Last updated on November 23rd, 2023
Is it illegal to break pasta in Italy? No. Do Italians do it? No. Are there any exceptions? Just one.
You may come from a household where pasta was broken before being popped into boiling water to cook. I have sharp memories of my mother doing this with spaghetti when we were kids.
In Italy, however, generally speaking, Italians don’t break pasta before cooking it, although there is one exception when this does happen.
In this article I will go through the basic pasta ‘rules’ in Italy, how it’s cooked, eaten, and the DO’s and DON’Ts of pasta 101.
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The One Exception to Breaking Pasta
Most regions in Italy have their version of pasta e fagioli or pasta with beans. It may be made with chickpeas, white beans or borlotti beans, sometimes with greens, sometimes not, but there is always pasta added at the end.
Often, handmade pasta is cut up into irregular shapes and added but when that isn’t a possibility, Italians will simply break up thin pasta such as spaghetti and add it. They also do this when they are bulking up a vegetable soup by adding broken up pasta to the soup and cooking it for the allotted time just before serving.
How to Cook Pasta Like an Italian
Whether you are cooking fresh pasta, fresh pasta or pasta secca, dried pasta, the general technique will be the same no matter what. Check out How To Cook Pasta Like an Italian – Step-by-Step for a comprehensive guide to cooking pasta.
- Fill a very large pot with at least 6 quarts of water for 1 lb of pasta, cover and let come to a rolling boil
- Salt the water with 2 tablespoons of rock salt
- Add the pasta and stir immediately. Keep the water at a rolling boil, increasing the heat if need be
- Keep stirring every 2-3 minutes to ensure it doesn’t stick to the bottom or together
- Check pasta 1 minute before the indicated cooking time (found on the package)
- Save a cup full of pasta water for thinning out sauces
- Drain well in a colander. Do not rinse the pasta
- Toss with your sauce and serve hot
Check out our Favorite Italian Pasta Brands.
Italians Cook Pasta ‘Al Dente’
Most likely you have heard this term before but what exactly does this mean?
Al dente means ‘to the tooth’ in Italian and refers to the ideal cooking time and consistency of pasta which is neither soggy nor very hard in the middle. It’s just firm on the inside with a slight bite. Read all about what al dente means and how to cook your pasta al dente on our expanded article here.
Tip: Bite or cut into the pasta to look for a small, slightly less ‘hydrated’ inner core of the pasta. Taste it. Is it chewy and springy? If the answer is yes then the pasta is ready to be drained!
Italians Don’t Put Parmesan Cheese on Seafood Pasta
There is no better way to stick out as a tourist than by asking for cheese with your seafood pasta. In Italy, parmesan cheese is never served with seafood pasta such as pasta alle vongole (pasta with clams) for two reasons.
The first is because seafood has a delicate flavor and parmesan is a complex one that can overpower and take over the taste of the seafood.
The second reason is a practical one: Italians use local ingredients and cow’s aren’t typically reared on the seaside so historically, the fresh parmesan cheese would not have been a local ingredient for fishermen.
The one and only exception to this (which not even all Italians agree upon) is pasta con pomodoro e tonno, pasta with stewed tomatoes and canned tuna.
Other Pasta Dishes You Shouldn’t Put Cheese on
For no particular reason I have found there are some dishes Italians will never put cheese on.
- Pici all’aglione – handmade thick spaghetti with tomato and garlic sauce
- Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino – with garlic, oil and chili flakes
Italians Don’t Twirl Pasta With a Fork and Spoon
The trick is to just nap 2 or 3 strands of spaghetti from the side of the plate, pull them away from the mass of spaghetti, and start twirling, lifting up the fork and starting over if you get too many strands stirling onto the fork. Don’t start in the middle of your plate, you will end up twirling the whole plate of spaghetti around your fork!
Italians Don’t Cut Their Pasta
The only time Italians will cut their pasta is if they are eating large ravioli or tortelli 9large, stuffed pastas in different shapes). They will most likely use the side of their fork to cut it up. It’s rare to see an Italian using a knife when eating pasta.
Italians Don’t Slurp Their Pasta
You should never slurp the ends of the pasta into your mouth when dining in Italy. Firstly, it’s considered rude and secondly, it makes a loud noise which no one wants to hear.
Wind the pasta tightly on your fork to keep it from slipping off. It does happen (it still does to me) but try and keep less spaghetti on your fork and chances are, it will stay put.
Where to Eat Amazing Pasta in Italy
- Penne alla Valdostana: a short pasta smothered in a creamy, velvety sauce made from butter, cream, fontina cheese and ham (Aosta Valley)
- Orecchiette con cime di rape: handmade durum wheat pasta shaped like little ears tossed in a simple sauce made with oil, garlic, anchovies, red pepper flakes and turnip greens (Puglia)
- Tortellini in brodo: small pasta dumplings filled with prosciutto, mortadella, pork loin, parmesan and just a hint of nutmeg, sealed and simmered in either beef or chicken broth (Emilia-Romagna)
- Lasagne alla bolognese: a baked pasta made with rich meat sauce, bechamel sauce and homemade sheets of egg pasta (Emilia-Romagna but all over Italy as well)
- Carbonara: pasta (most commonly spaghetti) tossed with a rich sauce made from egg, parmesan and bacon (Rome)
- Cacio e pepe: pasta served in a sauce made from pecorino cheese and plenty of freshly ground black pepper (Rome)
- Tajarin al tartufo: thin ribbon egg pasta served in a rich truffle butter sauce (Piedmont)
- Pasta alla norma: A sicilian classic served in a tomato and fried eggplant sauce (Sicily)
- Pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale: wide, handmade egg pasta topped with a meat sauce made from wild boar (Tuscany)
- Tortelli di zucca: handmade stuffed pasta with a slightly sweet pumpkin filling served in butter and sage (Lombardy)
- Bigoli in salsa: whole wheat spaghetti served with a silky anchovy and anchovy sauce (Venice)
Italian Pasta FAQ
Molto al dente refers to slightly undercooked pasta. It does have its place and time in the kitchen, such as when you are making a baked pasta.
It’s always served with every Italian meal but if you are eating pasta you should not be also eating the bread at the same time. It’s reserved for the second course. You can, however, use a crust to get every last bit of pasta sauce left on your plate.
Yes, small children progress from the spoon to the fork, even with pasta.
No, it’s hard to get the spaghetti to perfectly end on the fork where it won’t drop off. You just want to avoid long strands hanging off the fork.
It depends on the family and restaurant. The tradition of serving pasta in a shallow bowl comes from setting the table with the assumption there is going to be a first and second course. The shallow bowl is set on top of the plate. The pasta is first served in the bowl, taken away when finished and the second course is served on the plate.
Nowadays, many Italians don’t eat both a first and second course so they will eat their pasta directly on a plate instead of in a shallow bowl.