Easy Italian Recipes So You Can Mangia Bene
A cookbook author and former line cook shares tips and recipes to make your next Italian dinner buonissima
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Above: Quick and Easy Italian Meatballs. Photo by Olga Ivanova.
I’ve had the pleasure of working in a few restaurants around Italy during my career as a cook and cooking class instructor. I’ve watched closely as Italian chefs whipped up incredible pasta dishes with mind-blowing sauces, stirred up ultra-creamy risottos, and transformed simple ingredients like chicken breasts and meatballs into some of the best food I’ve tasted in my life. And they made it look so easy!
I learned a lot watching every move they made, sometimes the hard way. (FYI, “tu spingi” means “you push,” but it also means turn off the burner because your sauce is boiling over!)
I came away with some key points that can make you, too, a great cook when it comes to classic Italian recipes. But “classic” doesn’t translate to “difficult.”
First and foremost, Italians like to keep it simple. They don’t go in for fancy hacks or trending recipes that change at breakneck speed. They master the basics like risotto, tomato sauce, pesto, juicy meatballs, and pasta recipes, and they stick with them. And they never skimp on ingredients.
Fortunately, the Italian way of cooking is easy to master at home and you don’t need even a drop of Italian blood. Just keep the 10 following rules in mind, then get started with this collection of easy Italian dinner recipes.
With these tools and recipes in hand, you’re set for many tasty Italian weeknight meals to come. Allora, andiamo in cucina!
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10 rules for easy authentic Italian recipes
Love Italian cooking but don’t know where to start? Here are 10 easy tricks every Italian knows about shopping, cooking, and eating.
1. Buy the best, do less
Anyone who has tried to make a marinara sauce in January with fresh tomatoes has run into this truism. If the tomatoes are lousy, so is the sauce you make with them. That’s why Italians shop for the very best ingredients and only use them when they are in season. This way, they end up looking like amazing cooks even if all they’ve really done is some careful shopping and some simple cooking steps. This is especially true for fresh veggies, but it also goes for key ingredients like dried porcini mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, fresh basil, mozzarella, ricotta, extra-virgin olive oil, and good quality meats like Italian sausage.
2. Salt pasta water like you mean it
I was once taught that pasta cooking water should taste “come la mare,” like the sea. There’s no hard and fast rule, but I go with this ratio: 1 gallon boiling water (that’s 4 quarts): 1-1/2 tablespoons sea salt: 1 pound pasta. And don’t dump out all of the pasta water! Put a measuring cup next to the sink to remind you to save about 1 cup of the pasta water before you strain it to loosen the sauce and pasta.
3. Don’t overcook the pasta
Pasta should be cooked to “al dente” (literally “to the teeth“), with a little bite left in it. Mushy pasta will ruin a good dish.
4. Combine pasta and sauce in the cooking pot
Most Italians combine their pasta and sauce in the pot the sauce or pasta cooked in rather than in a serving bowl. That’s because if you toss them while the pasta is very hot, its starchiness will help the sauce cling and you’ll get evenly coated pasta in every bite. It’s easy to do, and you’ll be rewarded with tastier pasta.
5. Match the pasta sauce to the pasta shape
Italian chefs go cuckoo about this, and you should, too! Thick, chunky sauces pair well with thick chunky pasta shapes — think of a cubed eggplant-tomato pasta sauce with penne, for example. Silky Alfredo sauce — or long-simmered ragu or marinara sauce — pairs nicely with ribbons of tagliatelle or long strands of spaghetti where you want to coat each strand.
6. Splurge on the best Parmesan cheese
Imported Parmigiano Reggiano, made from cow’s milk in the Emiglia Romagna region and aged for 12 to 24 months, is the gold standard for Italians. It’s so prized, it has a protected designation of origin status (indicated by the “PDO” stamp on the rind) — meaning it can only be called “Parmigiano Reggiano” if it meets critical production and aging standards.
