Linguine al limone, or linguini with lemon cream sauce, is one of those quintessential summer dishes from southern Italy, specifically the Sorrentine peninsula of the Campania region, where they grow exquisite lemons. It’s sunshine on your plate.
This dish may surprise you. The lemon flavor is not at all acidic or overwhelming. Rather, the lemon provides freshness. There are many versions of this dish, some quite simple, with the focus squarely on the pure flavor of lemon. In others—like this one—the lemon provides a sottofondo, a background, for a medley of other flavors. This is my version:
- 1 lemon, preferably organic (or 2, if you want a more assertive lemon flavor)
- 400g (14 oz) linguini or other long pasta
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, slightly crushed
- Olive oil and butter
- 500 ml (2 cups) heavy cream
- 50g (1-1/2 oz) grated parmesan cheese (or more to taste)
- Salt and pepper
- A few sprigs of fresh mint, finely chopped
Take the lemon(s) and grate off the zest (i.e., the outer yellow layer of the lemon peel), being careful to leave the bitter pith (the white layer under the zest) behind. Then cut the lemon(s) in two.
Start your water to boil for the pasta. Add a half lemon (or two) to the water, squeezing out the lemon juice into the water. When the water comes to a boil, salt generously and add your linguini.
Meanwhile, make your lemon sauce: heat a bit of olive oil and butter over moderate heat in a skillet. Add the lemon zest and garlic, allowing it to sauté for just a few moments, just until you begin to smell the aroma of the garlic and lemon wafting up from the skillet. Then remove the garlic and add the cream, thegrated parmesan cheese, salt and freshly ground pepper. Allow the cream to reduce a bit, then turn off the heat. Add a generous sprinkling of finely chopped mint and mix.
When the pasta is very al dente, transfer it into the skillet with the sauce without draining it too well over low heat. Mix well, allowing the pasta to absorb the flavors of the sauce and adding a ladleful of pasta water if the sauce is getting too dense—the pasta should ‘slide’ around the skillet.
Serve immediately, topped if you like with some of the grated lemon zest and chopped mint. By the way, you should, of course, fish out that half lemon before draining the pasta. A pair of tongs are useful for the purpose. And it is easy to do, as the lemon floats on the surface of the boiling water.
As I said, there are a number of different versions of this dish. This particular recipe is my personal invention, a variation on some of the more elaborate, creamy versions. My personal ‘touch’ is the use of mint, which is, as far as I am aware, an original idea—and one which, if I do say so myself, works very nicely. The combination of lemon and mint is, after all, a natural one. Other versions of the dish omit the garlic and/or the cream. Some call for parsley, most do not. For a lovely lighter version that focuses on the pure taste of lemon, see this post from Italicious, a great blog by a young Roman living and studying in Canada (now sadly inactive).
Pasta al limone is typically made with long pasta, most often spaghetti but also with the more delicate egg pasta known as tagliolini. I would venture that it would also go very well with tagliatelle or fettuccine, in particular in the versions like this one that include cream.
This dish is at its best when made with lemons from the Amalfi coast, in particular Sorrento, which is known for its wonderful lemons—the same lemons that are used to make the ambrosial limoncello. But recognizing that this is only an option for a lucky few, choose the freshest, best quality lemon you can find. And since you are using the zest, try to find an organic lemon that will not be covered with wax or treated with pesticides or other chemicals. If you can’t find organic lemons, then wash and scrub the lemon well before using it. In the US, the lovely Meyer lemon would be a nice choice.