Lemon Pasta (Pasta Al Limone)

Classic lemon pasta (“pasta al limone” in Italian) is one of the easiest dishes you can make in 20 minutes and guaranteed to become a lemony, buttery, amply cheesy repeat favorite!

Lemon pasta is a light, vibrant, quick and easy dinner you can have on your table in 20 minutes flat!  It’s silky, peppery, garlicky, herbaceous, singing with bold, lemon tanginess punctuated by rich, salty Pecorino Romano. Enjoy the lemon spaghetti in its simplicity, or add protein or veggies. Serve this recipe with garlic bread and Caesar salad for the perfect weeknight dinner that tastes like a million bucks!

We love quick cooking pasta dishes for an easy weeknight dinner win. Don’t miss some of our favorites: Pesto Pasta, Pasta Carbonara, Fettuccine Alfredo, Cacio e Pepe, Bacon Spaghetti, Homemade Mac and CheeseWeeknight Spaghetti Bolognese and Blackened Chicken Alfredo.

HOW TO MAKE Lemon Pasta VIDEo

top view of lemon pasta recipe lemon pasta recipe (pasta al limone) in a bowl garnished by Parmesan
lemon pasta recipe (pasta al limone) in a pot garnished with cheese, basil and Parmesan
serving lemon pasta recipe (pasta al limone) by picking up lemon pasta with two forks

Lemon spaghetti Ingredients

This is a quick and easy pasta recipe that’s flavored with layers of acid, aromatics, herbs and heat. The bright lemon is complemented by a few non-traditional additions of fresh herbs and salty capers which elevate this to quite possible the best lemon pasta recipe. But we’ll let your taste buds be the judge of that. Here’s what you’ll need to make lemon spaghetti: 

  • Spaghetti: I used traditional spaghetti, but you could also use linguine or experiment with whole wheat or gluten-free varieties if needed.  I would not substitute with a short pasta.  You need a long, smooth pasta which allows you to scrape the sauce from the bottom of the pan like a mop, helping to emulsify the sauce and ensuring none of the sauce is left in contact with the pan’s hot surface for too long.
  • Lemons: bright flavor from both juice and zest of 2 medium lemons is what makes this pasta a limone!  Try and use unwaxed lemons and always wash the lemons before grating the zest. Roll your lemons on the counter before juicing to help release more juice.
  • Cheese: quality, aged Pecorino Romano is ideal for lemon pasta and preferred over Parmesan because it is so much more flavorful.   Pecorino Romano can be found with the specialty cheeses at your grocery store.
  • Olive Oil:  use extra-virgin olive oil for the best flavor.  The higher quality the oil, the more flavor. The spices and garlic are sautéed in a blend of olive oil and butter which adds a layer of flavor and prevents the butter from burning.
  • Butter:  infuses the pasta with buttery deliciousness!  Use unsalted butter or reduce the salt in the recipe.  
  • Capers: are optional but highly recommended for their briny, tangy, lemony pops of huge flavor. You can find them by the olives at your grocery store.  Fun fact: capers are actually flower buds imported from Italy that have been brined to mellow their bitterness. 
  • Garlic: this aromatic is included in some classic pasta al limone recipes, and not in others, but personally, I would never make it without!  Lemon and garlic are a match made in heaven and infuse the lemon butter sauce with a kick of pungent, garlic deliciousness.  You can use just a couple cloves or I like to use 6 to 8 cloves to really taste the punch.  
  • Pepper:  use freshly cracked black pepper, it tastes far superior to ground pepper and will elevate your entire dish.  I go for about 40 grinds of pepper, but you can use more or less to taste.
  • Red pepper flakes: just ¼ teaspoon adds flavor to the dish without making it spicy. 
  • Herbs: a blend of fresh and dried parsley, basil, and oregano add depth to the sauce. 

Ingredient Substitutions 

  • Spaghetti: another smooth, long pasta like linguine or fettuccine may be used. 
  • Herbs: pretty much any blend of fresh and dried herbs will work in this lemon spaghetti, make it your own!
  • Butter: use a dairy-free butter, if needed, to make it vegan, or simply use additional olive oil if you absolutely must. 
  • Capers: may be omitted entirely, if desired, but you’ll be missing their sublime briny kick. 
  • Pecorino Romano: may be swapped with freshly grated Parmesan, but it isn’t as flavorful, so you may want to use more, see below.

How to Make Lemon Pasta 

This lemon pasta recipe is as simple as tossing the pasta in a lemon butter sauce punched up with loads of garlic, freshly cracked pepper, crushed red pepper and capers. Then, add the lemon juice, lemon zest, starchy pasta water, fold in the pasta and fresh herbs and shower the dish with loads of salty, nutty Pecorino Romano.

