on the package. Cook pasta for less than the cooking time, and it will remain hard. Go over the cooking time and it will become softer and softer. Go well beyond the cooking time and congratulations! You have inedible glue!


We Italians like our pasta “al dente”, that means a little hard. You usually get it “al dente” by cooking it for exactly the indicated cooking time. But beware: since foreigners often prefer their pasta soft, you may find on the package a cooking time that reflects this and advises you to cook the pasta for much more time than an Italian would. Since pasta is cheap, you can throw away a little and experiment until you find your perfect cooking time.


Third point: Just do me a favor, no ketchup. No ketchup. Repeat with me: “No ketchup. Ever.


Cooking Pasta: Ok, let’s start


Take a pot, fill it with water and put it on the stove, heat it until it boils. Put a lid on, to make it boil faster.


When the water boils, add salt. We use “sale grosso”, my dictionary calls it “cooking salt”. It’s salt in big grains of irregular shapes. You can use the finer table salt, it won’t change the flavor, but you will need a lot more and in my opinion it’s harder to measure the right quantity – but remember: I’m doing this on an almost daily basis, so I’m working out of habit here.


You may find that for you it’s easier to get the right quantity of salt by using table salt. The “right quantity of salt” is a personal taste affair, experiment until you find yours. Why must you wait until the water boils to add salt? Because salted water takes longer to reach boiling point. Adding salt right away won’t affect the final flavor, but it will lengthen the time it takes to get your dinner ready.


After adding salt, wait half a minute, then put the pasta in. Put the pasta in the water when it returns to a boil, not before, or you will ruin it!


Cook the pasta as indicated on the package, stirring the pasta often to avoid it sticking. Now, cooking pasta is simple and there are no secrets in it. But there is one trick. Pasta is like a sponge: it  absorbs the fluid in which it’s immersed. Cooking it immersed in water is ok, but cooking it immersed in the sauce is better! It will be flavoured by the sauce from the inside.


So here’s the trick: one minute before the cooking time is over pour one or two table spoons of cooking water from the pot in the pan where you are heating the sauce, then strain the pasta out of the water and pour it in the pan, mixing it with the sauce and ending the cooking time in there. Let it heat for a minute to a minute and a half, then take the pan from heat and serve your pasta.


That’s it: true Italian style pasta.


Cooking Pasta: Sauce Recipes


The first one is a classic tomato sauce. You’ll need:

  • Olive oil
  • Half onion
  • Pepper or chilli pepper
  • Fresh basil
  • Fresh or canned tomatoes


Put a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan with the onion, add tomato sauce, a hint of pepper or finely minced chilli pepper, let it heat for 5-6 minutes stirring from time to time, pour the pasta in the pan, keep cooking for a minute more. When it’s ready, take out from heat, add a few leaves of basil and serve.


The second one is a sauce made with zucchini and shrimps. You’ll need:

  • Olive Oil
  • A couple of cloves of garlic
  • Fresh shrimps (you can boil them before using in this recipe. I never do that, but it’s a matter of taste)
  • Pepper
  • One zucchini (cut in rounds or sticks)


Put a table spoon of oil in a frying pan with the garlic, add the zucchini, the shrimps (without shells) and spray lightly with pepper. Let cook on low fire for 10 minutes stirring from time to time, then add the pasta and keep heating for a minute more, stirring the mix. When it’s ready, take out from heat and serve. There you are: authentic Italian pasta.


