The 10 Italian Pasta Terms You Need to Know

The 10 Italian Pasta Terms You Need to Know

Every now and then as I read about cooking and eating Italian pasta, I come across a new term for a cooking technique for an ingredient that I didn’t really know about before.

This is one of the things that I absolutely love about Italian cuisine; it has centuries of history dating back as far as Medieval Europe and Ancient Rome—and there’s always something new to learn from the past.

In this post, I’m going to share with you what I consider the most important Italian terms for home cooks who like to cook and eat pasta at home.

If you’re just as curious about Italian food as I am, keep on reading.

Abbondante Acqua Salata

Italians cook their pasta noodles “in abbondante acqua salata,” which means generously salted pasta water.

Contrary to what most home cooks outside of Italy think, adding salt to your pasta water won’t keep the noodles from sticking together. Nor will it raise the boiling temperature of the water enough to make any difference for your dish. 

Salt has a much more straightforward but just as important role in Italian pasta-cooking. The salt will dissolve in the pasta water and season the pasta noodles as they rehydrate and cook. Cooking your noodles in salted water improves your pasta dish’s overall taste—and keeps them from coming out bland in the first place.

How much salt should you be adding to pasta water

Italian chefs have a saying that pasta water should taste like the sea

What makes applying this rule of thumb kind of hard for most home cooks is that not everyone tastes seawater for a living.

When in doubt about how much salt to add to your pasta water, follow the pasta ratio. The pasta ratio is 1:1:4, and it tells you to cook 1 lb pasta noodles with 1 tbsp salt in 4 quarts (16 cups) of water.

Al Dente

Italians in Rome and its surrounding Lazio region like to cook their pasta noodles “al dente,” which translates literally as “to the tooth.”

Pasta noodles cooked al dente are cooked through on the inside but firm to the bite on the outside. On Italia Squisita, one of my favorite cooking channels on YouTube where the best Italian chefs talk about Italian cooking, they explain this state as pasta noodles that still have a slight crunch to them (without being undercooked).

To make al dente pasta, cook your pasta noodles for 2-3 minutes less than the recommended time in the package’s cooking instructions. For example, if the instructions say to cook the pasta for 7 minutes, start fishing out and tasting individual noodles in 30-second intervals at minute 4.

You’re looking for that short moment when the noodles have become tender on the inside but remain firm to the bite and slightly crunchy on the outside. As soon as the pasta reaches al dente state, remove the pasta pot from the heat and take the noodles out of the water.

I’ve written about this technique in detail in a post titled, “This is How to Tell When Pasta Is Done.” Be sure to check out the post if you want to cook your pasta al dente at home.

Many home cooks get scared off of al dente pasta because they think that it’s less healthy for you. 

On the contrary. 

As the Italian cooking magazine La Cucina Italiana explains, al dente pasta is healthier for you because it takes your body longer to digest. “Pasta boiled al dente,” La Cucina Italiana‘s editorial staff writes, “has a lower glycemic index.”

“With this shorter cooking time, the starch granules are hydrated, but not so much that they release into the cooking water. The starch can also be digested in a gradual manner, which prevents blood sugar spikes.” 

According to the magazine, it’s the American way of overcooking your pasta to mush that’s bloating and unhealthy: “Overcooked pasta tends to form a sticky dough in the digestive tract, which blocks digestion.”

Alla Gricia (Pasta Alla Gricia)

Pasta alla gricia is a simple pasta dish with just four ingredients. As the dominant story goes, shepherds in Italy’s Lazio region used to make as they were herding sheep in the mountains.

The origins of the name “Gricia” are unclear. “For some,” Amy Gulick writes for Italy Magazine, “this is a sauce the people of Amatrice took with them when they moved to Rome, modifying it with the addition of tomato to give us the now-famous all’amatriciana.”

“Others say the sauce comes from Grisciano, a small town in the Accumoli district not far from Amatrice, while yet another, broader theory credits the shepherds of the Lazio region with inventing the sauce.” 

The leading theory is that pasta alla gricia bears its name from gricio, a 15th-century Roman term for bread-maker, which is derived from i Grici, the Roman name given to immigrants from the Swiss Canton of Grisons (or Cantone de’ Grigioni in Italian).

