In an Italian household, food is how you show your love for your family. The aroma of simmering sauces and roasting meats wafting through the house instantly takes me back to my childhood. Here are some of the classic Italian comfort foods from my family’s kitchen that you should add to your repertoire.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
An Italian comfort classic, spaghetti is tossed in tomato sauce and topped with mouthwatering meatballs. It’s a guaranteed hit with kids and adults alike.
Roasted Sausage and Potatoes
Whether you cook this on a sheet pan or in a heavy baking dish, sausage and potatoes is a simple, satisfying meal with minimal cleanup. Toss the potatoes in olive oil and herbs and arrange them along with your favourite sausage. For some extra flavour, add large chunks of red, yellow or orange bell pepper.
There’s no food that brings back memories of childhood more than pastina. Made with tiny pasta cooked in chicken broth, it’s a staple for toddlers, cold winter days, or when you’re feeling under the weather and need a bit of babying.
Rigatoni al Forno
This is one of my family’s favourite dishes. If you’re invited over for Sunday dinner, you can pretty much guarantee that pasta al forno is on the menu. We typically make ours with a hearty meat sauce, large tubes of pasta, and lots of mozzarella cheese, and bake it in the oven until golden and bubbly. It can also be made with a simple tomato sauce and mini meatballs, or by using smoked mozzarella.
When you’re not sure what to do with your garden’s bounty, or had a successful trip to the farmers’ market, make ciambotta. This southern Italian summer vegetable stew, similar to ratatouille, features eggplant, bell pepper, potato, zucchini, onion and tomato. It can be served as a main dish with crusty Italian bread, or as a side with meat or fish.
Unlike the soup of the same name, pasta fagioli is a traditional dish made with ditali pasta, Romano, cannellini or kidney beans, onion, garlic and olive oil. It’s simple, satisfying peasant food that fills you up after a long day at school or the office.
Making gnocchi can be an event, but it’s a great way to get the entire family in on the fun. Set up the kitchen and give everyone a job, whether it’s mashing potatoes, measuring flour, or rolling the dough. Freeze a batch or two for quick weeknight meals, and pair with a different kind of sauce each time. And for a lighter dumpling, use ricotta instead of potato.
Preparing chicken cacciatore was an event in my home growing up, from slowly braising the meat in a homemade tomato sauce, to delicately arranging it on a bed of thick egg noodles. This hunter’s dinner was reserved for special occasions or when guests were coming over for dinner, and sometimes it was made with rabbit instead of chicken.
For a quick and flavour-packed version, try Giada De Laurentiis’ Chicken Cacciatore
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Spaghetti alla carbonara is a creamy dish that actually doesn’t have an ounce of cream in it. The creaminess actually comes from beaten egg yolks and cheese. Most prepare the dish on a stovetop, but one of my fondest memories is my nonna making carbonara in a heavy pan over a fire while on a picnic in the mountains of Southern Italy.
A proper eggplant parmigiana takes several hours to prepare, but the results are totally worth it. The secret to perfect parmigiana is salting the sliced eggplant to draw out the moisture and bitterness, and then rinsing it before breading. It’s a great Sunday meal, and the leftovers can be reheated for a Meatless Monday feast.
Not to be confused with the gelato of the same name, stracciatella is a soup from the Rome/Lazio region made by drizzling an egg, cheese and parsley mixture into meat broth. For a warming winter lunch or dinner, add spinach, mini meatballs and small pasta.
Sunday ragu, also known as Sunday gravy, is an assortment of meats slowly cooked in a seasoned tomato puree. Stewing beef or veal is commonly used along with pork sausage and ribs, chicken or oxtail. The sauce is ladled over a pasta of your choosing as a first course, and the meat is your second course, served with vegetables or salad.
Bucatini is a long, thick noodle with a hole running through the centre. It’s typically served all’amatriciana, with cured pork jowl known as guanciale, grated pecorino cheese, red pepper flakes, onion and crushed San Marzano tomatoes. The noodles catch the sauce beautifully, so you get all of the bold flavours in every bite.
Pizza al Taglio
Baked in a sheet pan and cut into squares or rectangles, pizza al taglio is a family favourite for any occasion or season. The crust is more substantial than paper-thin Neapolitan pizzas, so it can hold an assortment of toppings like cured meats, vegetables and cheeses. It’s a staple at birthday parties, picnics and even holidays.
Polenta is made with cornmeal boiled in chicken stock or water until creamy, and is sometimes referred to as “Italian grits.” It can be kept simple and topped with freshly grated Parmigiano and served alongside meat, or as a main topped with your favourite tomato sauce instead of pasta.
Lasagna is one of the most famous pasta dishes in the world, and the variations are endless. In my family, we make our lasagna with thick meat sauce, chopped hard-boiled egg and gooey mozzarella cheese between layers of fresh noodles. And the only thing better than a piping hot slice straight from the oven is the reheated leftovers for lunch the next day.
Gattò di Patate
Gattò di patate is a one-dish meal that comes from the French Bourbon dynasty that once ruled Naples. The cake is made with a mashed potato mixture that includes eggs, butter and cheese, which is then layered with prosciutto cotto or other cured meats and cheeses before baking. While it’s typically prepared in a casserole or baking dish, it can be made in a fancy cake pan for special occasions.
Minestrone is an Italian dish known and enjoyed right around the world. The thick soup is versatile, made with an assortment of seasonal vegetables, stocks, and the addition of pasta or rice. All you need to turn it into a meal is some crusty bread on the side.
Frittata isn’t just for breakfast, it’s also a quick and satisfying lunch or dinner. Other than eggs, you can improvise the rest of the ingredients depending on what you have available. Whether you use salami and onion, ricotta and red peper, or even leftover spaghetti, it’s hard to resist a second helping of this alternative to quiche and omelets.
The perfect ending to any Italian feast is tiramisu, made with ladyfingers soaked in coffee and liqueur, layered with creamy Mascarpone cheese and dusted with cocoa. It’s a must-have dessert for dinner parties, birthday celebrations, or simple family meals.