Do you want to know the best and most popular Italian sauces that make Italy such a great haven for food lovers?
Italian sauces are aplenty, with variations ranging from liquid-like classic tomato sauce to hot fish sauce and heavy sauces with flour, walnut, and parsley.
The Italian word for sauce is salsa. The name is derived from sale, which means “salt.”
One of the earliest sauces in record was the stinky fish sauce called garum in the year 1 AD. It was made of anchovies or sardines, marinated in salt for days.
Tomatoes made their way to Italy from South America in the 16th century, but it was three centuries later when tomato-based sauces got noticed. Some of these sauces became “mother sauces” that are used so often throughout Italy, especially on pasta dishes.
Italy is known for its pasta recipes along with famous, fantastic sauces. But come to think of it. Sauces may be the most important ingredient used in Italian cuisine. What is pasta without sauce, right? Like flesh without blood! Imagine your spaghetti and lasagne – and pizza, too – without sauce.
Anyone who visits Italy will have food on top of their priorities. What’s a better way to explore the country that on a full stomach, filled with authentic Italian dishes prepared and cooked in Italy?
Let’s “dip” into some of the best and most popular Italian sauces that make Italian cuisine so famous around the world.
1. Salsa al Pomodoro
Literally, tomato sauce.
The Italian word for tomato is “pomodoro.” It means “golden apple” because some of the earliest types of tomatoes were not red but yellow. Over time, tomatoes evolved into hues of red and pink, as well as purple and brown.
Plum tomatoes are the most popular in Italy, especially the San Marzano that are grown in its namesake town in the Salerno province in the region of Campania.
Salsa al pomodoro is the most basic and one of the best Italian sauces, best served as part of a dish, rather than as a condiment. Pasta al pomodoro can stand on its own, but it can also be paired with sausages, clams, fish, or vegetables.
One of the many classic Italian sauces, marinara sauce is among the most popular. You eat your spaghetti and pizza basically with this sauce.
Marinara is made of tomato sauce, aromatics like garlic, olive oil, and herbs like basil leaves. This tomato-based sauce is also best for baked zucchini sticks for dipping, for garlic knots, as well as tortellini recipes. And who would not love it for pizza rolls?
Marinara originated in Naples, Italy. This popular sauce’s name comes from the Italian word “marinai” which means sailor. Indeed, marinara sauce has sailed all over the globe.
Sounds rude? Well…
Puttanesca is one of the most popular sauces not only in Italy but all around the world. The name is derived from the word puttana which boldly means “whore” or “prostitute” in Italian.
In Italy, the sauce is known as sugo alla puttanesca. It is said that this Italian sauce was first made from things that were available in the pantry cooked together. That is why the name sounds a little – well – trashy. Who would be choosy if your stomach is that empty?
Basically, the Neapolitan version of puttanesca is made of simple fresh tomatoes, olives, capers, and garlic. But some would use anchovies or tuna as additional ingredients.
Puttanesca sauce is best for spaghetti and also for vermicelli and linguine. Puttanesca is served hot as main course.
If you love sauces but not the colored ones, this popular creamy-tasting Italian pasta sauce is right for you.
But did you know that the traditional and authentic Italian ingredients in making this sauce did not actually involve cream?
The real carbonara is made of guanciale or cured pork cheek strips cooked until crispy brown. It’s added with eggs, grated pecorino cheese, extra virgin olive oil, plus salt and pepper. It is then beaten consistently until it becomes a creamy and cheesy sauce.
Pasta dishes that go best with carbonara are the famous spaghetti, bavette, or bucatini.
5. Pesto Genovese
Originating in Genoa, the capital city of Liguria in Italy, the pesto genovese sauce is indeed one of the most popular.
This sauce’s original ingredients include basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, either Parmigiano-Regianno or Pecorino Sardo hard cheese, and olive oil. Using a marble mortal and a wooden pestle, the ingredients are crushed or pounded one after the other.
Pesto recipes may differ from one another as it goes with time. It is a favorite sauce for pasta dishes and green salads.
6. Pesto alla Trapanese
Sicily in southern Italy has its own version of pesto sauce that is also one of the most popular sauces in the country. It is called the pesto alla trapanese or pesto alla siciliana, which is typical of the Sicilian province of Trapani.
The ingredients of this Sicilian pesto are almost the same with pesto alla genovese, only that pine nuts are replaced with tomato and almonds and fewer basil leaves.
Pesto alla trapanese is considered a great classic sauce with its tasty and and colorful look. It is because of the seafarers that this sauce was created.
7. Salsa di Noci
Sauces in Italy are numerous that is why it is popular. You might go nuts if you won’t be able to taste this one!
