How to Dress {Pasta}

wrong sauce

No one in their right mind would ever come to me for advice on how to dress. I work from home, so I more or less live in yoga pants these days (I know, I know).

But when it comes to dressing pasta, I know a thing or two, and I’d like to help you. Here’s what I mean:

We’ve come a long way in our understanding and appreciation of Italian cuisine. Most of us know, for example, that there is no  “Northern” Italian vs “Southern” Italian, that Italian cooking varies by season, by region and even by town, with tradition and innovation folded in. Names of regional specialties such as corzetti roll off our tongues. We know how to cook our pasta al dente.

And yet, oddly enough, we still haven’t mastered the simple art of saucing it.

In recent weeks I’ve noticed a proliferation of photos of badly dressed, regrettably dressed plates of pasta around the Internet ~ possibly due to the fact that October is National Pasta Month.

Now, I’m pretty easy-going when it comes to cooking; I’m all for improvisation and personal style. But there are some rules that ought to stand, and this is one of them: A dish of pasta needs to be tossed with, not covered in, sauce. That’s why it’s called pasta asciutta, which literally means “dry pasta.”

right sauce 2

Like a good marriage, pasta and sauce have a collaborative relationship. One shouldn’t be allowed to smother the other. If you dump sauce over undressed pasta (first pic), you are not giving the noodles a chance to mingle with the sauce and absorb its flavor. The two components, pasta and sauce, never become the beautiful, unified dish they were intended to be (second pic).

To dress your pasta impeccably every time, follow these simple steps:

* Cook pasta in plenty of boiling, generously salted water, until al dente.

* Make sure your sauce is heated through and ready to go.

* Drain the cooked noodles in a colander set in the sink, taking care to reserve some of the cooking water (I use a heat-proof pyrex measuring cup that I set right in the sink).

* Do not rinse the pasta.

* Return the drained pasta to the pot and immediately spoon some ~ but not all ~ of the sauce over the noodles. Use a large serving fork or a pasta fork to toss the noodles with the sauce. Add a splash or two of the starchy cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Toss gently but thoroughly. The sauce should cloak the pasta like a clingy slip, not an overcoat.

* Serve the pasta in individual shallow bowls or bring it to the table in a serving bowl. In either case, spoon a judicious amount of sauce on top, just enough to garnish it, and sprinkle with cheese ~ unless it’s a seafood sauce, in which case, NO cheese.

* For a brothy sauce, such as clam sauce, it is best to finish the pasta in the same pan as the sauce: Drain the pasta a minute or two before it is al dente, and then transfer it right into the pan with the sauce (obviously your pan should be large enough to hold both sauce and noodles). Let the pasta finish cooking in the sauce. Portion the pasta into individual bowls and spoon any remaining juices from the pan on top.

Here are a few photos (and recipes) of properly dressed pasta, with a variety of sauces:

Fennel, Sausage and Tomato Pasta with Rosé from Lemons & Anchovies

Pappardelle with Wild Boar Ragu from Majella Home Cooking

Pasta con Creme Fraiche, Zucca e Rosmarino from Semplicemente Pepe e Rosa (in Italian)

Pasta with Fried Aubergines from Juls’ Kitchen

Pasta with Creamy Mushroom Sauce from Lucullian Delights

Pici con le Briciole from Emiko Davies via Food 52

(Update) And on a related topic, here’s a funny piece from Christina’s Cucina on how NOT to make tomato sauce.

Below is my recipe for simple tomato sauce. Now go forth and make yourself a nice dish of properly dressed pasta. Buon appetito.

Makes enough to sauce 1 pound of pasta, with some left over

Simple Tomato Sauce

When plum tomatoes are no longer available in the farmers' market, I turn to this easy basic sauce. Using superior-quality canned or bottled tomatoes (if you can your own, all the better) and good olive oil makes all the difference in this recipe. You can use either whole canned tomatoes or diced. For convenience, I like to use imported diced Italian tomatoes packed in their own juices. Stay away from tomatoes packed in heavy puree, which makes the sauce taste too much like tomato paste.

