Recipes

simplest spaghetti al limone

In 2011, I shared a recipe for spaghetti with cheese and black pepper (cacio e pepe) but it always bothered me that it contained extra ingredients and that the technique left a wide margin of error. In 2018, I finally cracked the code at home and ran to the internet to tell you about it. Today I’m sharing what I hope will be a similar glow-up for spaghetti (or fettuccine) al limone, a classic pasta dish from, depending on who you are asking, Genoa, Amalfi, Sicily and further (the common thread is, no surprise, places where lemons are grown). In its simplest form, spaghetti al limone contains only lemons, olive oil, parmesan, salt, pepper, and a few leaves of fresh basil in an uncooked sauce. Versions abound, including mine from 2011, with cream, butter, wine, shallots, or more, usually simmered and reduced. Garlic, ricotta, and/or goat cheese are not uncommon. I suspect it’s less due to a blasphemous streak or attempting to bait this parody account, but because they are all delicious. You should feel no obligation to choose.


what you'll need + olive oil

But it was the River Cafe London’s 30th anniversary cookbook edition, released last year, that reminded me of what a pure and wonderful thing spaghetti al limone can be when made as uncluttered as possible. Their minimalist version is heated at the end but I found the technique I use for my foolproof cacio e pepe — a thicker paste of a sauce, thinned with just a small splash of pasta water after it has coated the hot spaghetti — to work more reliably, and to all but eliminate leading weary home cooks to wonder why they haven’t been able to coalesce oil and water together on a Tuesday night. I find I need much less lemon and olive oil, as well. Marcella Hazan calls fettuccine al limone “one of those lightning-quick Italian triumphs” and she, SK’s patron saint of Italian triumphs, seems like a good person to trust on this. It takes all of a minute longer to make than pasta takes to boil and the result is the kind of sunny, summery, quick meals we all need more of in our repertoires.

finely zest lemonfinely grated parmesanmake a thick saucedrain fasttoss toss tossevenly coated, plus some baby basil

Previously

One year ago: Linguine and Clams
Two years ago: Stovetop Americanos
Three years ago: Strawberry Milk and Corn and Black Bean Weeknight Nachos
Four years ago: Strawberry Cornmeal Griddle Cakes and Strawberry Cheesecake Ice Cream Pie
Five years ago: Valerie’s French Chocolate Cake
Six years ago: Espresso Granita with Whipped Cream
Seven years ago: Broccoli Parmesan Fritters
Eight years ago: Dobos Torte
Nine years ago: Mushroom Crepe Cake, Braided Lemon Bread and Carrot Salad with Harissa, Feta and Mint
Ten years ago: Lemon Mint Granita, Pickled Sugar Snap Peas and Springy Fluffy Marshmallows
Eleven years ago: 10 Paths to Painless Pizza-Making and Pistachio Petit-Four Cake
Twelve years ago: Gateau de Crepes and Dilled Potato and Pickled Cucumber Salad

And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Crispy Rice and Egg Bowl with Ginger-Scallion Vinaigrette
1.5 Years Ago: Boulevardier and Sheet Pan Meatballs with Crispy Turmeric Chickpeas
2.5 Years Ago: Pimento Cheese Potato Bites
3.5 Years Ago: Tres Leches Cake + A Taco Party and Eggnog Waffles
4.5 Years Ago: Jelly Doughnuts and Endives with Oranges and Almonds

Simplest Spaghetti al Limone

  • Servings: 2 to 3
  • Source: Smitten Kitchen
  • Print

I am usually no fan of Microplane (specifically Microplane rasp-ed) parmesan. I find it fluffy and weightless. I prefer my parmesan with more bite, gravitas. But here, it’s the very best way to go, rendering parmesan so fine that merely a whisk will turn it into a sauce. Plus, you’ll already be using it for the lemon zest, right? If you don’t have one, use the tiniest holes on a box grater. You can also use the food processor method we do in the cacio e pepe, blending it to a as-smooth-as-possible paste in the machine before returning it to the bowl where the pasta will go.

If you can find an unsprayed/unwaxed lemon, it’s all the better here. If you can’t, give your lemon a light scrub (not removing zest, of course) and dry it thoroughly before zesting it here.

