What to serve with pasta? It’s a question often asked on social media, yet I have never seen the correct answer according to authentic Italian cuisine.
In Italy, pasta is sacred.
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Today, we’ll discuss what to serve with pasta. Before we get to that, just ask an Italian about serving a certain shape of pasta, with a specific type of sauce, and you’ll get their very strong opinions, whether you like it or not.
Certain pastas and sauces go together and others do not. I’m not super well-versed in these “pairing rules”, but I know enough to make sure that I do my homework if I’m serving pasta to an Italian.
Pasta is also not something that you just make and serve alongside other foods on the same plate.
Are you ready for the list of best side dishes to serve with pasta? Here it is:
Best Side Dishes to Serve with Pasta
(This List Will Surprise You)
(according to Italians)
I won’t leave you without an explanation, don’t worry, but the bottom line is that if you are asking what Italians recommend alongside your plate of penne arrabbiata, the answer is nothing. Pasta is Italian, so why not serve it as the Italians do?
Your serving of layered lasagna? No side dishes.
Your spaghetti alla carbonara? Nothing.
With your pasta al forno? Also, nothing.
The History of How to Serve Pasta
Apparently, this has not always been the case. Pasta used to be served as a side dish according to historian Barbara Ronchi della Rocca. “Before the bourgeois custom of eating it as a first course became common, pasta was punctually used as an accompaniment to meat and fish, great protagonists when the diet of the rich was high in protein.” 19th century noble Italian families had this custom before pasta became a course of its own.
Why Do Italians Serve Pasta on its Own?
So given that pasta used to be a side dish, it makes sense that one would not serve a side dish with something that was served as a side dish. Makes sense, right?
The internet is rife with misinformation. For example, a site shared my lasagna recipe and added this text, “Keep it traditional with a simple Caprese salad on the side.” I added the bold, but just NO. There should never be a Caprese salad on the side of lasagna.
Courses of the Italian Meal
First of all, let’s tackle the element of courses. In Europe, not just Italy, meals are served in courses as opposed to having everything at once.
When I was 10 years old, I remember going to our first American barbecue (after moving from Scotland). My parents and I didn’t understand what was happening when everyone was serving themselves buffet-style. We were amazed: everyone was putting a serving of every each course on one plate. The appetizers, main course, side dish AND dessert all went onto the same plate. We had never seen this before. We soon learned, at events like barbecues, picnics and even wedding buffets, this was how it was done. It was similar to a typical Thanksgiving plate, but with appetizers and dessert on the plate, too.
This was rather surprising coming from the UK/Italy where we’d never seen this before. As you can see on the Italian menu below, the pasta dishes are placed in the category of the first course. The second course consists of meat dishes. Those can have side dishes alongside them, called “contorni” in Italy.
So given this tradition of courses, it makes sense when I explain that pasta is always its own course. Pasta (and rice) is usually considered a first course, or primi, in Italian.
Now, before I proceed, am I telling you that you cannot eat pasta with side dishes? Absolutely not; I am simply sharing that in Italy, where all the classic Italian pasta dishes were born, there are no side dishes eaten with pasta. However, by the same token, I have seen posts recommending over “100 Best Side Dishes for Pasta” including corn pudding, and apple walnut salad. All I can do is tell you that these sites are simply providing lists of side dishes. They don’t actually compliment the pasta and there’s no rhyme or reason to why they are on this list, so “buyer beware”: corn pudding does not pair well with ANY pasta dish.
I also saw a site written by a trained chef who recommends foods which he claims “go well with pasta dishes”. If you guessed that he is not an Italian chef, you are correct. Just skip the sides, focus on the pasta and I bet you that you’ll enjoy it more than you normally do. You also may want to order contorni (side dishes) with your secondo if you’re eating out in Italy.
So, if someone asks, “What’s the perfect side dish that goes with manicotti?” the correct answer is, “There is isn’t one.” And pasta e ceci is served in a bowl, e basta. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat an Italian salad alongside them, but know that manicotti aren’t meant to have a salad served with them, but afterwards. Salad is always served after main courses of the meal in Italy.
Side dishes, or “contorni”, are served with the “secondi”, or the meat dishes.
What is the Standard Order of Courses Before and After Pasta?
If you’ve ever gone to an Italian wedding in Italy (or in a city like Toronto or Melbourne), you may know that the usual order of courses is as follows:
- MEAT(S) & SIDES
- DIGESTIVI (AFTER DINNER LIQUEUR – like limoncello)
Meals mostly follow this order in family homes and restaurants, although not every course is served at every meal. It is also not always customary to order a first and a second course when eating out unless you would like to do so.
Fruit and nuts often make an appearance in homes after the dessert course. This lovely fruit plate was taken at Grand Hotel Il Moresco, sister hotel to Hotel Excelsior Belvedere on Ischia.) A typical Italian wedding menu follows below.
At formal Italian weddings, there can easily be over 10 courses to include seafood, and multiple servings of one course, and as you probably guessed, the dinners can last for hours!
Funny story–a friend of mine went to Italy for the wedding of a family friend. A phenomenal wedding celebration was planned near Rome which included a massive antipasto bar. My friend, who had never been to an Italian wedding, assumed that the antipasto was the wedding meal, and ate quite happily, enjoying every bite until he could eat no more.
He almost sustained whiplash when he heard, “Dinner is served!” To his horror, he realized that this was just the antipasto! Unfortunately, he was so full that he couldn’t eat any of the following courses! So, be forewarned, I have NEVER known Italian weddings to have only appetizers or finger foods as the main meal!
Bonus Tip: How do I Split an Order of Pasta in Italy
Once, I was in Naples with a friend, and we ordered two dishes to share. One of the plates was spaghetti, and instead of lifting the pasta with her fork to share it, my friend took a knife and fork and started to cut the spaghetti down the middle of the plate! When I saw this, I immediately yelled, “NO!” It was a knee jerk reaction, and I actually surprised myself as well as my friend! Haha!
If you’re going to share an order of pasta (especially in Italy), don’t cut the pasta. Instead, simply pick up half of it and move it to another plate using a clean fork, or two. However, you’ll find that if you tell the waiter that this is your intention when you order, they will often serve you two half servings on separate plates. It’s not usually an issue to share a dish in casual eateries in Italy as it is in most US restaurants (where there is often a charge to share a dish).
The reason for not cutting the pasta isn’t due to some mysterious myth, or bad luck omen from doing so, it is something that’s passed on in Italian families that we just know not to do from when we are young. It simply makes it difficult to eat the pasta. Have you ever tried to twirl pasta that has been cut? It’s impossible!
One exception to this rule is for babies and toddlers. Spaghetti is cut into small pieces so that the children, a. do not choke on the long strands, and b. can feed themselves with a spoon until they are able to twirl it on a fork. Another exception is breaking long pasta, like spaghetti, before it’s cooked to make pasta e fagioli.
I hope this information helps you to understand why Italians don’t serve side dishes with pasta. It makes more sense when you understand the culture of the cuisine and the people. My only intention is to share information and facts regarding Italian cuisine and culture, as it is often misrepresented outside of Italy.
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