It’s hard to imagine Italian cooking without tomatoes. From caprese salad and bruschetta to chicken cacciatore, mozzarella marinara, eggplant parmigiana, and many kinds of pizza, they are essential — either fresh or in the form of sauce or paste.
And then there’s pasta: One of the most iconic of all dishes in Italy’s vast pasta repertoire — and quite possibly the most famous — is the gloriously simple preparation called spaghetti al pomodoro or spaghetti with tomato. Then there are sauces like Rome’s slightly spicy arrabbiata and amatriciana; the puttanesca of Naples (with olives, capers, and anchovies, as well as tomatoes); the bolognese (also called ragù) of the Emilia-Romagna region; the now-ubiquitous vodka sauce, invented only in the 1970s, possibly by a chef in New York City…. The list goes on.
But many of Italy’s best pasta dishes don’t involve tomatoes at all. They may seem definitive of Italian cuisine today, but while tomatoes were known in Italy as early as the mid-16th century, they weren’t eaten much there until the early 1700s, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that they became an important ingredient in the Italian kitchen. (The first published recipe for pasta with tomato sauce appeared only in 1839.)
In place of tomatoes, Italians enhanced their many forms of pasta with whatever ingredients were readily available to them — anchovies, clams, and squid or cuttlefish (and/or their ink) along the seacoast; wild game in the forests; butter, cream, and cheese in dairy country; and so on.
The key to classic Italian pasta preparations is simplicity. Some of the best examples involve only three or four ingredients. And many don’t really involve sauces at all — that is, instead of cooking a sauce separately and then adding it to the pasta, Italian cooks simply toss a few ingredients straight into the bowl of noodles and mix it all up. Some of the 15 “sauces” that follow are actual sauces, but many are simply great ingredients added to the bowl or pot.