  • Coarse salt
  • 1/2 pound (8 ounces or 225 grams) dried spaghetti
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) parmesan cheese
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons (45 ml) olive oil
  • Fresh basil leaves, torn

Boil the spaghetti in well-salted water according to package directions. While it boils, finely grate (with a rasp-style grater; here’s the most common one but I prefer this size) the zest of half your lemon into the large bowl you’ll use to serve your dish. Add the juice of the whole lemon (about 4 tablespoons). Use the same rasp to grate the parmesan on top. Add olive oil, about 1/2 teaspoon salt (and more to taste), and several grinds of black pepper and combine them with a whisk until very well mixed and as smooth as possible. When the pasta reaches the ideal texture, scoop out 1 cup of cooking water, set it aside, and drain the rest. Quickly turn piping hot spaghetti to lemon-parmesan mixture in bowl and use tongs or spoons to toss it until all of the strands are coated. Don’t worry if the mixture seems too thick or sticky — first get the strands as evenly coated as possible. Add reserved pasta water, a tiny splash (about 1 to 2 tablespoons) at a time, tossing the whole time, only until the spaghetti looks glossy and lightly sauced, but no so much that you “wash” the sauce off the pasta. You might only need a single splash to achieve this. Add basil leaves and toss to combine, then serve. If you finish each serving with a little extra olive oil, salt, pepper, and parmesan, you’ll be glad you did.

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55 comments on simplest spaghetti al limone

  1. Kat

    I love lemon pasta, but living that dairy-free lifestyle, would you have any suggestions on what can be substituted for parm?

    1. Tyler

      I would suggest playing around with some nutritional yeast and using some sauerkraut brine or finely chopped sauerkraut! As odd as it sounds, some clever chefs making a vegan version of carbonara realized that both hard cheese and sauerkraut have a bit of a lactic acid (fermentation) tang, as well as a bit of funk and saltiness. And of course, nutritional yeast is a classic for upping cheesiness without cheese. Here is the article
      https://www.seriouseats.com/2017/03/how-to-make-vegan-pasta-carbonara.html

    2. Dairy free. There’s a new vegan Parmesan cheese made by Vio Life that looks just like the real thing and tastes great-for a dairy free cheese. I’d give it a try. I buy it at Whole Foods. Nutritional yeast is a good suggestion as well.

      1. kahani82

        You could just concentrate extra pasta water until it’s thicker and creamier. Or, add an egg yolk + the hot pasta water for that carbonara creamy cheat.

        1. Jessica

          I made this last night and it was so easy and really good. I doubled the ingredients and one large lemon was still plenty enough lemon flavor I just zested is the whole lemon instead of half

  2. Jasmine

    I just made this and it was super yummy, especially with the basil leaves! I messed up the timing and my spaghetti was ready before the sauce mixture and thus wasn’t super hot when I added them together. The sauce wouldn’t emulsify so I tossed it all into a hot ss skillet with more pasta water and olive oil, tossed a bunch, and it all came together! Thanks for the simple and perfect recipe!!

  3. monica

    I make my own version of this often – and sometimes substitute mint, which grows excessively in my backyard, for the basil!

  4. gabesullivan

    I made this – delicious! I cheated and used pre grated Parmesan and it was a bad idea – it got a bit clumpy, next time I’ll use fresh grated. I used thyme instead of basil as it was what I had and topped it with prawns and it was delicious!

    1. Susan

      I made this for dinner tonight with a simple salad, so easy and so good! I had everything on hand for the pasta except basil but I didn’t seem to miss it. This recipe is going into my rotation of weeknight favorites, thanks Deb!

  5. JP

    Ok, I am not joking – I just searched SK, then the web, for a recipe like this earlier this week. Deb, you are officially psychic. Thanks for meeting my cooking needs!

  6. Mary

    Hey Deb. Can you help me out with some recipe ideas? Someone is asking me to create a vegetarian dinner that is WOW! You know, kind of showstoppers.
    Ive made so so many of your meals, that wow me personally but I’m not so sure for others and I’m just wondering what you would say? What are the first meals that come to mind?
    I thought the mushroom bourgignon- but that seems very wintery?
    Thanks for your time, as always!

