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Most of us have devoured plenty of spaghetti and pizza in our time, but there’s so much more to Italian cuisine than those ubiquitous dishes. Want to elevate your cooking for a special occasion or liven up your weekday menu? Check out this guide to tasty Italian dinner ideas, ranging from the quick and simple to the more complicated and best reserved for a special occasion or lazy Sunday. Buon appetito!

Traditional Italian Dinner Ideas

Like food from every country, Italian cuisine doesn’t stand frozen in time, and not everything eaten in Italy today is considered “traditional.” But if you want to try some truly time-honored dishes with recipes that have been passed down through generations, check out these mouthwatering traditional Italian dinner ideas.

1. Spaghetti alla Carbonara

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Plating up a fresh batch of spaghetti alla carbonara.

Italian chef Luca La Rosa describes spaghetti alla carbonara as one of the most important pasta dishes in Italy. It’s rich, creamy, and surprisingly simple to make. The main ingredients are egg and diced ham, and it’s especially good with a grating of Pecorino cheese on top. 

2. Pork Loin With Chestnuts and Apples

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Chestnuts and apples are a perfect accompaniment to pork loin.

Italian cook Annarita Levanti describes pork loin with chestnuts and apples as an iconic Italian dish that’s ideal for festive occasions, and in her Skillshare class, she teaches how to make her grandmother’s traditional recipe. Note that the dish does take a bit of time and planning because you need to source chestnuts and then bake them.

3. Pumpkin Lasagna

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A tasty dish made by student Sonja Schnatzer for How to Make Healthy and Fun Pumpkin Lasagna.

Think of lasagna, and you might think of the version made with minced beef, but pumpkin lasagne is a tasty vegetarian alternative. Pumpkin is an important ingredient in traditional Italian cuisine and is used in many savory and sweet dishes. Italian food blogger Elena Maria Manzini teaches how to make a healthy pumpkin lasagna two ways: first using fresh sheets of pasta, and second by substituting thin slices of pumpkin for the pasta.

Pasta From Scratch

Make Fresh Pasta the Real Italian Way

Italian Chicken Dinner Ideas

Chicken is a popular meat in Italian cooking, though many chicken recipes note that you can substitute it for other meats, including pork or rabbit. That’s good news if you want to be even more creative with your cooking! Check these inspired Italian chicken dinner ideas to get you started.

4. Chicken Cacciatore

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Source: instagram
On the hunt for Italian chicken dinners? Look no further than chicken cacciatore. (Courtesy of Melanie Lionello)

Cacciatore means “hunter” in Italian, and chicken cacciatore is a dish that’s supposedly served the way hunters would have traditionally prepared their catch. Braised chicken is covered in a sauce of onions, tomatoes, herbs, vegetables, and wine or vinegar. Try this recipe that can also be made with rabbit (that would be, er, rabbit cacciatore). 

5. Chicken Parmigiana Bake

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Source: Unsplash
Baked chicken parmigiana is a real comfort food. (Courtesy of Annie via Flickr Creative Commons)

Breaded chicken, dried pasta (such as penne), garlicky tomato sauce, and lots of yummy mozzarella make for one of the most comforting Italian chicken dinners around, especially in the chilly fall and winter months. This easy recipe makes for a perfect weeknight meal.

6. Chicken, Spinach, and Ricotta Cannelloni

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Source: Instagram
Cannelloni are tubes of pasta that are stuffed, topped with sauce, and baked. (Courtesy of Ioannis Koufos)

While they can be a bit messy to put together, there’s something so satisfying about filling dried cannelloni tubes and lining them up in a dish for baking. This recipe combines chicken, spinach, and ricotta with a ready-made tomato sauce, although you could always make your own.

Italian Pasta Dinner Ideas

There are two key aspects to cooking pasta: preparing the sauce and preparing the pasta itself from scratch. If you’re short on time or don’t have the necessary kitchen equipment to make fresh pasta, you can substitute it with store-bought options (check out Italian grocers in your area for the best selection). 

When you have some time to spare, though, it’s great to learn to make pasta from scratch. Nothing beats it! These Italian pasta dinners could be made with fresh or dried pasta.

7. Pasta al Pomodoro

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A pasta creation by student Skylar Dayas Tokoto for Italian Classics Made Easy: Perfect Pasta al Pomodoro | Learn with Eataly.

Pasta al pomodoro is a quick, light pasta dish made with fresh tomatoes, basil, and olive oil. This recipe is perfect for all occasions—it’s easy enough for a quick weeknight dinner and delicious enough to entertain friends and impress them with your cooking skills. You can mix the sauce with spaghetti or any other type of pasta you’d like for easy Italian pasta dinners.

