This pasta fresca recipe is inspired by the popular Noodles & Company menu item of the same name. It features tender pasta, rich and sweet sautéed onion, garlic, tomatoes, and spinach, all tossed in a light balsamic sauce. It's a great side dish for parties and potlucks. Or add your favorite plant-based protein for a more satisfying dinner. Vegan and easily made gluten-free.
Have you heard of Noodles & Company? It's a fast-casual restaurant chain here in the U.S. Their pasta fresca is one of the most, if not THE most, popular items on their menu.
In fact, apparently pasta fresca is so loved by customers, that after a four year hiatus from the menu, Noodles & Co. decided to bring it back due to overwhelming feedback.
When you see how simple the ingredient list is and imagine the flavors you'll understand why it's so successful.
I should add that I'm not saying this will taste just like their version. But based on the main ingredients in Noodles & Company's pasta fresca, this is my take!
Slowly sauteed in olive oil, the red onion becomes sweet and tender. It actually tastes caramelized after the balsamic is added, but in about half the time it normally takes to make caramelized onions.
And then fresh garlic and tomatoes add even more depth and umami.
But the kicker is the balsamic vinegar. It's added directly to the pan with the onion, garlic, and tomatoes and cooked down for a few minutes.
Finally, it's all tossed together with cooked pasta and fresh spinach. It's so simple and yet irresistible.
And when something is that simple and good, why not make it at home, where you can not only save money but customize it any way you want!
I think you'll LOVE this pasta fresca recipe because it's:
- comforting and nutritious
- ready in under 30 minutes
- easily customized with different types of pasta, proteins, and veggies
- and just so darn tasty!
What does pasta fresca mean?
Pasta fresca may refer to fresh pasta (as in not dried). When "fresca" is used in cooking, it implies there are fresh ingredients added to the dish.
- pasta - regular, whole-grain, or gluten-free. I used penne but other shapes are also perfect.
- olive oil - this is the only fat added to the dish and is important for the overall flavor.
- red onion - you'll need one medium/large onion.
- tomatoes - I like to use cherry or grape tomatoes. Feel free to use what you have.
- garlic - infuses so much flavor into the oil. I used 5 small/medium cloves. Adjust the amount as you see fit. 🙂
- balsamic vinegar - I used an organic wine barrel aged balsamic from Whole Foods. Choose a thick, sweet, good quality balsamic for the recipe as it is one of the main flavors in the dish. This isn't the place to go cheap!
- spinach - fresh baby spinach is part of the original dish, but other leafy greens could work well, too. For sturdier greens like kale, add them to the pan earlier, during the saute, so they have time to soften.
- parsley - I added chopped fresh parsley at the end for a touch of freshness. I'm not sure if Noodles and Company includes any herbs, but I thought it would be nice.
- lemon - optional but it does add another layer of fresh flavor and zing.
See recipe card below for quantities.
- Generously salt the water and boil pasta according to package directions. While it's cooking start on the saute. When the pasta is done drain in a colander and set aside.
- Heat oil over medium heat. Cook the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and tomatoes and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes or until the tomatoes are juicy and softened. Season with salt and pepper.
- Add the balsamic vinegar and cook 4 to 5 minutes or until slightly reduced.
- Add the pasta and spinach, and any cooked proteins you'd like. Season with salt, pepper, and fresh lemon juice. Remove from heat once the spinach is wilted, about 1 to 2 minutes.
What to Serve With Pasta Fresca
- side salad - try my oil-free Italian dressing for a light option. Or use your favorite bottled Italian dressing.
- bread - you can't go wrong with perfectly toasted and buttery vegan garlic bread.
- pasta - pretty mush any pasta shape you have on hand works here. Try farfalle (also known as bow tie), rigatoni, ziti, or mostaccioli.
- cheese - I used Violife Just Like Parmesan since Noodles & Company includes Parmesan cheese in pasta fresca. But other types of cheese are delicious with pasta fresca, too, like vegan feta, fresh mozz (try Miyoko's), or a homemade nut-based parm.
- gluten-free - use your favorite gluten-free pasta. I really love the brown rice penne from Trader Joe's.
- vegetables - try pasta fresca with small broccoli florets, asparagus, peas, zucchini, or yellow squash.
- proteins - to make this dish more filling while still keeping it vegan and vegetarian, add cooked white beans, chickpeas, or your favorite vegan meat substitute. Here are a few ideas:
- plant-based Italian sausage
- "chicken" cutlets or strips
- baked tofu or tempeh
- seasoned and cooked soy curls
- or these tasty breaded seitan nuggets!
Always add a generous amount of salt to the pasta water. This makes all the difference in the finished dish!
You Might Like
I hope you enjoy this vegan take on Noodles & Company Pasta Fresca. If you try the recipe comment below to let us know!
Vegan Pasta Fresca
- 16 ounces dry penne or other pasta
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large red onion, thinly sliced
- 5 medium cloves garlic, minced
- 10 to 12 ounces grape or cherry tomatoes, halved - about 2 ½ cups
- ½ to ¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
- freshly cracked black pepper
- ½ cup good quality balsamic vinegar
- 3 ounces fresh baby spinach - about 3 cups
- optional proteins: canned chickpeas or white beans, baked tofu, seitan, sausage, etc.
- 1 small lemon, optional but recommended
- vegan Parmesan cheese - I used Violife, shaved with a peeler
- Cook the pasta in salted water according to package directions. When the pasta is al dente, drain in a colander.
- Preheat a large saute pan or pot over medium to medium-low heat and add the oil. When hot, add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes, until softened. Reduce the heat if needed so the onion doesn't brown.
- Add the garlic and tomatoes and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes or until the tomatoes are juicy and softened. Add black pepper and ½ teaspoon fine sea salt.
- Add the balsamic vinegar and simmer for 4 to 5 minutes or until slightly reduced. Add the cooked pasta and spinach to the pan (plus any cooked protein, if using).
- Add juice from half of the lemon, if desired. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper. Remove from heat once the spinach is wilted, about 1 to 2 minutes. Top with vegan parmesan or other cheese. Serve warm with lemon wedges on the side.
Estimated Nutrition (per serving)
Nutrition information is an estimate and will vary depending on the exact amounts and specific products and ingredients used. We calculate this information using the online calculator cronometer.com.
Absolutely loved it!