The Best & Worst Trader Joe's Frozen Pasta Dinners, According to an Italian Chef

I tasted half a dozen frozen pasta dinners from TJ’s—here are the ones I would definitely buy again (and the ones I won't).

Overhead shot of plates of different kinds of prepared pasta on a orange and yellow background

Tyrel Stendahl/Allrecipes

I'm a first-generation Italian-American and a professional chef. So I don't tend to patronize Trader Joe's frozen pasta section much. Now, no disrespect to anyone who does; I've just spent my life making and eating fresh pasta and all-day simmered sauces, so the premade versions just never appealed to me.

That is until I ran into my friend and fellow chef in the freezer aisle of Trader Joe's, and she asked me, "So, have you ever tried any of these?" pointing to the rows of bagged, frozen pasta. I'll admit, I was taken aback. I wasn't expecting her to be an advocate for frozen pasta, but she surprised me by telling me how much she loves them and insisted I try some of her favorites.

I love Trader Joe's, and they've rarely wronged me in the past, so I thought, "why not?" So I grabbed a few bags of Trader Joe's most popular frozen pasta and invited a few chef friends for the weirdest dinner party I've ever hosted. What could go wrong?

All of Trader Joe’s Frozen Pasta Dishes, Ranked

#6: Rigatoni alla Contadina (1/10)

Overhead closeup of prepared Rigatoni alla Contadina

Tyrel Stendahl/Allrecipes

It's hard to find something good to write about this pasta. It consists of rigatoni with a creamy sauce studded with asparagus and peas. The sauce was watery and didn't cling to the tough and chewy rigatoni; it also severely lacked salt (or much other flavor). The bag boasted broccoli, and I was disappointed to find that no actual chunks of broccoli were included; instead, the broccoli was blended into the cream sauce cubes. This made a milky sauce with all the…unique fragrance of cooked broccoli. It was the only plate we didn't finish during our taste test and the only bag I threw away.

What I'd add: The flavor is very pungent and intense, so to cover that up, I'd want to add a lot of Parmesan cheese plus a few generous pinches of salt. I'd also toss some frozen broccoli chunks and maybe a handful of spinach.

#5: Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli (3/10)

Overhead closeup of prepared spinach and ricotta ravioli in tomato sauce

Tyrel Stendahl/Allrecipes

I wanted to love this so badly. Unfortunately, the combination of understuffed and grainy ravioli filling paired with perplexingly sour and chunky sauce was a miss. The sauce tasted more of citric acid than a tart fresh tomato, and I was confused by the odd, almost metallic flavor that seemed to linger even after a few sips of water. I certainly wouldn't reach for these over any of Trader Joe's refrigerated ravioli, especially since there isn't much going on in the flavor department in the sauce or pasta. The thickness of the pasta sheet was nice, though; it felt thin and delicate, which is what you want with ravioli.

What I'd add: This sauce needs an overhaul. It's fussy, but if I made this again, I'd pick out all the sauce bricks and cook it down with tomato paste and some sautéed onion for at least 20 minutes to develop flavor. A mountain of Parmesan wouldn't hurt, either.

#4: Cheese Filled Fiocchetti with Pink Sauce (5/10)

Overhead closeup of prepared Cheese Filled Fiocchetti with Pink Sauce

Tyrel Stendahl/Allrecipes

The color of this sauce is hugely off-putting. I was expecting a creamy tomato sauce, but as promised, this sauce is pink. It has an odd acidic note with a sweeter finish, but the flavor is fine overall. The texture of both the sauce and filling was totally on point. In contrast to the ravioli, the cheese filling was silky and flavorful. The thickness of the past sheet was pleasing, but the shape led to uneven cooking. The knot where all the pasta is gathered felt undercooked, while the fluttery tops felt overcooked. The pouches containing the filling were just right, though. The pasta and sauce together were a texturally diverse bite, but the flavor got boring after a few bites.

What I'd add: A big handful of spinach would break things up beautifully here. If I was feeling fancy, I might add sliced chicken and a few scoops of sundried tomato with the spinach.

#3: Sweet Potato Gnocchi (6/10)

Overhead closeup of sweet potato gnocchi in a sage butter sauce

Tyrel Stendahl/Allrecipes

The best thing about this pasta was the sauce. Each little gnocchi nugget is coated in a layer of sauce rather than in separate bricks, so as the pan heats up, the sauce melts evenly, and the gnocchi themselves don't overcook. The buttery sage flavor is pronounced and delicious, but the deeply cooked fall flavors of sage and brown butter aren't balanced with any acid. And the texture of the gnocchi was all wrong—a gooey mess. They felt like raw dough in my mouth, and the stogey mixture got caught in my throat. The flavor of the gnocchi was great and was seasoned extremely well with a good cheesy flavor. The major pitfall was the mushy texture. After a second bite, it became monotonous and just a plate full of mush.

What I'd add: A sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs or nuts would go a long way here; this pasta is desperate for some texture. Top them with crushed hazelnut or pecans, pomegranate arils, and some crumbled goat cheese for an even more diverse bite. The texture of the gnocchi might improve if cooked in an air fryer as well.

#2: Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe (8/10)

Overhead closeup of a plate of prepared cacio e pepe pasta

Tyrel Stendahl/Allrecipes

When opening the package, I saw that the spaghetti was wound into little nests. This was cute, but I was worried they would stick together and be a gloopy mess. I was thrilled to be wrong. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the pasta was cooked; it felt fresh. The texture of the sauce was great too. It clings well to the pasta, and there was enough to go around for some seriously saucy twirls. But the sauce was very heavy on the pepper, almost overpowering. The thing I love best about cacio e pepe is the funk from the pecorino, which was severely lacking. It's much more an Alfredo sauce with a whole lot of black pepper, which was a tasty dish, but not quite cacio e pepe. Someone referred to this as "the fancy Alfredo," which is a perfect description. This was the quickest devoured, and at the end, we actually made the rest of the bag, so I'd get this one again.

What I'd add: The ultra-creaminess of this sauce is crying out for some brightness. I'd top this with some peppery arugula dressed in a zingy lemon vinaigrette, and maybe even some Calabrian chili to balance everything out.

#1: Penne Arrabiata (9.5/10)

Overhead closeup of a plate of prepared penne with spicy tomato sauce

Tyrel Stendahl/Allrecipes

This was the favorite by a landslide, and I will 100% fill my freezer with a few bags of this pasta. The Arrabiata sauce had a slight kick to it, and the flavor of the tomatoes tasted like a long-cooked sauce—not too acidic and without any canned tomato flavor. If I had eaten this at a friend's house, I wouldn't guess it was frozen. With just penne and a slightly spicy tomato sauce, it's pretty plain, but it would be a great jumping-off point that could accommodate a lot of different flavor additions. We ended up finishing off this bag at the end as well, with some fighting over the last bite.

What I'd add: This is a great base and can lend itself to many flavor combinations. I'd add sliced sausage, sautéed kale, and a scoop of Calabrian chilis to bump up the heat. This would also be great with white beans and a big dollop of ricotta.

The Bottom Line

What I'd buy again: Penne Arrabbiata and Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe.

What I might eat at a friend's house: Cheese Filled Fiocchetti with Pink Sauce and Sweet Potato Gnocchi.

What I'll avoid: Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli and Rigatoni alla Contadina.

Was this page helpful?
You’ll Also Love