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Pasta Sides and Toppings

A single food rarely typifies a whole country's cuisine, but Italy's unofficial national dish is pasta.

Pasta has been served for some 500 years, and is as notable for its longevity as for its variety; it is made in Italy's 20 regions according to the ingredients prevalent in each of them. Where there are eggs there are egg-based pastas; where there are fewer chickens, there are fewer eggs so water becomes a common binder. But ingredients aren't pasta's only area of diversity.

As any Italian-loving diner knows, there is endless variation in pasta cuts, each best enhanced by a different sauce: elbows, penne and fusilli work well with chunky sauces, which get caught in tubes and twirls, while smooth sauces cling beautifully to long-threaded spaghetti and linguine.

There are as many ways to serve pasta as there are types of the dish. And because of its ability to please a crowd, pasta is natural choice for a meal with which to end a busy day, especially on cold evenings, when we're looking for a food that will warm us up and bring our families together. This month we show you simple ways to dress up your pasta dinners with additions that will turn even weekday plates into meals to remember.

Topping Essentials

Kids love adding toppings to their food...but adults do too. Bowls filled with colorful ingredients add variety to a table, which is particularly useful if you are serving a one-pan dish, like baked pasta. Garnishes also let diners flavor their food as they like. Here are some examples:

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  • Red-pepper flakes add heat.
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  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano adds tang.
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  • Toasted bread crumbs add crunch.
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  • Herbs add brightness (we like finely chopped parsley and basil).

Tabletop Tidbits

When you have pasta for dinner, it is usually the meal's main event; but sometimes one dish just doesn't feel like enough. Setting the table with side plates satisfies extra-hungry diners and encourages even your littlest eater to pile on tasty additions. Some sides to try:

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  • Crisp crudités balance the richness of the cheese and sauce that make your pasta taste so good.
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  • Thick slices of cucumber sprinkled with coarse sea salt also do the trick and make a nice presentation when fanned on a plate.
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  • Prepare a full salad, lightly dressed with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and serve it after your pasta meal. Although Americans eat salad as an appetizer, Italians like their insalata at a meal's end, for its digestive properties. This works especially well with one-dish meals.
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  • It may be seem counterintuitive to serve starch with starch, but bread is the most natural complement to pasta, perfect for wiping plates clean of every drop of sauce.

Speaking Of Sauce...

Italians like serving pasta with just a thin swath of sauce, but this practice could leave your sauce-loving diners wanting more. Regardless of which pasta cut you're serving, consider adding to the table:

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  • A pretty cruet of Bertolli olive oil, for people who don't like sauce. The oil serves as a delicious base for Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt, pepper and whatever else you're topping that night.