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This is an old-school Italian nonna-style broccoli pasta recipe, inspired by my grandmother. To make it, you cook fresh broccoli with garlic and olive oil in a skillet until it practically melts into a creamy, unbelievably tasty sauce. Combined with cooked pasta, grated Parmesan cheese, a little butter and lemon zest, the sauce tastes like the essence of broccoli, so sweet and tender. You must try it!
My grandmother never saw a green vegetable that she didn’t cook for a loooong time, until it turned a shade of drab olive green. But whatever it lacked in the looks department was always worth ten times in flavor.
Pasta with broccoli is one of the simplest, most satisfying pasta dinner ideas, especially for prepping dinner on the fly. But rather than combing pasta with sauteed broccoli, or briefly boiling broccoli until it’s crisp-tender, this recipe takes it a few steps further — transforming a few humble ingredients into a rustic dish you’ll never forget.
A version of this recipe appears in my cookbook, a tribute to the homey Italian cooking I grew up with.
- Broccoli: The sauce uses whole heads of broccoli, including the florets and tender green stems, which turn sweet and delicious when cooked until very tender. Choose a good-sized bunch of broccoli that weighs up to 1-1/2 pounds.
- Garlic: Please use fresh, peeled garlic for the best flavor.
- Parmesan cheese: If you have time, I suggest that you buy a chunk of Parmesan and grate it at home with a rasp grater or box grater so you can get the full benefit of its nutty, umami flavor.
- Parsley: Fresh parsley dresses up the dish for serving, with its color and fresh taste.
- Dried pasta: I recommend cooking one of your favorite short pasta shapes. They’re the best for capturing the broccoli and sauce in their nooks and crannies!
- Lemon: It’s not authentic to my nonna’s method, but I love to grate fresh lemon zest over the finished dish for an aromatic hit of citrus.
Broccoli pasta cooking steps
- This is a recipe beginner and advanced cooks can make with ease. You’ll need a large pot for cooking the pasta, and a wide skillet for cooking the broccoli sauce.
Broccoli Pasta with Parmesan Sauce (Nonna-Style)
- 1-1½ pounds (450-675 g) broccoli, about 1 bunch
- Kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons (45 ml) extra virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- ¼-½ teaspoon crushed red pepper, to taste
- 8-10 ounces (225-285 g) short dried pasta, such as ziti, fusilli, rigatoni, penne
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) butter
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- 2-3 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons grated fresh lemon zest
- Trim off the bottom 2-3 inches of the broccoli stems, depending on how dry or fibrous they are (disgard or add to your compost). Slice off and separate the green stem from the florets. Cut the stem into approximately 1-inch pieces, and break or slice the florets into bite-size pieces.
- Bring 4-6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add 2-3 tablespoons kosher salt, until it tastes pleasantly salty — this helps to season the broccoli and pasta from the inside out.
- Drop the broccoli pieces into the boiling water and cook for one minute. Scoop the broccoli out with a slotted spoon, transferring it into a colander set over a bowl to help it drain. Scoop out 1 cup of the boiling water into a small bowl. Keep the pot covered on a low boil until you're ready to cook the pasta.
- Add the olive oil, garlic and red pepper to a skillet or saute pan that's large enough to hold the broccoli and sauce, 10-12-inches in diameter. Cook over medium-high heat until the garlic smells fragrant, 1-2 minutes, but don't brown it. Stir in the broccoli, ½ teaspoon salt and the reserved cup of water.
- Cover the pan, reduce the heat to medium and cook 15-20 minutes. The broccoli should be soft enough to squish with a spatula. Mash some of the pieces against the side of the pan to make a creamier sauce.
- Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente, following the package directions. Scoop out and reserve ½ cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and add to the skillet with the grated Parmesan, parsley and lemon zest. Stir until the pasta is coated with the sauce (you can dribble in some of the pasta water a tablespoon at a time if the sauce looks dry). Serve right away, with more Parmesan cheese sprinkled over.
Karen’s Notes and Tips
- Pasta and broccoli keeps well for a day or two, refrigerated.
- Optional, but delicious: Add 2 chopped anchovy fillets to the olive oil with the garlic and red pepper. It adds a sneaky, savory layer of flavor.
- 8-10 ounces of dried pasta and broccoli sauce serves 4 generously.
Nutrition facts are calculated by third-party software. If you have specific dietary needs, please refer to your favorite calculator.