Cooking pasta the Italian way: fettuccine with shrimps and courgette
Ph. depositphoto/genious2000de


Wow, I’ve written a lot of words for something that it’s actually very easy and quick to do, so let’s summarize:

  1. Fill a pot with water and heat on a stove
  2. When the water boils, add salt
  3. Wait 30 seconds and put the pasta in the pot
  4. Wait the cooking time less one minute, stirring from time to time
  5. When there’s one minute left, take 2 spoons of cooking water and add them to the pan where you are heating the sauce
  6. Strain the pasta
  7. Pour the pasta in the pan with the sauce
  8. Cook for one minute, stirring
  9. Take out of heat and serve


To save time, I usually prepare the sauce and start heating it while I wait for the water to boil and for the pasta to cook. You can also prepare a variety of sauces in advance and freeze them, taking them out of the freezer when you need them, letting them unfreeze naturally or microwaving them, then heating in the pan while the pasta is cooking up. You can also use commercially made sauces, there’s nothing wrong in that.


Remember: the only trick is to heat the sauce in a pan, cook the pasta one minute less than suggested, then pour it along with a couple spoons of cooking water in the pan and finish cooking the sauce and the pasta together in the pan.


Please check also "How NOT to cook pasta".



Buon appetito!


Edited by Francesca Bezzone, 20/02/2014



Tuesday, January 20TH, 2009 by Guest

We always put garlic, 1/2 onion and whole peeled tomatoes, parsley (optional) and a little of the red pepper. I can't imagine a red sauce w/o garlic.

Tuesday, February 17TH, 2009 by Guest

Before adding "gravy" to the "macarone" you have to learn how to make the dough. That would be helpful as the dry stuff is great but the fresh is unbelievable.

Wednesday, November 11TH, 2009 by Guest

I am one of the abovementioned "foreigners" who like their pasta "soft." Just a little softer than al dente. I usually find the true Italian al dente past just a tad too undercooked for me. I don't care for the way it stays in the teeth. Anyway.................Catsup/ketchup on pasta? Who in God's name does that! Sacriligious! Horrible! Offensive! BLECH!!!!!!!!!!!!! :>))))) NEVER!!!!!!!!!!!!! Maybe I could find some hansome, single, Italian/Italian-American who's a wiz in the kitchen to cook pasta FOR me! ;>))

Sunday, May 23TH, 2010 by Guest

In la cucina Italiana the term "spaghetti alla boognese does not exist. If the author is Italian I'm surprised he or she made that reference. If you want a pasta with meat sauce you order, the type of pasta you wan (spaghetti, tagliatelle etc.) con ragù or to be more specific the type of ragù, ragù alla bolognese, ragù d'agnello etc. or simply sugo di carne. Alla bolognese refers to the style of cooking in the area of Bologna same as alla milanese, alla genovese etc. Furthermore Bologna is famous for fresh pasta and spaghetti for the most part is a dry pasta, so it would be unlikly for the Bolognese name a pasta dish using dry pasta.

Thursday, March 06TH, 2014 by FrancescaBezzone

@Pace, you do have a point there and in the editing this "mistake" has been amended. We Italians call the "bolognese" sugo di carne,  or ragù di carne and we almost never serve it with spaghetti, either. We prefer meaty sauces with tagliatelle or fettuccine, or even with shorter types of pasta, such as conchiglie or penne. 

Thursday, March 06TH, 2014 by FrancescaBezzone

@Pace, you do have a point there and in the editing this "mistake" has been amended. We Italians call the "bolognese" sugo di carne,  or ragù di carne and we almost never serve it with spaghetti, either. We prefer meaty sauces with tagliatelle or fettuccine, or even with shorter types of pasta, such as conchiglie or penne. 

Thursday, July 15TH, 2010 by Guest

I tried to find fresh basil but I can't find it in the supermarket, can I replace it with anything else or serve without it?

Thursday, March 06TH, 2014 by FrancescaBezzone

If you can't find fresh basil, try to add some dried oregano to your tomato sauce: it is quite nice! :)

Wednesday, July 13TH, 2011 by Guest

this is exactly the article ive been looking for... i love cooking pasta.. but i want to do it the RIGHT way the ITalian way.. especially since i will be studying abroad in italy in exactly 2 months!

Thursday, October 06TH, 2011 by Guest

Ketchup on pasta?  Well, sometimes on leftover pasta and it's actually quite good.