Bright lemon balances the richness of one-pot pasta

Tomatoes may get more attention, but throughout Italy lemon is also often found in pasta.

Along the Amalfi Coast, ring-shaped calamarata pasta comes with clams, parsley, garlic and fried strips of a sweet local lemon. In Sicily, shortcrust pastry is sprinkled with roasted pistachios, Parmesan cheese and lemon juice and zest. And in Rome, the juice is whipped with olive oil, cream and Parmesan cheese for al dente tagliatelle.

The sour, subtly sweet citrus balances the starch of the noodle and the weight of the sauce, working much like the dose of freshly ground black pepper that offsets the pecorino romano in the cacio e pepe. And it performs much the same role as the tomato, providing acidity that runs through the cheese.

In fact, the combination of lemons and pasta is arguably more traditional than the red sauce itself, as the fruit arrived in Italy at least 1,500 years before tomatoes.

Lemon features prominently in a batter in our “COOKish” book, which limits recipes to just six ingredients without sacrificing flavor. Crisp, invigorating lemon zest and juice enhance the flavor of garlic, pancetta and capers, while a dusting of crispy golden breadcrumbs adds texture.

This spaghetti is also a one-pot wonder: we cook the pasta in a minimal amount of water, and the resulting starchy liquid forms a slightly thickened sauce that coats the noodles.

Lemon and caper spaghetti with pancetta and toasted breadcrumbs

Start to finish: 25 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

½ cup panko breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

4 ounces pancetta, chopped

4 medium garlic cloves, minced

⅓ cup drained capers, chopped

1 pound of spaghetti

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

In a large saucepan, cook panko and oil, stirring, until golden brown. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in a pinch of salt. In the same pan, cook the pancetta, stirring, until crispy. Add the garlic and most of the capers; cook, stirring, until fragrant. Add 4 cups of water and ½ teaspoon of salt and pepper, then bring to a boil. Stir in pasta, cover and cook, stirring, until al dente. Off the heat, stir in the remaining capers and the lemon zest and juice; Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs.

Optional garnish: chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley OR finely grated pecorino romano cheese OR both.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more recipes, visit Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street at