5 Ingredients or Fewer

Pasta With Lemon-Parmigiano Sauce

March 11, 2022
25 Ratings
Photo by Ty Mecham
  • Prep time 20 minutes
  • Cook time 25 minutes
  • Serves 4
Author Notes

Let’s begin with some clarifying vocabulary: “Parmesan” is a style of cheese (like “cheddar” and “mozzarella”), and “Parmigiano-Reggiano” is the world’s best variety of this cheese, only produced in Italy, exclusively in Bologna, Modena, Parma, and Reggio Emilia. Its moniker is “the king of cheese,” and that is no hyperbole.

Almost everything in Italy is finished with a fresh grating of Parmesan, except spicy foods and seafood dishes (try asking for cheese to top one of these dishes in Italy; it's more than likely that they will flat-out refuse you). It’s sweet/salty/nutty flavor is an undeniable flavor enhancer to so many savory dishes.

But there's a big difference between Parmesans produced domestically (and in some non-Italian countries, like Australia and Argentina) and those from parts Italy’s famed Emilia-Romagna region. To understand the variables, I have highlighted the categories in which Parmigiano-Reggiano excels over its Parmesan peers:

Time: Most Parmigiano-Reggiano is aged for two years or more (domestic versions are likely six months to a year). This prolonged aging process not only helps develop the cheese’s tell-tale nutty and salty flavors, it also helps create beautiful, crystalline clusters within the cheese (a transformation of milk proteins), which adds crunch and character. For Parmigianos aged for three years (called “stravecchios”), it's better to nibble it in craggily chunks as part of an appetizer or antipasto platter, so you get the full benefit of its textural superiority.

Purity: Two words: “wood pulp.” Last year, that is what food scientists found mixed into tubs of pre-grated domestic Parmesan cheeses sold in the supermarket. I guess trees are cheaper than cheese, but when you buy a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, there is no room for such flimflammery. Just 100% pure salty goodness. Leave those green foiled-wrapped canisters on the non-refrigerated shelves.

Oversight: Like with so many of the EU’s prized foodstuffs—champagne, aged balsamic vinegar, San Marzano tomatoes, prosciutto di Parma—there are specific consortiums in place to regulate their production so they are consistent in their superior quality. Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of these “protected designation of origin” foods (often labeled DOP), meaning it can only be called “Parmigiano-Reggiano” if its production follows the rigorous standards set forth by the consortium that oversees it. This includes strict rules for the location of the dairy farms and the diet of the cows that provide the milk; the weight, size, and color of the cheese wheels; the aging length; and its final texture and aroma. That is why every wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano you buy is consistently delicious.

The Rind: This is how you, the consumer, will tell that the cheese you are buying is true Parmigiano-Reggiano: Every giant wheel of cheese is stamped with the words “Parmigiano Reggiano” over every inch of the rind, so no matter how small a piece of cheese you're buying, you will see some of the letters of the name. Without it, it isn't the real deal. Also, save the rind! Because the rind is naturally formed during the aging process, it is completely edible. That doesn’t mean it has a great texture (it’s hard and a bit waxy), but it's packed with flavor. Slip it into your next vegetable soup, pot of white beans or chickpeas, or a simmering tomato sauce, to lend a saltiness richness. It won’t melt, so just fish out and discard before serving. Blocks of Parmigiano-Reggiano have a very long shelf life (usually a year after its cut, due to its low moisture content). It should be stored in the refrigerator in a container that allows it to breathe (like a plastic tub or glass container), and placed in plain sight, since you’ll want to grab it to season your dinner as often as you can.

This creamy, dreamy lemon-Parmigiano pasta is the ultimate last-minute meal. The sauce is quickly assembled as the pasta boils away and is made up entirely of items you should always have in your pantry: dry pasta, lemon, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and olive oil. The magic ingredient here is the pasta cooking water, which takes the starch from the cooking pasta and uses it to bind the lemon juice, grated cheese, and olive oil to make a perfect pasta sauce. —Jennifer Clair

What You'll Need
  • 2 organic lemons, zested and juiced
  • 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 pound spaghetti or angel hair pasta
  • 20 large fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
  1. In a medium bowl, vigorously mix the lemon zest and juice, cheese, oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and a few generous grindings of black pepper so the cheese “melts” into the oil and lemon juice. Taste, adding more salt and pepper to your liking; set aside.
  2. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil (1 tablespoon of salt for every 6 cups of water). Cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, according to the package directions. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.
  3. Return the drained pasta to the hot, empty pot. Pour the lemon-Parmigiano sauce over, tossing with ½ cup of the reserving cooking water to make a creamy sauce that clings to the strands, adding more cooking water as necessary. Add the basil and toss once or twice just to incorporate.
  4. Divide the pasta among bowls. Garnish with more Parmigiano-Reggiano.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • panania
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    Shelby Williams
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I am wild about food. And about my new cookbook -- Six Basic Cooking Techniques: Culinary Essentials for the Home Cook -- based on the most popular class at my cooking school in New York City. If you crave food knowledge, take a peek inside the book on the website above.

24 Reviews

K February 21, 2023
Works best w/ Meyer (sorrento) lemon (size, scent, balanced juice); ponderosa a bit too oily & tart. Parmesan really didn't matter w/ Meyers.
MacGuffin February 21, 2023
Meyer lemons = Sorrento lemons?
panania May 23, 2022
I very much liked the preparation. It was very simple and easy to make. That said, it didn't have a depth of flavor. The lemon was very dominant. It really overpowered the dish. If I were to try it again, I'd likely use less lemon.
christine January 6, 2021
loved this for it's simplicity and clean flavor...used ancient grains spaghetti, which worked nicely...happy to bring some bright lemon flavor into the house!...made 1/2 portion, found one lemon perfect!
diannawrites June 17, 2020
Super sour, less lemon!
pastacookseason June 17, 2020
There is waaay too much lemon in this recipe, super acidic! It almost makes the dish completely inedible. I recommend using only 1 lemon or less.
Lauren L. May 28, 2020
I will be making this all summer. It’s so very simple, doesn’t involve heating up the kitchen, and super tasty. I didn’t have basil but used fresh oregano from my garden and it was great.
AmberGurl99 May 3, 2020
I made an account to review this, but this recipe did not work out. It ended up tasting revolting and it was a waste of good quality ingredients.
Babs I. February 19, 2019
I agree with Alyson. I LOVE lemon everything, sweet or savory, but next time I will omit the zest. The lemon came from my own tree, which is as organic as a backyard tree can be.
arbeenyc February 1, 2023
Better to omit most of the juice but keep the zest. There are other similar recipes for this dish, which use far less juice but the zest is what makes the dish.
Alyson S. January 1, 2019
This pasta is delicious. However, I found the lemon flavor to be overly intense. Next time, I will use half the amount of lemon. I added honey, as a previous reviewer suggested, and that helped.
Shelby W. October 21, 2018
Really great dish; one of my favorite F52 recipes for sure! I found that when using non-organic lemons specifically, the acidity and lemon flavor overall became a little overwhelming. A good solution I found is adding a little honey in the sauce stage. Yes, it changes the consistency a bit (once you mix it into the pasta w/ the salted water, you won't be able to tell the difference in viscosity), but it lightens the overall flavor and makes everything more palatable for sensitive eaters :)
Keith S. August 5, 2018
This is THE ONE. After lots of tries to replicate the experience of Sandro's spaghettini al limone, this recipe was like finding home. Awesome to emulsify the ingredients before the pasta, rather than cooking them and stirring into it...so adding anchovies to the waiting sauce melted them without sizzling them. Bravo and ta!
Dawn G. June 25, 2018
I made this tonight with fresh basil from the garden and it was sooooo good! I added in some shrimp, too. Really simple, easy recipe but the flavor was great and it’s a nice light summer meal. Next time I will double it, because there are no leftovers that I was hoping to have!
Lynn June 5, 2018
Deeeeeelicious! Had it cold the next day with halved grape tomatoes. Refreshing, amazing, tangy. Was thinking all the other geggies you could add in cold salad form. Fantastic! Thank you for this recipe.
Lynn June 5, 2018
Veggies! (Not geggies). Artichoke? Cucumber?
Nina W. May 25, 2018
will this work with zuchini noodles
Kris May 2, 2018
What would you serve this with for a complete meal if you have guests. Vegetarian options please
Jennifer C. May 3, 2018
I would definitely go with a broccoli rabe dish. A perfect complement (colorwise) and a nice bitter element to introduce alongside this richly-flavored pasta dish.
Cindy L. June 4, 2018
What about a meat or seafood dish?
Amy April 20, 2018
Quick, fresh and above all, tasty indeed! Thanks Jennifer!
Dogolaca April 19, 2018
Will I survive if I use a lemon that doesn't have the "organic" label?
Jennifer C. April 19, 2018
You will indeed survive. It’s just the ideal when eating the rind too. I hope you enjoy the recipe!
Rachel April 24, 2018
Conventional lemons are absolutely fine.