Here’s a step-step look at how the lemon pasta is made (full recipe in the printable recipe card at the bottom of the post): 

  • Step 1: Cook the spaghetti. You’ll cook the pasta in less water than usual because we want the water to be very starchy, which will make the sauce thick and glossy.  Cook the pasta until almost al dente – you want your pasta to still have some bite to it! Reserve 1 cup of pasta water before draining the pasta (do not rinse the pasta – we want all of the starch). 
showing how to make lemon pasta (pasta al limone) by cooking spaghetti in water and removing some of the starch water for the sauce
  • Step 2: Sauté the aromatics. While the pasta is cooking, add the butter, olive oil, capers, garlic, red pepper flakes and freshly cracked pepper to a large pan (I use my favorite braiser). Cook just until fragrant and then remove from the heat.  This “blooms” the pepper and deepens the flavor.
showing how to make lemon pasta (pasta al limone) by sautéing garlic, red pepper, ground pepper and capers in lemon and butter
  • Step 3: Make the lemon pasta sauce. Once the pasta has been drained, return the garlic mixture to medium heat. Whisk in ⅓ cup of the reserved pasta water, as well as the lemon juice, lemon zest, oregano, and salt.
showing how to make lemon pasta (pasta al limone) by adding starchy pasta water, lemon juice and lemon zest to the butter and garlic
  • Step 4: Assemble the pasta. Add the drained pasta, basil, parsley, and cheese. Toss to coat, until most of the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is cooked to al dente.
showing how to make lemon pasta (pasta al limone) by adding Parmesan, basil and parsley to the pasta
  • Step 5: Garnish and serve. Remove the pasta from the heat and garnish with freshly grated cheese just before serving. 
showing how to make lemon pasta (pasta al limone) by tossing pasta with lemon sauce and starchy water
  • Use freshly grated cheese for best results. I don’t recommend buying pre-grated cheese because it’s coated in chemicals to prevent it from clumping together. It’s also not as flavorful and can taste “waxy.” If possible, use Pecorino Romano, otherwise, use additional Parmesan.
  • Be careful when zesting the lemon. Only zest the yellow portion of the rind, not the pith, which is the bitter white portion underneath the yellow skin. 
  • Cook the pasta in less water. I recommend cooking the pasta in a large Dutch oven so that it will fit the length of the spaghetti, allowing you to use less water. This will make the water extra starchy, which creates the most luscious glossy, thick lemon sauce.
  • Stir pasta frequently while it cooks. Because we are cooking the pasta in less water than normal, make sure to stir the pasta frequently while cooking so that it doesn’t stick to the pot.
  • Cook the pasta just until al dente. Undercook the pasta slightly, until almost al dente, or until it has some “bite” to it but is otherwise tender, usually a couple minutes less than the box recommends. It will finish cooking in the lemon sauce.
  • Add some pasta water (NOT regular water) to the sauce. The salty, starchy pasta water is liquid gold. It will loosen the lemon sauce so it glides effortlessly over the spaghetti without watering it down like regular water will. The starches that are released from the pasta while cooking emulsify with the lemon sauce, naturally thickening it into a slick, herbaceous sauce. If the sauce isn’t as silky as you’d like, add additional pasta water.   
  • Adjust the recipe to taste. As with all recipes, it is important to make this recipe right for YOU. You may find you need extra cheese, an extra squeeze of lemon, or loads of freshly cracked pepper. So, prepare to be flexible!
  • Lemon Pasta with Chicken: season chopped chicken with salt, pepper and paprika, pan sear until cooked through, then stir into the pasta at the end of cooking.  Greek chicken, lemon basil chicken and Italian chicken would also be fabulous.
  • Lemon Pasta with Shrimp: add roasted shrimp or butter garlic shrimp; stir into the pasta after it’s done cooking.
  • Lemon Pasta with Salmon:  stir in lemon pepper salmon or use this salmon pasta recipe as a guide.
  • Add veggies. Add roasted or sautéed vegetables to the lemon pasta. Think: zucchini, asparagus, broccoli, petite peas, green beans, wilted spinach, etc. 
  • Make it creamy.  Swap the olive oil and reserved pasta water for heavy cream.
  • Make it spicy. Add extra red pepper flakes to increase the heat. 
  • Make it more or less garlicky. Add 8 or more cloves if you’re a garlic fiend. Add just a couple cloves if you only want a hint of garlic.
  • Make it lemonier. This recipe packs in plenty of lemon flavor as it is, but for an even stronger lemon flavor, add additional lemon zest. Don’t add more lemon juice, as it can make the sauce runny. 
  • Use a different cheese. Pecorino Romano is sharp, salty, and tangy, but Parmesan or another cheese of choice may be used such as feta or goat cheese.
  • Add pesto. Reduce the oil and stir in some pesto to finish. 
  • Add sun-dried tomatoes.  Replace the olive oil with oil from the sun-dried tomato jar and sauté chopped sun-dried tomatoes in the butter with the black pepper.
  • Add fresh or fire roasted diced tomatoes. Sauté chopped fresh Roma tomatoes or cherry tomatoes in the butter with the black pepper or stir in fire roasted diced tomatoes at the end of cooking and heat through.
  • Make it vegan. Substitute the cheese with a non-dairy cheese or add nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast is nutty and cheesy.
  • Make it gluten-free. Use your favorite gluten-free spaghetti in place of the regular spaghetti.  