8. Spaghetti Aglio e Olio

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Source: Instagram
A simple dish of spaghetti aglio e olio. (Courtesy of Kitchen Foody)

Looking for a vegan Italian dish? Traditional spaghetti aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil) fits the bill. As the main ingredients might suggest, it’s super simple, too, so it’s perfect for a quick weeknight dinner. Serve it with fresh or dried parsley on top (avoid basil for this one because the flavor will overpower the other ingredients).

9. Ricotta and Spinach Ravioli

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Learn to hand make ravioli pasta.

Ravioli are little dumplings of fresh pasta filled with minced vegetables, cheese, or meat. They can be a bit time-consuming to make, but they’re a real treat and worth the effort if you’re entertaining or want to cook something new. This recipe uses a ricotta and spinach filling for a tasty vegetarian option. 

Italian Beef Dinner Ideas

Beef is more common to northern Italian cuisine than southern, and it’s often cured or slow cooked. These dishes showcase the best ingredients and techniques of the region.

10. Meatballs With Tomato Sauce

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Luca La Rosa’s Italian meatball recipe.

Italian chef Luca La Rosa’s version of Italian meatballs uses both minced calf beef and minced pork. Mixing the meat with breadcrumbs, eggs, and cheese holds them together for simmering in a rich tomato sauce.

11. Milanese Steak

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Milanese steak is a north Italian way of preparing beef steak.

A hearty main course that goes well with baked potatoes, Milanese steak is made by coating the meat in egg, breadcrumbs, and flour before frying it. Chef Luca La Rosa points out that chicken and pork can also be battered and prepared in the same way.

12. Beef Braciole

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Beef braciole is a special occasion dish. (Courtesy of Barefoot in the Kitchen)

Beef braciole is typically reserved for special occasions because it takes some time to prepare—the beef needs to be tenderized, stuffed with a filling, rolled, tied with butcher’s string, pan-fried, and then simmered in a tomato gravy. But while the ingredients and processes are numerous, most cooks consider the results worth the effort. Check out a beef braciole recipe “so good it’ll make you cry” here.

Italian Fish Dinners, Including Seafood

Fish and seafood are abundant in Italian cuisine due to the country’s long coastline. Plus, many devout Catholics give up other meats for Lent or on Fridays, when they eat fish, seafood, and vegetarian dishes instead. Italian cuisine makes use of types of seafood that may be less common in some other types of international cuisine, such as octopus, conch meat, and clams.

13. Linguine With Fresh Clam Sauce

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Linguine with fresh clam sauce is an easy seafood dish.

Linguine with fresh clam sauce is simple and lets the natural flavors of the clams shine through, along with plenty of garlic and olive oil. The best way to cook the clams is simply to place the whole shells inside a pan with some chopped garlic, olive oil, and white wine. Cover the pan with a lid, and the clams will open by themselves within three or four minutes. There’s no need to remove the meat from the shells before serving—scooping it out is half the fun!

14. Fresh Sea Bass Baked in a Salt Crust

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Baked fish served with olive oil and parsley.

Italian chef Luca La Rosa says that this fish dish is so easy that it’s almost impossible to get wrong! The whole fish (he uses sea bass for his version) is placed in a bed of salt crystals and stuffed with garlic and herbs like basil, then buried in salt on the top. After about 25 minutes of baking, the dish will be ready, but the salt coating hardens and will need to be cracked open to get the fish out. Remove the skin before serving.

15. Pesce alla Puttanesca

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Pesce alla puttanesca is fish simmered in a puttanesca sauce. (Courtesy of Kristian Nielsen)

If you already know a thing or two about Italian cuisine, you might be familiar with spaghetti alla puttanesca. This pesce alla puttanesca recipe is similar, using a sauce made with tomatoes, garlic, anchovies, and olives. Instead of dolloping the puttanesca sauce on top of a plate of spaghetti, though, fillets of white fish are simmered in it.

Cook Up a Storm

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Some basic ingredients for Italian cooking.

Whether you’re a meat eater, a pescatarian, a vegetarian, or a flexitarian, Italian cuisine offers a world of tasty dinner options. When you’re just learning to make Italian food, it’s a good idea to take things one step at a time and learn to prepare the basic sauces before going in for the handmade fresh pastas. 

What’s great about a lot of Italian cuisine, though, is that it’s very simple and lets each element of the dish sing. All you need are a few high-quality ingredients and a bit of passion for experimentation. Enjoy!

Make a Traditional Italian Dinner

Italian Classics Made Easy: Perfect Pasta al Pomodoro