The ingredients for pasta alla gricia are pasta noodles, Guanciale (cured pork cheek), Pecorino Romano (a hard and salty Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk), and black pepper.

While the pasta noodles are cooking to al dente, Italian chefs render the fat from guanciale by browning it for 5-6 minutes over medium-high heat in a frying pan. There’s no need to add any olive oil to the pan because Guanciale is made from a fatty cut of pork.

Guanciale is cured pork cheek with high salt contents. The fat that renders in the pan comes out naturally and abundantly salty. Additional salt will be added to the pasta dish when Pecorino Romano cheese is grated on top of it.

Once the pasta is cooked, it is strained and tossed with the Guanciale in the frying pan, which is still warm from the residual heat. Pepper is sprinkled on the ready dish, and grated Pecorino Romano cheese is added. The pasta is tossed again, then served and eaten while hot.

Learn how to make pasta alla gricia from Gabriele Perilli, Italian chef and owner of La Conca restaurant in Amatrice, Italy:

Note: The video is in Italian, so make sure to turn on English captions if you don’t speak the language.

Many say that pasta alla gricia is the antecedent of pasta alla carbonara (but more about carbonara below).

Carbonara (Pasta Alla Carbonara)

Who doesn’t love a plate of pasta alla carbonara at any time of day?

Carbonara is a Roman pasta dish made with egg, hard cheese, cured pork, and freshly ground black pepper.

The cheese is usually Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or a combination of the two. The pork is Guanciale (cured pig’s cheeks) or Pancetta (cured pork belly).

You can use any pasta noodles for cooking pasta alla carbonara. 

“Pasta carbonara can’t be defined in itself as a recipe, as every cook interprets it with their own cooking technique,” says Flavio De Maio, Italian chef and owner of restaurant Velavevodetto in Rome. 

“What we can’t deny,” De Maio adds, “are the ingredients, which are, essentially, Guanciale, eggs, Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pepper, optionally, white wine, and, obviously, pasta.”

Personally, like to use spaghetti, bucatini, tagliatelle, and fettuccine for making pasta alla carbonara. For his recipe, De Maio uses rigatoni.

To make pasta alla carbonara, Italian chefs brown guanciale in a skillet, renderring some of the flavorful and salty fats from the cured pork cheek in the pan. 

Bits and pieces of Guanciale can sometimes stick to the frying pan, especially if the pan is made from stainless steel. In such a case, the frying pan is deglazed with a drizzle of white wine. The wine has evaporated when fumes coming out from the pan no longer smell like alcohol.

To make the carbonara sauce, eggs are beated and mixed with grated hard cheese like Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or a combination of the two. As soon as the pasta noodles are cooked, they are tossed in the frying pan, away from heat, with the egg and cheese mixture. The residual heat of the pan is used to cook the sauce through—without having it come out like an omelette.

Check out three ways, traditional and modern, to make authentic Roman pasta alla carbonara in the video from Italia Squisita’s cooking channel below:

Note: The video is in Italian, so make sure to turn on English captions if you don’t speak the language.

Pasta alla carbonara’s name comes from the Italian word “carbonaro” for a charcoal burner. As most terms in Italian cuisine (as well as any cuisine with such a long history), no one can trace back the origins of the name with 100% certainty.

Still, food historians are pretty confident that pasta alla carbonara is named after a pasta dish that was first made as a hearty meal for charcoal workers in Rome and its surrounding villages in the Lazio region of Italy. 

That’s right. Carbonara is a delicious pasta dish with humble origins as a filling meal for coal miners and charcoal burners in the 19th century.

Before Romans started calling it carbonara, the pasta dish itself was probably a staple in most home kitchens.

The first mention of the name is in a 1950’s issue of the Italian newspaper La Stampa, which writes about pasta alla carbonara as a dish that grew surprisingly popular with the American officers after the Allied liberation of Rome in 1944.

Pasta

No surprise here: in Italian, pasta is called “pasta.” There are two categories of pasta, pasta fresca (fresh pasta) and pasta secca (dried pasta). 

