Spicy, highly seasoned foods are not normally associated with Italian cooking, but the use of spices in cooking dates back to Roman and even Etruscan—times, when spices were used freely, often to excess. Nowadays, spices tend to be used more sparingly and the range tends to be limited to a few favorites.
Small red chiles are immensely popular in the south of Italy and Sardinia, and they are frequently used in sauces for pasta. Sometimes the sauce is a classic that depends on chiles for its essential flavor— the hot and spicy Penne all Arrobbiata from Rome being perhaps the most famous. Most often, however, chiles are added more sparingly with the aim of livening up a sauce and intensifying its flavor rather than giving it a fiery punch.
Fresh chiles tend to be fried with a soffritto of olive oil, onion, garlic and parsley at the beginning of sauce making, whereas dried chiles are popped into the sauce when it is bubbling. Both fresh and dried chiles are often added whole to sauces in order to impart a subtle flavor. They are later lifted out and either discarded or chopped or crumbled, then returned to the sauce. The seeds may be included or left out, depending on the degree of heat required (the seeds contain most of the heat). Crushed dried red chiles or chile flakes (sold in little jars) are very handy when just a pinch or two of chile is required in a recipe.
Ground cinnamon is used in stuffings for pasta, both with meat and cheese. It gives a fragrant aroma and subtle sweetness and is always used sparingly.
Nutmeg (Noce moscata)
Whole nutmeg is grated fresh when needed, It is used for flavoring to beschiamella (béchamel sauce) and is often used in combination with spinach and ricotta cheese. In Emilia-Romagna, it is traditionally used for flavoring meat sauces and stuffings for pasta.
Black peppercorns are ground fresh from a pepper mill as and when they are needed, both in cooking and at the table. Black pepper is used in just about every pasta sauce that is made, and it is also used to speckle and flavor homemade pasta. If coarsely crushed peppercorns are required, they are ground with a mortar and pestle.
The most expensive spice in the world, saffron comes in two different forms. Threads of saffron, the actual dried stigmas of the crocus, are usually wrapped in cellophane and sold in sachets. They can be sprinkled into a sauce, but are more often soaked in warm water for 20-30 minutes, so that the water can be strained off and used for coloring and flavoring. Saffron powder is sold in sachets and can be sprinkled directly into sauces. It is less expensive than the threads and considered by many to be inferior, but it is more convenient to use. Saffron has a delicate but distinctive flavor, which is good with both cream and butter-based sauces as well as fish and shellfish. The spice is also used to color homemade pasta.
Coarse sea salt and rock salt are ground in a salt mill and used both as a seasoning in cooking and at the table. It is essential that salt is added to the water when boiling pasta to give it flavor, but for this you can use refined cooking salt rather than the more expensive sea or rock salt. Just about every pasta sauce will have salt as a seasoning, except perhaps those containing salty anchovies or bottarga (air-dried mullet or tuna roe).