Ingredients

  • 2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
  • 1/2 cup finely diced red onion
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans diced tomatoes, with their juice
  • Kosher or coarse sea salt
  • 5 large fresh basil leaves, shredded or torn

Instructions

Warm the garlic and onion in the olive oil in a large saucepan placed over medium-low heat. Use a wooden spoon or silicone spatula to press down on the garlic to release its flavor. Swirl the pan to infuse the oil. Take care not to let the garlic brown. Cook, stirring often, for about 7 minutes, until the onion is softened but not browned.

Carefully pour in the tomatoes (the oil will spatter) and stir to coat with the oil. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the tomatoes to a simmer. Season with 1 teaspoon of salt. When the juices start bubbling, reduce the heat to medium-low and, stirring from time to time, let the sauce simmer, uncovered, for 30 to 35 minutes, or until it has thickened and the oil has separated from the tomatoes. Stir in the basil and taste and adjust the seasoning with more salt, if you like.

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59 Responses to How to Dress {Pasta}

  1. Laura Kumin (@MotherWouldKnow) October 28, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    Amen!

  2. Rosa October 28, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    A great post! Amen, indeed…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  3. ciaochowlinda October 28, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    I remember the first time I went to Italy (back in the dark ages) and noting how much less sugo was used in the pasta there. We here in the states do go way overboard, and that heap of sauce on top is just so wrong!! Thanks for the primer on dressing pasta Domenica.

    • Domenica Marchetti October 28, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

      Thanks for reading Linda. Yes, the difference is stark, isn’t it?

  4. laura (Tutti Dolci) October 28, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    Yes and amen! 🙂

  5. simpleitaly October 28, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    Thanks for bringing attention to this simple but essential technique. The sauce can’t do its job of flavoring if it can’t cozy up to the noodles. I’ve always likened plopping sauce on top of pasta to plopping gloppy salad dressing on top of lettuce. So not Italian.

    • Domenica Marchetti October 28, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

      Salad! Another wrong that must be righted. Thanks for reading Sharon.

  6. KatiaItalia October 28, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    Every American who “thinks” they know about dressing pasta should read this!! 🙂 Agree with all of above!

  7. Jean | Lemons & Anchovies October 28, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    One of the things I don’t like about eating at some restaurants here is how high the sauce to pasta ratio is. Oftentimes I finish the pasta and there’s still tons of sauce on my plate–no balance. I agree completely with all of the above and I’m so flattered that you included one of my dishes as an example! Thank you!!!

    • Domenica Marchetti October 28, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

      Jean ~ I love your recipe. It’s a perfect example of how technique and improvisation can work together.

  8. J.Linnae October 28, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    I’m in the minority but I love pasta served with the sauce in the middle and I hate when it’s mixed together for me. My husband and I have different sauce to pasta ratio preferences so we add the amount we prefer and do our own mixing in our serving bowls. It’s our compromise and it works for us. I’m flaunting the rules of pasta but happy.

    • Domenica Marchetti October 28, 2013 at 9:00 pm #

      I’m so glad you commented. I like dissenting opinions, and there is always the exception to the rule, right? In the end, it is you who has to eat (and enjoy) the pasta. Speaking of exceptions, someone left a comment on my Instagram picture telling me about the one exception to the rule that he came across in Italy. It was in and around Bologna, where they apparently butter the noodles and then ladle the intense Bolognese on top. The rationale is that Bolognese is an intense and rich sauce and it is a good thing to have some control over how much is on the pasta as you eat it. I’m not sure I agree, but there you have it ~ there are some in Italy who agree with you!

  9. Majella Home Cooking October 28, 2013 at 5:34 pm #

    I LOVE this post, Domenica. My husband who is 3rd generation Italian-American can tell you how shocked he was when he traveled to Italy for the first time for a semester abroad in college. No gargantuan pasta portions swimming in pools of sauce, but rather a moderately-sized primo sauced in just the way you have explained here. Bravissima! (And thank you for the shout-out!)

    • Domenica Marchetti October 28, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

      Thank you Michelle. My sister says the same thing about her husband, who still prefers it the “wrong” way.

