From the sauce: the stories behind Italy’s famous pasta dishes

From the sauce: the stories behind Italy’s famous pasta dishes

by Great Italian Chefs 15 February 2018

Ever wondered where carbonara gets its name from, or why is Bolognese sauce such a talking point in Emilia-Romagna? We take a look at five of Italy’s most famous pasta sauces and discover their historic origins.

Great Italian Chefs is a team of passionate food-lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest news, views and reviews from the gastronomic mecca that is Italy.

Great Italian Chefs is a team of passionate food-lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest news, views and reviews from the gastronomic mecca that is Italy.

For a country so obsessed with culinary tradition, it’s actually quite hard to pinpoint the origins of many Italian dishes. Most are steeped in myth and legend, with colourful tales favoured over what is probably the truth. It’s no surprise – Italians are natural storytellers, and you can forgive the odd embellishment for the sake of bringing a dish to life through its history.

Many of Italy’s most historic dishes involve its greatest culinary gift to the world – pasta. International chefs and cooks are lambasted by Italians for changing their beloved traditional recipes into something completely different, but many of these dishes have evolved over the years within the country too. Just think – tomatoes were only introduced to Italy in the 1800s; before this, pasta sauces contained no tomato at all.

It would take a whole series of thick encyclopaedias to properly chart the history of every Italian pasta dish out there, so instead we’ve looked into the backstory behind five of the country’s most famous recipes. Read on for an introduction to family favourites such as lasagne and carbonara and how they got their names.


This umami-laden sauce of tomatoes, anchovies, capers, olives, garlic and chilli is a firm favourite because it’s easy to make and is mostly made from store cupboard staples, but it also has the most colourful history of any pasta dish. Originally from Lazio (or Campania, depending on who you ask), Spaghetti alla puttanesca (which roughly translates to ‘whore’s spaghetti’) started becoming popular in the 1960s, and is now enjoyed all over the world.

There are a few stories behind the dish – the most famous states that it was originally made by prostitutes in brothels, as it was quick to make between clients and the incredible smell would lead men to their doors. As with any origin story, it’s hard to know if this is actually true; other sources say it was made by an Ischian chef who just threw some ingredients together for some customers late at night. Either way, it’s an incredibly tasty, speedy dish that requires only a few key ingredients.


One of Lazio’s most famous pasta sauces, Amatriciana combines guanciale (cured pork cheek) with Pecorino in a chilli and tomato sauce. It’s traditionally served with bucatini pasta, which is like thick, hollow spaghetti – one of Rome’s most famous pasta shapes. The dish has a rich history, taking its name from the town of Amatrice (which was tragically hit by a large earthquake in 2016) and has its roots in a dish called gricia, an old Roman meal of guanciale and cheese.

It first came to prominence thanks to a chef called Francesco Leonardi, who took the recipe for gricia and added tomato, serving the dish at a banquet for Pope Pius II in April 1816. It was an instant hit and proved that a dish usually reserved for the poor could be served to such high-profile guests.


Carbonara is one of the world’s most popular pasta sauces, although many inauthentic recipes call for the addition of cream – a big no-no in Italy! It’s another Roman classic that’s derived from gricia (much like Amatriciana), taking the classic combination of cured pork and cheese and adding plenty of rich egg to create the sauce, which cooks in the residual heat of the al dente pasta.

‘Carbonara’ is derived from ‘carbonaro’, which is the Italian name for a charcoal burner. There are several schools of thought as to why the dish has its name, but the most likely is that it was either cooked by woodcutters who cooked the dish over stoves fuelled by offcuts of wood, or that the dish was particularly popular with coal miners and the flakes of black pepper looked like coal dust.

Ragù alla Bolognese

This has to be the most hotly debated and controversial pasta dish of all time, with many an Italian chef lamenting its bastardisation across the world. We tend to think of it as a sauce made with beef mince and tomato alongside a whole other host of ingredients, but there is actually a traditional recipe which is quite different to what we know as ‘spag bol’ (although even this will change from family to family in Bologna). Most will agree, however, that it includes finely chopped carrots, onions and celery, pork mince or pancetta, beef (or veal) mince, dry wine (red or white), tomatoes and butter. You’ll also often see it enriched with whole milk, stock and/or chicken livers. Some chefs swear by garlic; others believe it has no place in the sauce. In Bologna and Emilia-Romagna, it is served with fresh tagliatelle – never spaghetti like in the UK – and plenty of Parmesan.

The origins of ragù are hazy, but historians have traced it back to eighteenth century Imola, a town to the southeast of Bologna. It originally contained no tomatoes, and even today an authentic ragù should only have enough tomato in it to just bind the sauce. It’s generally agreed today that there is no one single ‘authentic’ recipe for ragù alla Bolognese – but it still causes many dinner table debates over what should and shouldn’t be included.

Lasagne al forno

Another famous dish from Emilia-Romagna, lasagne al forno takes ragù and turns it into a celebratory dish of layered pasta, béchamel sauce and Parmesan. But the dish’s history stretches right back to fourteenth century Naples thanks to the sheets of pasta used – thought to be the oldest form of pasta in Europe. It is first mentioned in Liber de Coquina (The Book of Cookery), in a recipe which calls for a thin sheet of fermented dough that’s boiled and flavoured with cheese and spices, and there are many variations on the al forno dish we tend to know outside of Italy; in Naples, for example, the lasagne sheets were traditionally made with semolina and layered with sausage or eggs. Some historians believe a form of lasagne was even eaten in Ancient Greece, when laganon – the name for strips of flat dough – was part of the cuisine.