serving lemon pasta recipe (pasta al limone) by twirling it on a fork in a bowl

WANT TO TRY THIS Lemon Pasta RECIPE?

PIN IT TO YOUR Pasta, Dinner or 30 minute recipe BOARD TO SAVE FOR LATER!

FIND ME ON PINTEREST FOR MORE GREAT RECIPES!  I AM ALWAYS PINNING :)!

©Carlsbad Cravings by CarlsbadCravings.com

top view of lemon pasta recipe (pasta al limone) in a bowl garnished by Parmesan

Lemon Pasta

Lemon pasta is a light, vibrant, quick and easy dinner you can have on your table in 20 minutes flat!  It's silky, peppery, garlicky, herbaceous, singing with bold, lemon tanginess punctuated by rich, salty Pecorino Romano. Enjoy the lemon spaghetti in its simplicity, or add protein or veggies. Serve this recipe with garlic bread and Caesar salad for the perfect weeknight dinner that tastes like a million bucks!
Servings: 4 -6 servings
Prep Time: 5 mins
Cook Time: 15 mins

Save This Recipe To Your Recipe Box

You can now create an account on our site and save your favorite recipes all in one place!

Ingredients

  • 16 ounces spaghetti
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter, salted or unsalted
  • 1/3 cup drained capers
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 40 turns freshly cracked pepper
  • zest and juice from 2 lemons (about ⅓ cup juice)
  • 1/2 tsp EACH salt, dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced (may sub 1 tsp dried)
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, minced (may sub 1 tsp dried)
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese (may sub Parmesan)

Instructions

  • Add roughly 2 quarts water (8 cups) to a large Dutch oven (or stockpot wide enough to fit spaghetti). The water will be very shallow because we want it to be very starchy. Cover and bring to a boil. Uncover and stir in 1 tablespoon salt then add the spaghetti.
  • Cook spaghetti, uncovered, until almost al dente (it will finish cooking in the sauce), stirring often. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water before draining the pasta (do not rinse the pasta – we want all of the starch).
  • Meanwhile, heat a large braiser (this is the exact one I use), or saucepan, over medium heat. Add the olive oil, butter, capers, garlic, red pepper flakes and freshly cracked pepper. Cook for a couple minutes, until very fragrant. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice, lemon zest, oregano and salt.
  • Once the pasta is cooked drained, return the garlic lemon mixture to medium heat. Whisk in ⅓ cup reserved pasta water,
  • Add the drained pasta, basil, parsley and cheese. Toss to coat, until most of the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is cooked al dente, adding additional reserved pasta water ¼ cup at a time as needed to moisten.
  • Remove from heat and garnish with additional freshly grated cheese and salt and pepper to taste.

Video

Notes

Pecorino Romano vs Parmesan:  Pecorino Romano, made from sheep’s milk, is sharper, salter, tangier, more pungent and assertive than Parmesan.  Parmesan, made from cow’s milk, is a bit more neutral and milder overall. In fact, Cooks Illustrated suggests using one-third less Pecorino than Parmesan in recipe substitutions – which essentially means Pecorino Romano is 3x more flavorful!  So, if you use Parmesan, you may want to add more to taste.  
 

prep Ahead

  • Lemons: can be zested and juiced up to 3 days in advance. Refrigerate until ready to use.
  • Cheese: can be grated and stored in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to use.
  • Fresh Herbs: can be chopped and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to one day ahead of time.

How to Store and Reheat

You may need to add a splash of water if the pasta seems dry or for extra decadence, add additional butter.  The lemon flavor will mellow some, so you may want to add a splash of lemon juice. 
  • Storage: Store leftover pasta in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days.
  • Microwave: Microwave small portions for 1 minute, stir, then continue to heat at 30-second intervals until warmed through.
  • Stove: For larger portions, reheat pasta gently on the stove over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. 

Did You Make This Recipe?

Tag @CarlsbadCravings and Use #CarlsbadCravngs

Leave a Review, I Always Love Hearing From You!

Reader Interactions

leave a review

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 Secrets to
30 Minute Meals

Tips, tricks & recipes to get dinner on the table fast!

FREE EMAIL BONUS