I cannot count the number of times that I have heard people planning trips to Italy who say that although they cannot speak Italian, they will be able to read the menu because they know words such as marinara and alfredo. The truth is, most Italian restaurants in the USA cater to the Italian-American appetite. You are much more likely to find pasta sauces called al sugu and quattro formaggi than these two standard American favorites. I always urge these travelers, and first-time travelers to any country, to bring a small phrase book, or even a few printed pages, of more frequent menu terms. If you're one of those individuals who will eat anything, and sees eating as an adventure, then perhaps the information below won't assist you. But if you're a vegetarian, if you have a food allergy, if you simply would like to know what you're about to consume, then it's important to know your sauces before you make a mistake. It's impossible to list them all, but the below is a primer of the more common sauces you'll find in Italy. If you look closely, you may also see them popping up in your local grocery store. So dig in!
Bolognese - Also called ragu, this comes from the Bologna. It typically contains tomatoes, onion, milk, vegetables and meat (usually beef or pork).
Pesto - Originating in the Liguria region of Italy, pesto is typically fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic and other herbs. For the best taste this sauce is prepared by mortar and pestle.
Vongole - Clam sauce which is typically made with fresh clams, olive oil, garlic, parsley and pepper.
Carbonara - Originating in Rome, this sauce contains egg yolks, meat (typically guanciale which is cured fatty pork cheek), pecorino and parmesan cheese.
Quattro Formaggi - This means four cheeses. Depending on the region of Italy, it is made with different cheeses, and therefore can have a completely different taste.
Alla Salvia - This means with sage. Fresh sage, olive oil and garlic are regulars, but sometimes it also includes anchovies.
Con Panna - This means with cream and can be a basic cream sauce, or it can also be included with a basic tomato sauce.
Arrabiata - This literally means angry quills. If you have a heat tolerance, watch out for this one. It can have pork or beef or be meatless, depending on the region and on the restaurant, but it always includes red pepper.