Gnawme via Flickr

If you’re a pasta fan, when you visit Italy you’ll find you’ve hit the culinary jackpot. There’s no reason to stick with traditional options like spaghetti, linguini, and ravioli when there are numerous other possibilities all of which are cooked perfectly, are comforting, and are finished with fresh, simple, and mouth-watering toppings.

Where should you start? We’ve got a list of some of the best selections from major regions in Italy that will change your understanding of what pasta can be.

Pasta with cheese and pepper

This Roman specialty showcases the way that fresh, ordinary ingredients can come alive when they’re used in the right way. The ingredient list is as simple as it sounds: pasta, freshly cracked pepper, butter, a sheep’s milk pecorino Romano cheese, and some of the water that’s leftover from cooking. When you’re in Rome and want to enjoy the best possible version of this dish, look no further than Roscioli, a family restaurant that was first established in 1824.

If you’re going to try to recreate some of your Italian experience at home, this dish can be made easily. Use the best quality fresh egg bucatini or tagliolini noodles you can find and cook them just until firm. Once you’ve mastered the process for the recipe, consider experimenting by adding some hot pepper flakes, brighter fresh basil, or additional roasted garlic.

Cavatelli with chunky meat sauce

Cavatelli is a thicker, chunkier form of pasta that holds a meat sauce well to satisfy hungry diners. If you’re going to make this pasta at home, opt for frozen cavatelli rather than dried because it cooks more evenly. If you must use dried, substitute Rigatoni tubes instead. When you’re in Southern Italy, a variety of meaty cavatelli dishes are available at various restaurants and it is well worth the time and effort to seek one out.

To cook the dish at home, saute meat in a Dutch oven and then cook the onions, garlic, and tomatoes, with the other herbs and vegetables. Cook the pasta in a separate pot and, when its done combine with the meat and sauce. Add a 1/2 cup of the pasta water and let the flavors meld as the dish cooks a bit longer.

Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa

Puglia is coming into its own as a popular Italian culinary destination. This dish, which comes from the region, helps to show why. Numerous restaurants in the region showcase this dish which features the unusual and thick Orecchiette pasta. Its shape resembles the “little ears” that the pasta is named after. While the pasta can stand up to heartier meat toppings, it is most often dressed vegetarian style with a simple high-grade olive oil, garlic, broccoli rabe, and anchovies and is easy to make at home.

Bigoli in salsa

This Venetian dish is rumored to have been introduced by the explorer Marco Polo, though some trace its origins to a Paduan pasta maker living in the 1600s. The pasta noodle is a thicker, whole wheat version of spaghetti which is dressed in a very simple sauce of garlic, anchovies, and olive oil. When you’re in Venice, food critics recommend a stop at Ca D’Oro alla Vedova for the best version of this pasta.

The fragrant, fish-heavy dish is delicious in its original form but in modern times there are multiple variations. Some cooks use a white-grain version of the noodle, others substitute sharper-tasting, salt-cured sardines instead of anchovies, and still others add cinnamon. Whatever the variation, If the basic dish is something you enjoy it is well worth seeking out what happens when pasta chefs begin to innovate. If you’re making it at home, once you have mastered the basic version, don’t shy away from adding your own touches.

Campofilone with prosciutto, parmesan, and balsamic vinegar

Originating in the 1400s from the Marce region town of Campofilone, this specialty pasta is made with no fewer than 10 eggs for every 2.2 lbs of durum wheat semolina flour. It was invented as a way to preserve eggs by cutting them with flour and is known for an exceptionally silky texture. Interestingly, the pasta can double in size when it is boiled and even the thinnest cuts of noodle can hold any sauce well. If you’re looking to sample the pasta while you’re in Italy, the best experience of this dish is a festival celebrating this pasta, which takes place every year in August.

This extremely rich pasta noodle benefits from a simple, intensely-flavored warm dressing. A sauce of prosciutto, lemon zest, olive oil, and parmesan cheese that is combined with the pasta water does the trick and is easy to make at home. In fact, it is so simple and quick that it takes longer to boil the pasta water than to make the dressing. Once the sauce is complete, finish the pasta dish with some high-quality balsamic vinegar.

Suggestions to enhance your pasta

If you’re looking to enhance your meal, give some thought to your choice of what to drink with your food. The right wine, cocktail, or other beverage can bring out an added resonance to the flavors on your plate. Craft beer is also coming into its own in some parts of Italy. With very little effort on the part of the diner, it can pair extremely well with pasta.

Once you’ve chosen your beverage, consider ordering a light side salad in order to break up the heaviness of meal. Pay attention to the dressing you choose. If you opt for well crafted Italian vinegar and olive oil, the salad has a better chance of complimenting your main pasta.