This walnut sauce is another from Liguria, along with pesto genovese. Widely used even in ancient Persia, salsa di noci sauce was originally known as white agliata, walnut agliata, or savore of walnuts and garlic.
Obviously, the main ingredient is walnut plus garlic, bread crumbs, milk, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. This combination of ingredients produces a creamy, ivory colored and sweet flavored sauce that is best with the popular local fresh pasta filled with chard and herbs, eggs and cheese – Italian Riviera ravioli called the pansotti.
8. Sugo alla Norma
Sugo alla norma or norma sauce is considered a symbol of the Mediterranean which originated in Catania, traveled to Sicily, the whole of Italy, and the rest of the world. That is why sugo alla norma is one of the most popular of sauces.
This amazing Italian sauce is made of tomato added with fried eggplant, grated salted ricotta, and basil, giving it a fresh touch that creates a delicious pasta alla norma.
It is said that norma is derived from the composer Vizenco Bellini’s opera Norma itself. The Italian writer Nino Martoglio shouted, “This is the real Norma!” – referring to the taste of the dish, which is a real masterpiece.
9. Salsa di Vongole
Want your clams cooked with spaghetti?
Vongole is the Italian word for “clams.” The vongole sauce is one of the most popular in Italy.
To make this sauce you need parsley, garlic, chili pepper, oil, and fresh clams. The clams’ freshness and the right way it is cooked contribute a lot in order to achieve the perfect taste and creaminess of the vongole sauce for your spaghetti.
10. Salsa Verde
Literally translated as “green sauce,” this popular Italian green sauce does not require cooking.
A sauce full of green herbs, salsa verde is made with finely chopped anchovies, fresh parsley leaves, capers, bread crumbs, and garlic with vinegar. This should not be confused with the Mexican salsa verde, which is based on tomatillos and does require cooking.
The Italian salsa verde’s basic recipe is said to be probably at least 2,000 years old. It was brought to Italy from the Near East by Roman legionaries.
Salsa verde is truly easy and quick to prepare for your steak, vegetables, fish, and cheese. It also goes well as spread for toasts, sandwiches, and pizza.
Although more famously called by its French name béchamel, this sauce has been known for centuries in Italy as besciamella. Its other Italian names are balsamella and bechimella.
Besciamella is a sauce made with only three ingredients: flour, milk, and butter. It serves as a binding element in a lot of pasta and vegetable dishes.
This white sauce is also used as a topping in cannelloni, lasagne, and other baked dishes. Besciamella prevent them from drying out.
12. Sugo di Carni
Sugo di carni is a meat-based sauce that is among the most popular sauces in Italy.
The main ingredient in making this meat sauce is, of course, ground meat that is either beef or pork or both. The meat or the perfect combination of it is sautéed together with onions, carrots, and celery. Red wine and canned tomatoes are then added. Salt and pepper are traditionally used as seasoning in this sauce. You might want to add some tomato paste and porcini mushrooms, too.
Sugo di carni is best for pastas like fettucine, pappardelle, penne, rigatoni, tagliatelle, and even lasagna. Sprinkling some grated Parmesan on top is a good idea as well.
Want something fresh and delicious in Rome during summer time? It is where this traditional and popular Italian checca sauce originated.
As summer is the peak season for tomatoes, you might also want to try to make as much checca sauce as you want. The ingredients of this sauce includes fresh and firm green tomatoes, green olives, basil, parsley, fennel seeds, salt, and pepper. Simply mix the sauce together and set aside to rest for about an hour.
You can have your checca served with cavatelli, conchiglie, farfalle, lumachelle, and strascinati pastas.
Agrodolce is a sweet and sour sauce that is one of the most popular Italian sauces around.
The word agrodolce was derived from the Italian words agro which means “sour” and dolce meaning “sweet.”
This sticky sauce is from the mixture of vinegar and sugar boiled until it becomes sticky and almost caramelized, mixed then with pine nuts, dried fruits and vegetables, and onions or currants. Make sure to focus to your pan while making this sauce to avoid ending up cooking a pan of caramel.
It is a great pair for charred flavors, roasted meats, or even noodles. It is also served as a condiment for vegetables like asparagus, broccoli, and brussels sprouts, a sandwich spread or as toppings to meat whether it’s pork, chicken or beef.
15. Sugo all’Arrabbiata
When in Italy or anywhere in the world and you want to “spice up your life,” consider eating something with this popular Italian spicy sauce – the Arrabbiata sauce.
This sauce for penne kinds of pasta is made up of garlic, tomatoes, and dried red chili peppers cooked in olive oil.