True Parmigiano is crumbly, nutty, milky, and bursting with umami, and while expensive (about $18/pound), a little goes a long way. Buy only what you’ll use in a month, wrap it tightly, and grate it fresh for sauces, soups, or entrees. And don’t dump the hard outer rind! Italian cooks use this as a flavor bomb in sauces and soups, much like you would a bay leaf; discard it after use, though, as it will be too hard to eat.
7. Reach for quality canned tomatoes
Fresh tomatoes aren’t necessarily the best tomatoes to use for Italian dishes. Lots of Italians use canned tomatoes because they are quick, easy, and full of flavor when fresh tomatoes aren’t in season. Italians generally prefer whole canned San Marzano tomatoes, a type of heirloom tomato that has thick flesh, fewer seeds, and a rich, sweet flavor. They’re often packed in their own thick juices with a sprig of fresh basil.
Chopped canned tomatoes tend to be made up of smaller, inferior tomatoes, so for best results, choose whole tomatoes and chop them yourself.
Imported San Marzano tomatoes tend to be more costly, but they are certainly top quality. Domestically produced San Marzano tomatoes will also work, but may not be quite as rich and sweet.
8. Use fresh basil like an Italian
For the best aroma and flavor, tear, don’t chop, fresh basil, and stir it into dishes at the end of cooking. Basil leaves are delicate. Cooking and chopping will bruise them and much of the flavor (and all of the color) will be lost. The only exception is when you’re making pesto. Though many old-school Italians insist you must make pesto with a mortar and pestle, smashing the leaves to release their truest flavor, it‘s perfectly fine to make pesto in a blender or food processor.
9. Don’t overcook the garlic
Easy does it when cooking garlic. Sauteeing garlic for just 30 seconds (if it’s minced) to 1 minute (if sliced) is plenty. Watch closely, and never let the garlic color past pale gold, or it will impart a bitter taste to your dish.
Also, if you’re putting raw garlic in a dish like pesto, pull out the green core in the garlic clove, if it’s present. The sharpness of that little light green sprout will detract from the balance of the sauce.
10. Enjoy your meal
Perhaps most importantly when cooking meals, Italians always make time to sit down and eat with their family, because they don’t just love food; food is everything.
Italian soups and appetizers
It’s not uncommon to serve an antipasto (meaning “before the meal”) or bowl of broth- based soup to pique the appetite before the main meal in Italy. These Italian recipes are a great way to get the party started, but in the spirit of this collection of easy Italian dinner recipes, why not serve them as light meals alongside a crisp green salad?
This brothy Italian soup features tender little meatballs seasoned with lemon zest and Parmesan cheese, simmered in a light chicken broth accented with lemon juice. Tiny orzo pasta and fresh baby kale simmer in the broth as well, making this a delicious one-pot meal that comes together in a snap.
An iconic dish every Italian food lover should know how to cook, this hearty soup is packed with flavor, thanks to six different vegetables, rosemary, canned cannellini beans, short pasta, and a chef’s secret ingredient — a Parmigiano Reggiano rind that infuses the soup with savory flavor.
The best way to celebrate heirloom tomatoes you grew or picked up at the farmer’s market is right here. A creamy ricotta cheese spread on crispy crostini, topped with fresh slices of juicy heirloom tomatoes, basil, and balsamic vinegar is like a tomato celebration, all in two bites! (By the way, bruschetta, from the Italian verb "bruciare," to burn or char, are thick slices of grilled bread, whereas crostini are baked toast slices.)
The ultimate Italian appetizer, these easy stuffed mushrooms have a creamy cheese, breadcrumb, and Italian sausage filling that’s quick to make — and they’ll be even quicker to disappear. Be sure to use cremini mushrooms, which have more flavor than white button mushrooms.
Classic Italian entrees
Impressive enough for a dinner party and quick enough for a busy Tuesday night, these Italian classics tick all the boxes. As every Italian nonna knows, just use the best ingredients available and amazing meals come easily.
Calling all shrimp lovers! This one-pan recipe with plenty of garlic, zippy lemon, and a pinch of red chile flakes is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Serve the scampi recipe as is, with warm crusty bread to mop up the buttery sauce, or with creamy polenta or a tangle of angel hair pasta.
Golden pan-fried chicken cutlets in a rich mushroom and Madeira wine pan sauce are an Italian-American restaurant classic for a reason. Serve the chicken marsala over pasta, with creamy polenta, or even mashed potatoes for a meal worthy of a special occasion — in 35 minutes total time.
Creamy without added cream, this easy Italian vegetarian recipe from Northern Italy features woodsy, satisfying dried porcini mushrooms, short-grain risotto rice, and nutty Parmesan cheese for a meal that’s cozy without being heavy.
This frugal skillet meal uses just a few pantry items you likely already have on hand to make eggs into a fabulous Italian meal. Whether you serve it for supper over pasta or with toast for breakfast, the tomatey, herby recipe will satisfy.
Just 35 minutes to tender meatballs in marinara: This easy recipe of baked meatballs simmered briefly in sauce is a solid classic that you’ll return to over and over. Be sure to read the label when buying jarred marinara — the best-tasting sauces have fresh tomatoes as one of the first three ingredients, and no corn syrup.
Crispy golden brown chicken Parm with gooey melted mozzarella and marinara sauce is a sheet pan wonder. With no pan-frying needed, this is the updated Italian-American recipe you need right now.
Classic Italian pastas
Whether you’re craving a decadent bowl of crispy pancetta-studded carbonara or an easy, lighter one-pan shrimp pasta, these noodley recipes will be your BFF at dinner time. Don’t forget to put a little pinch of love (aka crushed red pepper flakes) in there for good measure!
Shrimp scampi meets lemony pasta in this one-pan weeknight wonder. You’ll saute the shrimp in the pan first, and then cook medium pasta shells in the same pan in a garlic-laced butter sauce. No big pots of boiling water (or draining) required!
It’s always good to have a pasta recipe in your back pocket for nights when your cupboards are looking bare and dinner time looms. This simple spaghetti combines staples like bacon, eggs, and Parmesan cheese to make a satisfying meal that’s ready in just 30 minutes.
This lively basil sauce is a key recipe to add to your homemade repertoire. Fresh basil whizzed together with pine nuts, good extra-virgin olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and plenty of Parmesan cheese is much more than a sum of its parts. Not only is pesto great on pasta like the recipe here, it can also add herby allure to grilled chicken and vegetable soups. And just wait until you try pesto drizzled on a tomato and mozzarella Caprese salad!
Celebrate the fresh veggies of spring with this one-pan penne cooked with a medley of asparagus, tomatoes, peas, and basil. (Bonus: Anytime of year you’ve got quality fresh asparagus, roma tomatoes, and frozen peas, you can make the recipe!) The pasta is finished with soft herbed cheese that melts into the dish to make a light, creamy sauce full of flavor.
New Italian pastas
Italian cooking is definitely rooted in tradition, but these fresh pasta recipes can add new life to any Italian food lover’s repertoire — even if you’d never find them in a Tuscan trattoria.
Frozen cheese ravioli layered with a luscious spinach-ricotta mixture, pesto, and jarred marinara make this easy take on lasagna special. The vegetarian recipe is meat-free, but that’s negotiable; you could add browned ground beef or Italian sausage for an extra layer of flavor.
Cauliflower replaces the usual potato in this gluten-free gnocchi recipe. Paired with an easy one-pan browned-butter, tomato, and basil sauce, the recipe is a vegetable lover’s dream.
Linguini cooks in a light and creamy Alfredo sauce that’s made with chicken broth, whole milk, and a little whipping cream in lieu of the usual all cream. Juicy golden brown chicken breasts add a hit of protein, and there’s plenty of Parmesan for cheesy flavor. Just in case you don’t love doing dishes, the recipe cooks all in one pan. Winner, winner chicken Alfredo pasta dinner!
Move over, avocado toast, there’s a new way to love avocados. In this inventive dish, avocado is blended with lemon, garlic, and olive oil to make a smooth, creamy pasta sauce. Stir it into whole-wheat pasta with sauteed chicken and bacon, and you’ll never look at avocados the same way again.