There are well over 400 unique pasta varieties in Italy: sheets, strips, long strands, cylinders, unique shapes, flavors, and other local specialties.

Traditionally, Italian pasta is made from durum wheat flour. Durum wheat is a hard wheat variety mostly used for making pasta. It’s used for making pasta because it produces flour that’s easy to shape. The flour produced from durum wheat is called semolina flour.

The flour is mixed with water and, occasionally, eggs, and formed into pasta sheets or pasta shapes, then cooked in salted water. Once the pasta noodles are cooked, they are strained and tossed with the pasta sauce—usually in the residual heat of the frying pan that the sauce was made in.

Pasta, fresh and dried, can be cooked and served with a sauce (pasta asciutta), made as a soup (pasta in brodo), or baked (pasta al forno).

Pasta Fresca

“Pasta fresca” means fresh pasta in Italian.

Fresh pasta can be store-bought (for example, when it’s made in an artisanal pasta shop or in a bakery) or handmade at home.

Fresh pasta is usually made with flour, eggs, and water. Traditionally, fresh pasta is made with semolina flour, 00 flour (also known as “double zero” or “doppio zero” flour), or a combination of the two.

The ingredients are mixed into a tough but workable dough that’s kneaded, rested, and rolled. 

Once the pasta dough has rested, it can be rolled out by hand with a rolling pin (or wine bottle), or using a pasta machine.

When the sheets are rolled out to the desired thickness, they are cut into pasta noodles and formed into pasta nests, used as sheets for making lasagna, or made into stuffed pasta like ravioli.

Fresh pasta, no matter if as a dough ball or rolled out and cut into sheets or noodles, can be dusted with flour, packaged in an air-tight bag, and stored for 2 days in the fridge or for up to 4 weeks in the freezer.

Pasta Secca

“Pasta secca” means dried pasta in Italian.

Dried pasta is made from semolina flour and water. Occasionally, dried pasta is also made with eggs.

The flour and water are mixed into a hard but moldable pasta dough. The dough is kneaded, rested, pushed through molds, and machine-cut into shapes. The pasta is then dried at low temperature and under controlled conditions for several days.

Dried pasta can be stored indefinitely and will remain safe to eat. However, its aroma, flavor, and nutritional characteristics will erode over time, which is why the USDA recommends to store pasta in a cool and dry place for no longer than 2 years.

Whereas fresh pasta is usually made in home kitchens and artisanal pasta shops, dried pasta is produced in pasta factories at commercial scale.

Commercial pasta making dates back to the 17th century, when bakers in Naples used rudimentary machines to make larger quantities of pasta compared to handmade production techniques.

Italy’s first pasta factory opened in Venice. In 1740, the city of Venice authorized Paolo Adami of Genova to open a pasta factory. The license that Adami was given required him to teach the art and craft of pasta making to young Venetians who worked in his factory, The Local writes. Outside of Naples, the people of Genova were considered as Italy’s second-best pasta makers.

Dried pasta became easier to produce at commercial scale when, in the 1800s, water mills and stone grinders started being used to separate semolina flour from durum wheat bran. Now, flour could be made at scale in Italy, and exported to other countries in Europe. Which is why the 19th century saw the opening of the first pasta factories outside of the country, Joseph Topits’ first pasta factory outside of Italy in the Hungarian city of Pest.

Many of the best Italian pasta brands sold at grocery stores today started as Italian pasta factories in the 1900s.

San Marzano Pomodoro

“Pomodoro” means tomato in Italian. 

San Marzano tomatoes are a variety of plum tomatoes. When it comes to pasta, there are no other tomatoes other than San Marzano tomatoes. Here’s why.

San Marzano tomatoes are a plum tomato variety that’s thin and pointed. They have thick flesh and few seeds, and a strong and sweet flavor that’s less acidic than most other tomato varieties, which makes them ideal for canning.

Canned San Marzano tomatoes are savory and sweet. They have a rich aroma and a strong taste, without being overly acidic. Pasta sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes is soft and balanced, allowing the flavor of the tomatoes and the taste of the pasta noodles to stand out.

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Vino Bianco

“Vino bianco” is Italian for white wine.

