Skip to Content

What is salsa in Italy?

Salsa in Italy refers to a variety of sauces that are commonly used to flavor and accompany Italian dishes. From tomato-based sauces to pestos and olive oil-enriched sauces, Italian salsa is an integral part of the country’s culinary tradition.

Types of Italian Salsa

There are many different types of salsa used in Italian cuisine. Some of the most common include:

  • Tomato sauce – Made from tomatoes, onion, garlic, and herbs. Tomato sauce has many variations including marinara, arrabbiata, and pomodoro.
  • Pesto – A blend of basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan or Pecorino cheese. Pesto alla Genovese is the traditional pesto from Genoa.
  • Olive oil-based sauces – Made by emulsifying olive oil with ingredients like garlic, herbs, cheese, nuts or anchovies. Examples are salsa verde and bagna cauda.
  • Bolognese sauce – A meat-based sauce made with ground beef, pork, vegetables, wine, and tomatoes. It originates from Bologna.
  • Alfredo sauce – A creamy white sauce made from butter, Parmesan cheese, and heavy cream.
  • Puttanesca – An olive oil-based sauce flavored with capers, olives, garlic, and anchovies.

Origins of Italian Salsa

The tradition of Italian salsa has ancient roots going back to ancient Rome and its provinces. Over the centuries, recipes were adapted according to local ingredients and customs, creating a diversity of sauces across Italian regions.

Tomatoes were brought to Italy in the 16th century after being imported from the Americas. Tomato-based sauces quickly became popular, especially in Naples. Samples of tomato sauces were found in Italian cookbooks from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Pesto originated in Genoa, with the earliest known recipe dating back to the 19th century. Olive oil-based sauces also have ancient origins since olive oil has been produced in Italy since Roman times.

Meat-based sauces like Bolognese were likely influenced by techniques brought to Italy like the French ragu. Cream-based sauces also came later in the Renaissance era.

Regional Italian Salsas

Italian salsa takes on many regional variations across the different provinces of Italy:

Northern Italy

  • Pesto Genovese (Liguria)
  • Bagna Cauda (Piedmont)
  • Ragù Bolognese (Emilia-Romagna)
  • Walnut Sauce (Piedmont)

Central Italy

  • Marinara Sauce (Naples)
  • Arrabbiata Sauce (Rome)
  • Alfredo Sauce (Lazio)
  • Amatriciana Sauce (Lazio)

Southern Italy

  • Puttanesca (Campania)
  • Vodka Sauce (Sicily)
  • Pesto Trapanese (Sicily)

While tomato sauce is used across all of Italy, ingredients and preparation vary between each province. For example, arrabbiata is spicier then marinara, while pesto trapanese uses tomatoes instead of pine nuts.

Common Uses of Italian Salsa

From primi piatti to secondi, Italian salsa is used in a variety of dishes:

  • Pasta – Sauces like marinara, bolognese, alfredo or pesto are tossed with different types of pasta.
  • Pizza – Tomato sauce and pesto make excellent pizza bases.
  • Meats and seafood -Items can be simmered or baked in sauces like tomato sauce or salsa verde.
  • Vegetables – Green beans, potatoes or eggplant are examples of produce that can be sautéed with olive oil-based sauces.
  • Sandwiches and breads – Italian bread like foccacia absorbs sauces for tasty sandwiches.
  • Polenta – The cornmeal mush is commonly topped with a meat ragu or mushrooms sautéed in tomato sauce.

Italian salsa brings big, bold flavor. A little bit of salsa goes a long way in infusing dishes with taste.

Serving Italian Salsa

To enjoy salsa Italiano properly, keep these serving tips in mind:

  • Salsas are best when freshly made. Avoid bottled sauces when possible.
  • Cook the pasta al dente when topping with sauce. Overcooked pasta absorbs too much sauce.
  • Adjust seasoning before serving. Add more salt, pepper, herbs or olive oil to taste.
  • Garnish with chopped parsley or basil for a pop of color and freshness.
  • Serve sauces warm rather than cold, as the flavors intensify with heat.
  • Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil for richness.

Popular Italian Salsa Recipes

Making authentic salsa Italiana is easy with these top recipes:

Marinara Sauce

This simple, crowd-pleasing tomato sauce needs just minutes to prepare.


  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Pinch red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh basil leaves


  1. Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat.
  2. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook 1 minute.
  3. Add tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Simmer 15 minutes until sauce thickens.
  5. Remove from heat. Add basil leaves.


Blend up this lush, herbal pesto in minutes.


  • 2 cups packed basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese


  1. In food processor, blend together basil, pine nuts, garlic and Parmesan.
  2. Stream in olive oil while machine is running until smooth.
  3. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  4. Store pesto in airtight container up to 1 week.

Bolognese Sauce

This hearty, meaty sauce is worth the time it takes to simmer.


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 rib celery, diced
  • 6 ounces ground pork
  • 6 ounces ground beef
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream


  1. Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, carrot and celery and cook 5 minutes.
  2. Add pork and beef. Cook until browned, about 10 minutes.
  3. Add wine and simmer 2 minutes.
  4. Add tomatoes, broth and tomato paste. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Simmer 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
  6. Remove from heat and stir in cream.


In Italy, salsa refers to the diverse range of signature sauces used to add big flavor to a variety of dishes. With ancient roots, regional variations, and recipes like pesto, marinara and bolognese, Italian salsa is an iconic part of Italy’s culinary tradition. Mastering authentic salsa recipes at home can be easy and fun.