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 Cheese, Weeknight Spaghetti Bolognese and Blackened Chicken Alfredo.
HOW TO MAKE Lemon Pasta VIDEo
What is Pasta Al Limone?
Pasta al limone (lemon pasta) combines long, smooth pasta, such as spaghetti, with olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, pepper and grated cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano. Sometimes garlic, heavy cream or white wine are added depending on the region and personal preferences.
When making the dish without heavy cream (like this recipe), the lemon sauce of olive oil, sometimes butter, lemon juice and lemon zest, is emulsified with the starchy pasta water in order to thicken the sauce. When making the dish with heavy cream, the cream becomes the base of the sauce instead of butter, olive oil and starchy pasta water. (I’ll explain why no cream is best below).
The sauce is then tossed with the pasta and as finishing touches, is seasoned with freshly ground black pepper and showered with plenty of freshly grated cheese. The finished lemon spaghetti is beautifully bright, silky, light, with juicy tart pops that cut through the richness.
Where did Pasta Al Limone Originate?
Pasta al limone is a classic, simple Italian pasta dish said to have originated at L’Antica Trattoria in Sorrento, where lemon juice was tossed with just-cooked pasta until absorbed. Today, there are countless variations, all extremely popular in the Campania region in Italy, specifically the Amalfi Coast, in towns like Amalfi and Sorrento.
Lemon production in this region can be traced back to the Renaissance period, in which it varied in uses from culinary to medical. This region has become famous for producing the “lemon of Sorrento” prized for its fragrance and taste. It remains one of the top exports of the region.
Why this Lemon Pasta Recipe Works
It’s naturally thickened – no heavy cream needed! The slurp worthy lemony pasta sauce is made with the power of emulsion. It works by cooking the pasta in a smaller volume of water than usual so the pasta water is extra starchy. Next, it swaps out the heavy cream for a mixture of olive oil and butter for richness, then adds starchy pasta cooking water to thicken the silky, lemon scented sauce without dulling the vivid lemon flavor.
It’s perfectly balanced. Don’t mistake the simplicity of this lemon spaghetti for boring; it is exponentially more fabulous than the sum of its parts. In typical fashion, I couldn’t serve up a monochromatic plate of lemon pasta. Instead, this pasta al limone is a mouthwatering balance of silky, comforting richness with the olive oil, butter, and ample cheese lifted up by the lightness of fresh, bright, sunny citrus punctuated with zingy garlic, chili pepper heat, freshly cracked pepper, fresh basil and parsley.
It uses Pecorino Romano instead of Parmesan. This results in superior sharp, nutty flavor AKA far superior lemon pasta because Romano is 3 times more flavorful!
A quick and easy dinner must for your weeknight dinner arsenal. This lemon pasta recipe is the epitome of minimal effort, high reward that tastes like a million bucks. It is on your table in 20 minutes flat, perfect for when you need a satisfying dinner in a hurry.
Anyone can make pasta al limone. It’s as easy as simmering lemon juice, lemon zest, butter, olive oil, garlic, capers, freshly cracked pepper and red pepper flakes for a couple minutes, then stirring in the starchy pasta water to create a luxurious, emulsified lemon scented sauce that’s out of this world. Twirl in your pasta, dust it with freshly grated cheese and you have silky, tangy, slurp worthy comfort food.
It’s super versatile. This lemon pasta recipe is an adaptable blank canvas, delicious on its own, or delicious with veggies, chicken, shrimp, salmon, etc.
Pasta Al Limone with cream vs without
This lemon pasta recipe doesn’t use any heavy cream – for a reason. While heavy cream may sound like a great idea, when I tested the recipe side by side both with cream and without cream, the cream-less pasta was the clear winner.
In the cream version, the pasta was plenty creamy, but the richness masked/dulled down/muddied the lemony flavor. In the version without cream (thickened instead by the emulsified starchy pasta water), the bright lemon was cleaner, cutting through with high-pitched clarity, everything you dream pasta al limone should be.
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:
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!
All that being said, if you only have Parmesan on hand– you may use Parmesan, but just be aware it will not taste as intoxicating as intended, so you may want to add more. Next time, splurge for the Pecorino Romano!
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Step 5: Garnish and serve. Remove the pasta from the heat and garnish with freshly grated cheese just before serving.
Tips for MAking the Best Lemon Pasta Recipe
This is a very simple recipe, so it’s important to pay attention to a few key details:
This lemon pasta recipe can be made completely in advance or you can prepare the individual ingredients ahead of time:
Lemons: can be zested and juiced up to 3 days in advance. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Pecorino Romano: 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
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. You may need to add a splash of water if the pasta seems dry.
Can Lemon Pasta be Frozen?
Yes, this Lemon Pasta freezes well because it is not a dairy-based sauce. Let the dish cool completely, transfer to an airtight container or freezer bag and squeeze out excess air. Freeze for up to three months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight before reheating.
what to serve with Lemon Spaghetti
We love serving this pasta al limone with a big green salad or roasted broccoli along with garlic bread. It also pairs well with:
Salad: Caesar Salad, Strawberry Spinach Salad, Garden Salad, Wedge Salad, Apple Salad or Broccoli Strawberry Salad.
Bread: Garlic Bread, Soft and Fluffy Dinner Rolls or Garlic Parmesan Butter Breadsticks.
Fruit: Fruit Salad with Honey Lime Vinaigrette, Winter Fruit Salad with Honey Lime Poppy Seed Vinaigrette and Berry Salad in Honey Mascarpone.
Veggies: Baked Parmesan Asparagus, Roasted Parmesan Broccoli, Bacon-Wrapped Green Beans, Roasted Brussels Sprouts or Roasted Cauliflower.
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- 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)
- 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.
- 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 ReheatYou 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.
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