    1. Stephanie Bachman

      Mary, the halloumi roast with eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes and crushed olives with almonds, celery, and parmesan from SK Every Day were huge hits in my book club. If you can’t find halloumi (my local store says they can’t get it right now), queso fresco subs well with some extra salt.

  7. Jon Gabriel

    Love this recipe. I ate this in Italy almost 30 years ago. Delicious then, fabulous now. Thank you for posting this.

  8. That twitter account is hilarious, i just sent it to an italian friend of mine with a tendency to get very angry at food
    Also i will 100% be making this tomorrow night. I would make it tonight but your lentil and chickpea salad with feta and tahini is already in the works so…

  9. Amy Simon

    After a long day, I whipped this up for my tired family and we all enjoyed a wonderful meal. I always have these ingredients in house, and appreciate a simple recipe that is both quick and delicious. Thanks Deb!

  10. Dan

    This sounds perfect, but 1/2 pound of pasta is never enough at my house (I have a teenager). Guessing that doubling the pasta doesn’t necessarily mean doubling everything. Any tips?

  11. Perfect summer supper. How many ounces of fresh pasta, do you think? I’d like to finally try out my mixer’s pasta press attachment. Hope that works out for me.

    1. deb

      It’s been a while since I made it but I find that cooked pasta, for a reference point, weighs twice what dried does. Fresh is probably somewhere in the middle, closer to cooked, however, I’m sure there are better measurements/guides online if you search around.

    2. Neil Morris

      When making fresh pasta, if it’s for a main course, if using A/P wheat flour, generally figure 1 cup of flour, ¼ to ½ teaspoon salt, one whole large egg, and one large egg yolk per person. If you like a sturdier, more toothsome pasta, substitute 1 teaspoon (5g) olive oil, and 1 tablespoon (15g) water, for the second yolk. I usually mix my pasta dough in a food processor. Pulse all ingredients EXCEPT the water until JUST combined, and walk away for 5-10 minutes to let the flour hydrate. Then turn it on, add the water GRADUALLY, just until the dough is moist (until you can squeeze it and it holds together, like pie crust dough). You may not need all of the water. Then let the processor run 1-2 minutes more until a dough ball forms. Wrap it in plastic (or a zipper-lock bag), and refrigerate up to 36 hours. If you’re using it immediately, just set it on the counter or a cutting board under a bowl for AT LEAST 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

  12. TinaD

    Cool—somebody else cooks this besides me! I pimp mine a little with steamed broccoli or asparagus, so I can feel virtuous and my family gets at least one vegetable that isn’t on a burger, and I use a chunkier pasta shape, penne or farfalle or…, to match the vegetable chunks. I love the lemon, but the family has started asking for a cream sauce instead (philistines.)

  13. Whenever I can’t think of what to make for dinner, I turn to your site. I made this last night. Super quick. Super good. I fed 8 people for less than $10 and everyone loved it!

  14. MR in NJ

    My Microplane is so old that it doesn’t have a handle. Too frugal to replace it! I just use whatever I buy for decades.

    1. Kate

      Ive been making versions of lemon pasta since Amanda Hesser’s lemon-ricotta version, but you’d is the way I make it for my kids. It’s a popular request in our house.

  15. Deb! I learned about Frank Prisinzano’s wonderfully instructive and opinionated Instagram years ago from you (the crispy egg), and as you probably know, he has a pasta limone dish that’s one of his core recipes. It has a ton of butter but no cream. Wondering if you tested his, or something like it, and preferred it without the butter?

  16. Kenny

    Ah the “adult” version of my weakness of just Spaghetti noodles and Parm. If I know one thing, it will be that Parmesan(Or other sharp, aged, grated cheese will) and Pasta combination will do me in. This will be one of them.

  17. Rocky Mountain Woman

    I do this with preserved lemons because I really like making preserved lemons so I’m always looking for a way to use them up!

    This looks amazingly summery.

  18. Kate Nicholson

    I just made this for dinner tonight to go along with some roasted salmon, really delicious and lemony. I may be forced to make some for lunch tomorrow…

  19. Mary Beth Feldman

    Better as a side dish with fish, in my opinion. The recipe was well written and came out well, but the flavors (all that cheese + lemon) are assertive.

