Spaghetti al limone – simple food Italian style

We landed back in Australia a week ago today, after three glorious months in Italy and an epic road trip along the Adriatic coast. As the trip was essentially a research trip for my next book Adriatico, days were spent talking to the locals, shopping in markets, taking photos of locations, and lots of eating and tasting the traditional local foods. My original plan had included cooking along the way, so I could start testing recipes as we travelled. I had rented predominantly Air BnB apartments with kitchens, though their definition of a kitchen differs somewhat from mine, as some had little more than a place to heat up food in pans that were slightly suspect and blunt knives. Other kitchens, such as in the apartments I stayed in Otranto (Puglia), Trieste and Ravenna were very good, so I managed to do more cooking. And it wasn’t just cooking for the book; it was also cooking just to eat – regular food when we were tired of restaurants or when we had spent more than the budget I had put away for the trip on that day. There was one recipe I returned to again and again during our travels – spaghetti al limone (spaghetti with lemon). And before you start thinking “oh, lemons and cream” – there is no cream in this, and it is simple enough to make in the most ill-equipped kitchen with a bare minimum of ingredients.

I have my Instagram friend Frank Prisinzano to thank for this one. He talks through recipes on Snapchat and Instastories and I was in Trieste in March when he posted about this dish. He is passionate about Italian food and cooking, with a focus on understanding the ingredients, thinking about what you are doing and why you are doing it. For Frank’s version (and my adopted version) of spaghetti al limone for two people, all you need is spaghetti, one lemon (preferably unsprayed), butter and finely grated parmesan cheese, and to follow a couple of rules:
– make sure the pasta cooking water is well salted – taste it to check – rather than adding salt later
– have all your ingredients ready before you start cooking the spaghetti; timing is key and the sauce needs to be made as soon as the spaghetti is on the harder side of “al dente”
– have a second pot on the stove warmed up for stirring the lemon and butter and the cooked pasta. If you stir it in a cold bowl/pot, the pasta will stop cooking immediately, the butter will not melt and the dish will not be as creamy
– make sure the parmesan cheese (Grana or Parmigiano Reggiano) is finely grated so that it melts completely and adds to the creaminess of the dish

One of the good things about being back in Australia is being able to spend time with my 89-year old mother Livia. She was so excited about having me back again after such a break; she was especially keen to show me the two lemon trees in the garden, which are bursting with fruit. Yesterday I went to visit her, it was a glorious sunny Sunday and after lunch, she urged me to go outside and pick as many lemons as I could carry. Her next door neighbour had dropped by the day before to ask to have some lemons, to which my mother replied that she could have a couple, but not too many as her daughter wanted them (which was very sweet of her though I doubt I will use the hundred or so lemons that are on the trees!). Today when I was picking them, they were so fragrant and lemony; and there was a big bush of flowers just next to the trees, which I couldn’t resist picking as they were the same lemony yellow. I love keeping a few leaves attached to lemons when I clip them from the trees  and you will notice from the photos, they are not perfect in shape; they are not fertilised and rely entirely on rainwater. In fact they would probably be rejected by the bigger supermarkets as being imperfect. In short, they are absolutely ideal for spaghetti al limone.


So here is the recipe that got me through cooking in apartments with little equipment and even fewer ingredients sometimes in remote places all through Italy.

spaghetti al limone (lemon spaghetti)

serves 4
320-400g dried spaghetti (portions are 80-100g per person)
2 organic small/medium lemons
160g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
80g finely grated parmesan cheese
freshly cracked pepper
extra-virgin olive oil (optional)

Bring a large salted pot of water to the boil. While it is boiling prepare your other ingredients; squeeze the lemons and keep the lemon halves to one side; finely grate the cheese and set aside; chop the butter.

When the water is boiling, drop in the spaghetti, pushing it down using tongs when it starts to soften to make sure it is immersed in the water and cooks evenly. Give it a cook stir when it is all immersed to ensure it does not stick together. Taste the cooking water to make sure it is salty enough. Place your serving plates in a low oven to keep them warm. Have a second pot ready and warm on the stove to make the sauce, turning off the heat just before you add the cooked spaghetti.

