Pasta's mild flavour makes it extraordinarily versatile, able to mix with all sorts of tastes without overwhelming them. The texture of pasta will often determine the type of pasta sauce that can most effectively be used--thicker or shaped pastas can withstand heartier sauces, while thin pastas have better results with lighter sauces.
Cream-based sauces are the richest types of pasta sauces because they usually contain double cream, along with butter, cheese or both. One basic cream-based pasta sauce is Alfredo, a mixture of double cream, Parmesan cheese and butter. Alfredo pasta dishes may be topped with vegetables, chicken or shrimp. Thicker noodles like penne or fettuccine can hold onto Alfredo sauces most successfully.
Carbonara, another cream-based sauce is similar to Alfredo sauce, but it also incorporates beaten eggs. This sauce is typically paired with spaghetti and topped with bacon or pancetta.
Tomatoes are the key ingredient in many pasta sauces and are a staple ingredient in Italian cuisine because they can be paired with most types of pasta. A traditional tomato-based pasta sauce is known as marinara sauce. Crushed or diced tomatoes are combined with chopped garlic, onions, peppers or other ingredients and simmered until they reach a saucy consistency. Add crushed red pepper flakes or chopped chilli peppers to make Arrabbiata, a spicy version of the sauce. Mix in chunks of cooked meat for a Bolognese sauce. A splash of double cream and vodka turns a marinara sauce into vodka sauce.
Wine as the base for a pasta sauce can add a sweet yet light undertone to the dish. The wine in pasta sauces is typically combined with another liquid ingredient to balance out the flavour and texture of the dish. A common wine-based pasta sauce uses Marsala, a fortified sweet Spanish wine, combined with richer ingredients like double cream and Parmesan cheese. Another common wine-based pasta sauce uses Madeira, a South American dessert wine, along with broth to mellow out the flavour and add a savoury taste. Thinner pastas complement wine-based pasta sauces, which have a lighter texture than other sauce types.
Some pasta sauces don’t require cooking because the heat from the freshly boiled pasta is enough to soften the ingredients and enhance their flavours. One traditional pasta sauce that does not need to be cooked is pesto, a blended mixture of fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic Parmesan cheese and olive oil. You can vary pestos by substituting almonds or other nuts for the pine nuts or adding other ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes.
Add a mixture of chopped fresh tomatoes, black olives and capers to the pasta and its heat will help the ingredients release their natural juices and form a light sauce.