  10. bellalimento October 28, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    Evviva! I just shared this on my facebook page! <3

    • Domenica Marchetti October 28, 2013 at 9:02 pm #

      Grazie cara! I can’t believe I haven’t encountered your FB page before now. Duh. Have “liked” it. xo

  11. Dr Dan October 29, 2013 at 9:36 am #

    Great post! And I agree that the sauce should be tossed with the pasta with just a tiny more on top.

    Many argue that the pasta should be added to the simmering sauce and not the reverse. What do you think?

    • Domenica Marchetti October 29, 2013 at 10:41 am #

      Dan, thanks for stopping by. Great question. It really depends on the sauce. If we’re talking about most tomato sauces (marinara, ragu, etc.) I wouldn’t add the pasta to the simmering sauce. But for brothy seafood sauces, like clam sauce, then yes, I do like to add the pasta while it’s underdone and let it finish cooking in the sauce. I also do this for some of the more delicate vegetable sauces that I make.

  12. Scott October 29, 2013 at 10:43 am #

    Ok, I know “Wrong” is wrong, but I sure sent plenty of dishes looking just like that out of the kitchen at Big Boy in the 70s. Except we’d add a sprig of parsley. Because we were fancy like that.

    • Domenica Marchetti October 29, 2013 at 11:06 am #

      Yes, and didn’t you keep half-cooked spaghetti in the fridge at the Big Boy as well?

  13. Adri October 29, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    Amen! There’s nothing more to add – least of all more sauce. And thank you very much for the roll off the tongue shout-out. You are always so gracious.

  14. Tracy October 29, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    Amen is definitely appropriate here 🙂

  15. Scott October 29, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    Domenica, I can’t tell you that. Proprietary tricks of the trade. #BigBoyRules

  16. Marie October 30, 2013 at 12:35 am #

    Amen times 3!!!

    • Domenica Marchetti October 30, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

      Marie, I just hopped over to your blog. Your tagliatelle with squash ribbons looks delicious and…perfectly dressed. Nice!

  17. Paolo (@quatrofromaggio) October 30, 2013 at 1:02 am #

    Dear Domenica, I couldn’t agree more on the *judicious* amount of sauce! I also agree that tossed pasta is the correct way to serve it (ready to eat, plus prevents the pasta from sticking to itself and allows it to absorb the flavor of the sauce), but I have to admit that I often serve it that way because I’m lazy 🙂 trusting that my guests will *promptly* do the tossing within their plates.

    • Domenica Marchetti October 30, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

      Paolo ~ you of all people! Che vergogna. 😉 Thanks for stopping by and reading.

  18. Roz | La Bella Vita Cucina October 30, 2013 at 8:45 am #

    Ciao Dominca, I completely agree with your words in this post, however, my recent post about Bolognese Sauce with Tagliatelle addresses the fact that I do have an American husband who is nearly to the point of gluttonous over this sauce. As a result I give him and allow him to dollop on the amount of additional sauce that he wants after tossing in the correct amount of sauce. I love you blog and now following, having found you on FB. I know you might cringe when you see the amount of sauce that my husband uses on his pasta in my latest post, but I do hope you stop by and hopefully enjoy reading other posts on my Italian blog.
    Grazie,
    Roz

    • Domenica Marchetti October 30, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

      Welcome, Roz. I saw your picture of your big pot of Bolognese simmering. It’s the time of year for it. In the end, it is your husband who has to enjoy his pasta, right? As my dad liked to say “To each his own, salcicc’ e provolone.” I look forward to checking out your blog. Cheers, D

  19. Roz | La Bella Vita Cucina October 30, 2013 at 8:46 am #

    PS: my post mentioned above will not go live until tonight, so I apologize in advance Domenica! Mi dispiace!

  20. Jamie October 31, 2013 at 7:05 am #

    Great great post, Domenica, and I’m sharing it all over. I especially love all the recipes!

  21. elisa November 1, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    Since everyone has an “Amen”, I like to add “Blessed the ones who eat pasta…the right way!”.. Thanks for the post!

  22. duespaghetti November 9, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    Indeed! Those poor spaghetti that fell outside of the sauce in the first picture, pale and undressed, turning clammy and sticking together… Thanks for setting the record straight, Domenica!

    • Domenica Marchetti November 10, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

      Ciao Due! Thanks for stopping by. The word ‘clammy’ says it all, doesn’t it.

  23. Iris April 9, 2014 at 6:19 pm #

    I used to serve the pasta with the sauce on top, because that is the way I was getting it in the “hip” restaurants! But when I watched Italian movies I noticed the sauce was totally incorporated into the pasta first (like my dad used to do.) So I realized they need to be mixed. I’ve also been confused at the ratio of sauce to pasta, so I looked that up and found your site. So, tonight I mix my homemade sausage marinara sauce together! Thank you.

    • Domenica Marchetti April 10, 2014 at 7:09 am #

      Hi Iris, thanks for your comment. I’m so glad you found the site and the answer to your pasta/sauce ratio question. Cheers, D

  24. Laura Monteros July 13, 2014 at 9:36 pm #

    Thanks for this! I had never heard of dressing pasta until I watched “Chopped” today. With my family, I usually served the spaghetti still in the water with a spaghetti fork and the sauce separate. My reasoning was that if you put the spaghetti in a bowl, it gets hard and dry quickly, and since people like different amounts of sauce, I didn’t want to sauce it. Well, and one of my kids was a very picky eater and sometimes would forgo sauce altogether.

    Dressing it does make sense and would keep it from drying out. One would not have to put the extra sauce on top; that could still be separate for people to serve themselves, I suppose.

    • Domenica Marchetti July 14, 2014 at 11:58 am #

      Hi Laura. I’m always glad to know when someone has found this post. Tossing the just-cooked noodles with sauce definitely makes for a better dish of pasta! Give it a whirl (so to speak…). Cheers, D

  25. neevatewari October 8, 2014 at 9:24 am #

    Can we add salad dressing to the tangy cooked pasta

    • Domenica Marchetti October 8, 2014 at 10:17 am #

      Interesting ~ I’ve never thought of adding salad dressing to pasta (unless it’s a pasta salad). I’m not sure tomato sauce and salad dressing would go well together, though I guess it would depend on what type of salad dressing you’re talking about. I’m always in favor of experimentation, even though it might not be tradition. So if it’s something you think you might enjoy I say go ahead and try it. Would love to know how it turns out, thanks.

  26. Christina @ Christina's Cucina May 24, 2015 at 1:35 am #

    Hi Domenica, I can’t believe I didn’t leave a comment praising you on this post, but I think I might have done it on social media, because this is one of my pet peeves! Thank you for doing this and also for including my post on how not to make sauce! 🙂 We’re trying our best, aren’t we? 😉

    • Domenica Marchetti May 24, 2015 at 8:44 am #

      Not to worry, Christina. It’s pretty much impossible to keep up with all forms of social media, isn’t it. And yes, we will keep doing what we’re doing, hoping for the best. Cheers, D.

  27. Patti May 24, 2015 at 9:10 am #

    I’ve been making pasta and sauce for over 60 years. Thank you for giving this the attention it deserves. Sauce in a jar will never compete with homemade and plenty of cheese.
    Oh and 1/2 cup of chianti in the sauce while it’s cooking.

    • Domenica Marchetti May 27, 2015 at 6:58 am #

      Hi Patti, thank you for your comment. Yes, a splash of Chianti in sauce is a very good thing. Cheers, D.

  28. Boris Harrison October 25, 2016 at 2:50 am #

    How about – I don’t care how ‘The Italians’ like it. As you pointed out, it’s me who has to eat it! Fair enough, point out a different way, and say ‘This is the tradition in Italy’, but to say any other way is ‘wrong’ I find a little arrogant. It’s only ‘wrong’ if you’re trying to emulate the Italian style. If you just want to eat food, then eat it how you like it – and that can *never* be wrong (unless it is actually bad for you).

    • Domenica Marchetti October 25, 2016 at 9:18 am #

      Hi Boris, thank you for your comment; I appreciate your perspective. You are righ; one is welcomed to eat pasta as one chooses. You could, for example, dump a jar of Nutella on yours and call it dinner; your choice. But there is a reason certain traditions and techniques persist through the centuries ~ they work. And anyway, we Italians are an opinionated lot. But I feel we’ve earned it when it comes to food. Sure, the photos make their point without subtlety, but that, of course, is what we call humor.

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