Taste the spaghetti to check that is is cooked just slightly short of the point at which is it cooked to your liking. Lift up the pasta using tongs into the second warmed pot. It is ok if some of the cooking water drops in. Now add the chopped butter and lemon juice and stir using a wooden spoon until it becomes creamy, adding more cooking water if needed. Drop in the reserved lemon halves as well. It may take a minute of stirring until it is really creamy. Then stir in the grated cheese until it melts and pile onto warmed serving plates. Scatter on some freshly cracked pepper, drizzle a bit of extra virgin olive oil (optional) and add a bit more cheese if you like (this is my preference, I like to see the cheese on top). Garnish with a lemon half and serve immediately.

26 Comments

  • Lisa Casey says:

    Sounds absolutely delicious, and I wish my supermarket had lemons that look like yours. Or that I lived where I could pick 11 right off the tree! But I’m curious – you drop the lemon halves into the pasta but you’re stirring it and leave it there? And pick it out of the pasta later? Is that simply for extra lemony flavor? Do you think it’s a good idea to maybe use the micro planer and just put some lemon zest in there instead?

    • Thank you! The lemon halves just add lemony flavour and then look nice on the plate. Sure you could use a microplane and add the zest but I love the total smoothness of the spaghetti without the zest. There are no rights or wrongs here – do what suits your taste best

  • Chiara says:

    le tue splendide foto mi hanno messo appetito, hai reso perfettamente l’idea di come possa essere buono un piatto semplice se fatto con amore e ingredienti di ottima qualità, complimenti Paola, un grande abbraccio !

  • Carmen says:

    Stunning as usual Paola! I’ve yet to try this dish but will now with the fresh lemons in the garden. X

  • David says:

    This is a favorite of ours since our trip to Venezia 4 years ago. It was served in a prosciutto-lined bowl, what was amazing but not necessary. The thing that matters is the best lemons you can get.

    Welcome home – I loved following your adventures!

    • Thank you David – the prosciutto lined bowl sounds great! Haha. Yes it was lovely being on the road for so long…now it is back to reality and the Melbourne winter

  • Emma Brancatisano says:

    I’m going to be giving this a whirl! Thank you Paola for generously sharing your recipe and advice !

  • Kay says:

    i also enjoy your blog! My son has just completed a 3,000km Cycling Trek from Palermo in Sicily to Como in Northern Italy, so I have been getting a double dose of Italy!! Love it!!

  • Sue C says:

    Thanks Paola. Im going to give this a try as well as I have a beautiful lemon tree right outside my back door.

  • I am a huge fan of pasta, but have never heard of this amazing and simple dish. I wish I could have access to a lemon tree to get fresh lemons! lucky you 🙂 I will be trying this recipe for sure. What a great share.

  • pblevitt says:

    One of the best ways to use lemons from the garden, so simple yet incredibly elegant. Grazie Paola!

  • Were you really gone 3 months? Wow, it didn’t seem like that long. What an amazing trip. This dish sounds wonderful-so simple, yet not. i love anything limone, so will have to try it. i am so jealous you can pick them! i see homemade limoncello in your future! Ciao, Cristina

    • I WISH I could make limoncello – we cannot get pure alcohol in Australia and making it with vodka is just wrong. There are so many beautiful infusions that we miss out on making here in Australia

      • We can’t get it in Canada either. I use vodka to make my liquore di amarena. It comes out good, as vodka has no taste of its own, but it is not as strong as it should be. I haven’t made limoncello with it-we can’t grow lemons here. Ciao, Cristina

  • This tastes like summer to me.

  • Kaitlyn says:

    My sister shared your blog with my mother who shared it with me. I made this for dinner last night, it was delicious! So filling and definitely no need for any dessert! I was a bit confused about the instructions re: the second pot: “Have a second pot ready and warm on the stove to make the sauce, turning off the heat just before you add the cooked spaghetti”. I didn’t want to have a second pot warming on the stove with nothing in it in case it burned, so added hot water from the kettle first and warmed it like you would a tea pot before warming briefly on the stove. It still smelled and I was worried would burn the finished dish. Can you clarify please Paola? Thanks in advance! I look forward to trying some more of your recipes! 😊

    • You warm the second pot briefly so that the spaghetti does not stop cooking as soon as you lift it in. It helps with the creaminess of the dish. I warm mine for less than a minute. You can add some of the pasta water to the second pot to warm it up. I hope that is clearer 🙂

  • Rosemarie says:

    One of my favourite easy-fallback meals, spaghetti or tagliolini al limone. I prefer not to add cream to mine either, the butter and lemon is more than enough. Occasionally though, I do like to add a generous knob of Piedmontese robiola cheese. Works wonderfully!

%d bloggers like this: