Fresh Herbs And Leaves

These are used extensively for flavoring sauces for pasta, and for presentation and garnishing. Italian cooks keep pots of fresh herbs growing on the windowsill or in the garden, and think nothing of tossing in a handful of this or that herb to freshen up the flavor of their cooking. Herbs are added according to the individual cook's taste, and are seldom measured.


The variety known as sweet basil is used in Italian cooking, and this is the one you are most likely to find in stores. It is used all over Italy, but most of all in Liguria, where it grows prolifically and is used in large quantities for pesto. Basil has a special affinity with tomatoes and is frequently used with them in sauces for pasta. It is best torn or shredded and added at the last moment. Fine chopping and long cooking spoil its pungent flavor.

Bay (Alloro/lauro Both fresh and dried bay)

Leaves are used all over Italy for flavoring soups and broths and long-cooking sauces, especially those made with meat, poultry and game. The leaves are removed before serving.

Marjoram and Oregano (Maggiorana e Origano)

These two herbs are closely related, but their flavors are quite different. Marjoram is sweet and delicate, while oregano, a wild variety of marjoram, is a pungent herb that should be used sparingly. They are both used in sauces for pasta, especially tomato- based ones, but marjoram is used more in Liguria and the north of Italy and oregano in the south, where it is perhaps best known for being sprinkled on pizza. Both marjoram and oregano are best chopped quite finely. They are sometimes used dried in the winter

Mint (Mentuccia)

Mint is not an herb usually associated with Italian cooking, but it is frequently used in Roman dishes, in the cooking of central Italy, and even as far south as Calabria. Mentuccia is a particular kind of wild mint with small leaves grown in Rome, and there is also another variety called nepitella. You may come across the flavor of fresh mint in pasta soups, and very occasionally in sauces for pasta.

Parsley (Prezzemolo)

Italians use the flat-leaf variety of parsley, which is also sold as Italian parsley. It looks very similar to cilantro, and has a stronger flavor than curly parsley. It is used frequently in sauces for pasta, in fairly large amounts, and is often roughly chopped and fried in olive oil with a battuto of onion and garlic at the beginning of sauce making. It is popular all over Italy and is only used fresh.

Sage (Salvia)

Along with parsley, basil and rosemary, sage is one of Italy's favorite herbs. It is frequently used by Roman cooks who sizzle fresh sage in butter to create a classic sauce to serve with ravioli. Fresh sage leaves are also used with meat, sausage, poultry and game sauces, either finely shredded or chopped or as whole leaves, which are removed before serving. Fresh sage is preferred to dried, but dried sage is occasionally used in the winter, in sauces that are cooked for a long time.

Arugula (Rucola)

Peppery rucola loses its pungency when cooked, so it is added to pasta sauces at the last minute, or strewn liberally on top of pasta dishes just before serving. Bunches of large-leaved rucola from the greengrocer are best; the small packets sold at supermarkets are very expensive and seem to lack flavor. Use rucola as soon as possible after purchase because the leaves can quickly go limp and yellow, especially in warm weather.


This ruby red and white salad leaf is a member of the chicory family. The most common variety, radicchio di Verona, is small and round with very tightly furled leaves, but there is another type called radicchio di Treviso, which is streaked creamy white and red with looser, long and tapering leaves. Both have a bitter flavor, which is much appreciated in small amounts in pasta sauces. Shredded leaves should be added at the last moment, to preserve their color.

Thyme (Timo)

This aromatic and distinctively flavored herb is used both fresh and dried. It is a Mediterranean herb that goes well with tomato-based sauces and with meat and poultry, and it is also good mixed with rosemary and bay.

Rosemary (Rosmarino)

This most fragrant and pungent herb is very popular all over Italy Rosemary is used sparingly in meat and tomato sauces, either very finely chopped or on the sprig, which is then removed from the sauce before serving. Dried rosemary is sometimes used in the winter months.