This is another popular sauce from the city of Rome. “Arrabbiata” literally means “angry” in Italian. This dish was invented way back the 1950s-60s when hot dishes became famous in Roman cuisine.
Friggione is one of the most popular Italian sauces made for side dishes.
If you love spices, then this might be one of the best for you. It is an onion- and tomato-based sauce that is a traditional Bolognese cuisine.
Originally, lard is used as oil when making the friggione sauce but in modern days it is replaced with extra virgin olive oil. Combining and cooking these ingredients slowly creates a tasty dish, especially when paired with home-made bread, boiled meals, or sausages.
17. Ragù alla Bolognese
Ragù alla Bolognese or Bolognese sauce is a meat-based Italian sauce that’s typical of the city of Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region.
Authentic ragù alla bolognese is based on meat and cooked slowly. Its preparation involves sweating, sautéeing, and braising.
Ingredients for this sauce include finely chopped beef, often with a little fatty pork, and a soffritto of onion, celery, and carrot. The mixture is then added with milk, white wine, and tomatoes. Gently simmering the dish produces a thick sauce that’s characteristic of the ragù alla bolognese.
This popular Italian sauce is customarily used to prepare lasagne alla bolognese and to dress tagliatelle al ragù.
18. Ragù alla Napoletano
Meet the real meaty sauce – the popular Italian sauce ragù napoletano.
Unlike the ragù alla bolognese that uses chopped or ground meat, the meat used in ragù napoletano is in chunk cuts, thus, requiring a large amount of tomato sauce to incorporate with.
This traditional meat and tomato sauce should be cooked with no rush as it needs low flames. Aside from meat and tomato, other ingredients used to make this gravy-like sauce are onion, basil, olive oil, and red wine.
19. Muddica Atturrata
Muddica atturrata is frequently used as base in many traditional Sicilian dishes.
Known as the “cheese of the poor,” muddica atturrata is made with toasted bread crumbs, atturrare (which means “to toast”), which has the consistency of grated cheese.
This sauce is used in numerous dishes for that crunchiness and unique taste. Pasta ca muddica atturrata is a famous pasta dish that uses this particular sauce, mixed with fried garlic and anchovies in oil.
20. Sugo all’Amatriciana
Sugo all’amatriciana (amatriciana sauce) is a traditional Italian pasta sauce based on cured guanciale, pecorino romano cheese, and tomato. In some variations, onion is also used.
Amatriciana sauce originated in the town of Amatrice in the central Italian region of Lazio. It is one of the most popular pasta sauces in present-day Roman and Italian cuisine.
This sauce is usually served with long pastas like bucatini, spaghetti, and vermicelli.
21. Salsa in Saor
Salsa in saor is a sweet and sour sauce with exquisite flavors that are derived from cooked onions and white wine vinegar, commonly added with raisins and pine nuts for a richer taste.
This sauce originated in Venice. In fact, the word “saor” is Venetian for “taste.”
Salsa in saor has a maritime background. In the olden times when refrigators had yet to be invented, the fish rotted within a few days. To keep the fish edible during long sea journeys, Venetian sailors used onions to kill the bacteria that deteriorates food.
The Venetian appetizer sarde in saor is made with this sauce. This dish has spread across Italy and spawned various versions over time. The original Venetian recipe, however, is made of just three ingredients: sardines, Chioggia onions, and white wine vinegar.
23. Salsa Bolzanina
Also known as Bolzano or Bozner sauce, salsa bolzanino is typical in Trentino-South Tyrol. This sauce requires boiled eggs, seed oil, and mustard, added with chives and a small amount of vinegar.
Salsa bolzanina is a creamy and flavorful sauce that is usually used as an accompaniment for the white asparagus of Terlano.
This sauce also serves as a seasoning for meat or fish dishes and a filling for cream puffs. It is used for simply spreading on toast as well.
24. Salsa al Limone
Salsa al limone or lemon sauce is very much a southern Italian recipe, originating in Campania, specifically the Amalfi coast and the Sorrento peninsula which are both famous for their lemons. Lemons are grown all over southern Italy, but the Sorrento and Amalfi lemons are deemed by many to be the best.
This sauce is best used on pasta recipes such as linguine and rotini. It’s good for a salad dressing as well.
25. Bagna Càuda
Bagna càuda is a Piedmontese fish sauce. Its name in the local dialect means “hot dip” or “hot gravy.”
Bagna càuda is a hot dish made from garlic and anchovies that is said to have been around since the 16th century.
This dish is used as a dipping sauce for cooked vegetables. It is also served and eaten in a manner similar to fondue.