  20. Lomavistagirl

    Made this for dinner last night and it was a hit! My 2-year old asked for seconds and my 6-year old asked for thirds :) Next time, I’m definitely making a double batch. I’ll also start the sauce prep while waiting for the water to boil – I waited until the pasta was in the pot before grating the ingredients and I didn’t have time to whisk the sauce to make it smooth. Even so, it was still summery and delicious.

  21. briarrose1987

    We had been running since 8AM today (Saturday) with a soccer game, errands, and yard work. Suddenly it’s almost 1PM and my kids are both having hangry meltdowns. SK and my CSA basil to the rescue! I used pre-grated parm so the sauce was a tiny bit grainy, but everyone snapped it up happily and I was so pleased to not have to settle for junk or turn the oven on, and it was on the table in 15 minutes flat! This is definitely a recipe I’ll be keeping in my back pocket!

  22. Lorraine Simoneau

    I have just made your spaghetti al limone. Wow, sooooo good and so very easy. Just the dish when you want something simple, unfussy that tastes anything but.
    Congrats and thanks, Deb.

  23. Holly

    Made this one lone, Friday night and loved it! I’d been enjoying a version for a few months that depended on heavy cream, loads of butter lots of whisking. This simple version is the best thing I’ve found for the fresh pasta available in my farmer’s market. Paired with fresh Chive & Garlic Linguini, this whole meal was ready in 3 minutes. Bright, bold and full of flavor. This is a keeper.

  24. Ashley M

    Made as directed except I had probably more like 10 ounces of pasta (capellini, not spaghetti) and I like very lemony flavors, so I used slightly more than half a lemon’s worth of zest. Was surprised at how easily the grated cheese, zest, and oil whisked together into a smooth paste; no food processor necessary. More than enough sauce for 10 ounces pasta; did not seem under-sauced and I only used about 1 tablespoon of pasta water while tossing hot pasta. Delicious, light, and lemony! What a great recipe!

  25. JS

    This is delicious! Quick, easy, perfect. I used more lemon zest because I always do. And made a double batch so I have leftovers for lunch.

  26. jjjeanie

    We ate this last night (haha, and the night before!), but I did it in the laziest way possible. I grated the lemon into one bowl, juiced it into another, grated the cheese on the biggest box grater holes, and chopped the basil fine (and left it on the breadboard). I also shelled about a cup of peas, and added them to the pasta water about 1 minute before the pasta was done. After draining the pasta, I just threw all of it together back into the pasta pot (with the oil) and mixed it together with tongs. It was delicious! — I did save out some parmesan to put on top. Too easy, and since we are blessed with a prolific Meyer lemon tree and basil (in pots), I almost always have all the ingredients at hand. How can I miss?

  27. clayton richard

    Made this last night. OUTASIGHT!! The Queen and I both enjoyed. Easy weeknight meal. Had fresh-from-the-garden heirloom tomatoes as a side. It’s now in regular rotation.

  28. Julie

    I made this last night to go along with Merrill’s Chicken Fingers (Food52) and it was amazing! Kids LOVED it, too. Thank you, Deb!

  29. Kris

    I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a 3-ingredient bowl of pasta so much! I’d never much been tempted by the cacio e pepe (I’m probably wrong, so I’m going to try it next) but I love lemon, so I had to give this a go a couple days after you posted the recipe. I bought good quality dried spaghetti , just used the zest of the whole lemon, and used pretty average parmesan, and this was SO good enjoyed on our patio with very simply dressed lettuce from the garden. I almost felt like I lived in Italy rather than a city that is covered in snow and ice 4 months of the year. We’ll definitely make it again. I never got a smooth sauce out of it, but it dressed the pasta very well anyway with only the smallest splash of water. Thanks Deb!

  30. Laurie

    But you forgot to sprinkle toasted pine nuts on top! The secret to life, is pine nuts!!! Otherwise, outstanding easy recipe!

  31. Hannah

    This is delicious!!!! It was super easy to make. It was the perfect amount of lemon and Parmesan. Will definitely become a house favorite.

  32. amandaclaise

    I worked on a cruise ship for almost a year and had spaghetti al limone when I visited the Amalfi Coast and it was so good! I had a craving for noodles, but didn’t want traditional spaghetti, so I began my search and found this recipe! I’ve never made spaghetti al limone before, but can’t wait to try this!