Pasta is emblematic of Italy, and a good sauce will make that pasta shine. Make sure you add your favorites, with recipes if you can, in the comment section below! And bear in mind that these recipes are guidelines. I'm not fussy about amounts, and I'd rather you not be either. It's how we learn.
1) Carbonara: When my kids ask for breakfast for dinner, they mean pancakes. When I say I want breakfast for dinner, I'm talking about carbonara—earthy bacon (when I can't find pancetta), a bite of pepper, and eggs to make it creamy. Pure indulgence.
How to make it (recipe adapted from Ian Fisher at the New York Times): Fill a serving bowl with hot water. Fill a pot with hot water and add a tablespoon of salt, bring to a boil, and add about 3/4 of a pound of spaghetti. Meanwhile, sauté 4 ounces of half-inch strips of sliced pancetta (or guanciale if you can find it, or bacon—briefly boiled to remove smokiness—if you can't find either) in a large pan with a tablespoon of olive oil until the meat is crisped on the edges. Turn off the heat. In a bowl, rapidly beat 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks (both at room temperature), then add in an ounce of parmesan and an ounce of pecorino romano. Sprinkle in some salt and freshly cracked pepper. As the pasta approaches a state slightly firmer than al dente, reheat the pancetta, and remove a cup of pasta cooking water from the pot. Drain the pasta, then add it to the pancetta, stirring to coat the pasta with the oil. Dump the water from the waiting bowl, dry it, then pour the pasta into the bowl. Stirring enthusiastically, add the egg and cheese mixture to the pasta, adding enough of the reserved pasta water to make it creamy and saucey. Serve with extra pecorino and pepper.
Editor's Note: The original recipe I had here included cream, which was roundly criticized. But I had never found a cream-less recipe that didn't curdle on me. But I kept at it, and found this one, which works like magic. I'm not sure if it's because it includes 2 egg yolks, or because it specified the eggs be at room temperature, but in any case, it is far superior to the one I'd originally included in this list. Prego.
2) Bolognese: This sauce needs no introduction. It's meaty, tomato-y, and quintessentially Italian, especially when served on wide noodles like pappardelle or tagliatelle (preferably homemade). I make monster quantities of the sauce and freeze it in plastic bags laid onto cookie sheets until frozen (so the sauce freezes into a shape that is easy to defrost). Then I always have some when I need to make baked ziti (just add a cup of bechamel and cooked ziti and bake topped with mozzarella), a topping for polenta, quicker-than-ordering-a-pizza-when-I'm-not-home-for-dinner, or mixed with cooked farro and broth for an instant hearty soup.
How to make it: Brown pieces of pancetta, bacon, or guanciale in a pot. Remove, and add ground meat (some combination mostly beef, some pork, and some sausage) to the rendered fat. Once it's brown and in tiny pieces, remove to join the bacon, and add chopped onion, garlic, and carrot into the hot fat. Add a bay leaf, salt, pepper, and plenty of dried oregano. When the vegetables are soft, add enough wine to cover the bottom of the pot, and scrape up the fond made from the sticking of the meat and veggies. When the wine has cooked down, add in canned tomatoes, a bit of tomato paste, a little water, a small onion speared with a few cloves, and the reserved meat. Let it all burble together for several hours, periodically checking for seasonings.
3) Clam sauce: This is my not-to-secret weakness. If it is on a menu, I order it. I've had it in Rome, with a view on to the Coliseum. I've had it in Venice, overlooking a quiet canal lined with sunset-colored buildings. I've had it in Sicily, with a view of the cobalt blue ocean peeking through the lanes of olive groves. And I've had it in Charlottesville, at my favorite local Italian restaurant. But with the exception of a restaurant on the beach in Le Marche, I always have it best on Christmas Eve when Keith makes it for the family. (aside: sometimes I'll just toss a can of clams into a marinara toss for a change of pace. I do this with tuna, too, only if it's good quality, packed in olive oil).
How to make it: Saute 7 cloves of chopped garlic and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes in plenty of olive oil until garlic is golden.. Add roughly 2 T sliced basil, 1 T chopped thyme, 1 T of chopped parsley, 1 T lemon juice, 1/2 cup of white wine, and 1 cup of clam juice and swirl to mix. Boil the mixture for about a half hour, until it's intensified and reduced. While preparing pasta, pour equal parts white wine and clam juice to 1/2 inch over the bottom of a pot with a tight-sitting lid. Add another 2 T basil, 1 teaspoon thyme, 3 T parsley and several dozen small, fresh clams. Cover the pot and boil the clams until they open (about 3-5 minutes). Right before the pasta is al dente and the clams are all opened, add clams to the simmering sauce. As soon as they are heated through (about a minute), remove the pan from the heat. Mound a serving of pasta on each plate, rim with opened clams, and drizzle the sauce over the pasta and clams. Serve with bread to sop up the goodness. It is some serious goodness.
4) Amatriciana: Yet another Roman standard, when it's done well it's light, smokey, with a bite of spice. Traditionally this is served with bucatini, and if you can find this noodle with a hole in it (it seems to be popping up at more shops), I recommend.
How to make it: Saute about 8 ounces of guanciale (or pancetta or bacon if you can't find guanciale) in a bit of olive oil until the fat is rendered and the meat is crispy. Slide into the pan a sliced onion and as much red pepper flakes as you'd like (make sure it's fresh, if it's been sitting in your pantry for over a couple of months, chances are the heat and also the flavor are diminished, and this is a dish that thrives on the heat and flavor of good pepper). Season with salt, and saute until the onions are soft and fragrant. Add a splash of white wine (or red, if that's what you are drinking) and scrape up the fond on the bottom of the pan. Then add in a can of good quality tomatoes (first pour in the juice, then use an immersion blender to chop up the tomatoes before adding them to the pan). Simmer for 30 minutes. When the sauce is finished, add in freshly drained pasta (it's always advisable to hold back a cup of pasta cooking liquid in case you need to thin out the sauce), and stir to finish the pasta cooking in the hot sauce (this is a sauce that should be thinner than a marinara, so if it's too thick with tomatoes, add in some water). Add a dollop or more of olive oil, a handful of shredded parmesan or pecorino to bring it all together.
5) Cheesy Pete: Okay, I'm going to get slammed for this one, but that's okay, because I'm typing in a soporific glow, thanks to just having more than my fair share of this comfort food. Yes, true Italians will scoff, but hey I'm not a true Italian, I just believe in coopting what I like from my travels and using it to my advantage. I'm culinarily selfish that way. Unlike the others, this recipe is just for one, because it congeals awfully quickly, and anyway, it's meant to be enjoyed alone. Preferably with a little Jane Austen.
How to make it: Melt a knob of butter in a saucepan, and toss in a tablespoon or two of finely chopped onion. Once soft, add a heaping tablespoon of flour, and whisk for a minute. Keep whisking, and add in about 3/4 of a cup of milk. When the mixture thickens, toss in a handful of shredded cheese. I like the Mexican mix I get at Whole Foods. Keep stirring until you get a smooth sauce, then add in some chopped parsley, any spices you like (hot smoked paprika is faulbous) and however much pasta you like for lunch. I won't tell you how much I eat, because you already have enough ammunition to mock me. Pour into a bowl. If no one is looking, add some dots of hot sauce (El Yucateco or Texas Pete, anyone?) and a grind of pepper. You're welcome.