I’m no sommelier, but I’ve traveled to and spent enough time in Italy to know what makes a good glass of vino. My favorite Italian white wine varieties are (light and dry) Pinot Grigio, (sweet) Moscato, and (sparkling) Prosecco.

Here’s how to pair each of the three.

Pair Pinot Grigio with light dishes like antipasti, seafood, and light pasta dishes like spaghetti with clams (spaghetti alle vongole) or fresh tomato pasta (pasta al pomodoro). 

Thanks to its sweetness, Moscato is a perfect for balancing out the saltiness of Italian cured meats, like Bresaola, Pancetta, Prosciutto, and Speck, as well as hard Italian cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano, and Asiago.

Prosecco is a tad sweeter than campaigne and pairs well with cured meats, hard cheeses, seafood, and fruits. If you ask me, a great wine for an afternoon snack with chilled fruits and raw nuts in hot summers.

How to serve Italian white wine? White wine should be chilled before serving. To chill white wine, put it in a wine bucket filled with 50% water and 50% ice and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Vino Rosso

“Vino rosso” is Italian for red wine.

As Wine Folly writes, Italy has more than 500 unique red wine varieties. As a rule of thumb, Italian red wine tends to be fruiter in the South and earthy in the North.

My favorite Italian red wine varities are (sweet and peppery) Nero d’Avola, (fruity and pepeery) Bardolino, and (smooth and zesty) Valpolicella. Seriously, if there is such a thing as a casual wine that you could drink on any social occasion, that’s Valpolicella.

Here’s how to best pair each of these Italian red wines.

Match Nero d’Avola with rich red meats. Classic pairings for Nero d’Avola include beef stew and oxtail soup, but you can generally pair it with any meal with beef, pork, and veal.

Bardolino is the perfect wine for most pasta and risotto dishes (and first courses as a whole). It also goes well with cured meats and hard cheeses.

Valpolicella is a light and casual wine. It’s conversational, in a way. Pair it with lighter foods like poultry, seafood, and vegetables.

How to serve Italian red wine? Red wine should be served at room temperature. Before serving red wine, let it rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. 

Decant the wine before drinking it. Decanting increases the wine’s exposure to oxygen—and greatly improves its taste by softening the bitterness that comes from the tannins and bringing out the aromas naturally contained in the wine.

Conclusion

And this concludes my list of the 10 Italian pasta terms that every home cook needs to know.

TermDefinition
Abbondante acqua salataGenerously salted pasta water
Al dentePasta cooked till it’s tender on the inside, but still firm to the bite on the outside
Alla GriciaA way for cooking pasta with Guanciale, Pecorino Romano, and pepper.
CarbonaraA way for cooking pasta with Guanciale, egg, Pecorino Romano, and pepper.
PastaItalian pasta noodles made of semolina flour (durum wheat flour)
Pasta frescaFresh pasta, usually made in home kitchens and artisanal pasta shops
Pasta seccaDried pasta, usually made in pasta factories at commercial scale
San Marzano pomodoroSan Marzano tomatoes, a variety of plum tomatoes that’s best for making pasta sauce
Vino biancoItalian white wine
Vino rossoItalian red wine
The 10 Italian terms every home cook needs to know

If you remember just three things from this article, let it be this:

  • Cook your pasta in abundantly salted water till its tender on the inside, but still firm to the bite on the outside. 
  • If you’re making a white pasta dish, prepare Pasta alla Gricia or Pasta alla Carbonara (leaving the cooking cream to someone who’s making pastry).
  • Tomato sauce? Use no other canned tomato variety than San Marzano tomatoes. Their strong but balanced taste is absolutely perfect for making pasta sauce.

What about your favorite Italian pasta terms? Have I missed one out? Or do you have a technique or recipe you’d like to share with the rest of this post’s readers?

Thanks for reading this far and share your thoughts in the comments below.

What to Read Next

Now that you know the terms for making pasta, you need a set of good tools. Check out my best picks in 10 Must-Have Tools for Making Pasta.

Fettuccine and tagliatelle are some of the tastiest and most versatile pasta varieties out there. Learn how to cook them perfectly.

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