Pasta e fagioli

Pasta e fagioli: The Authentic Recipe

In Campania, pasta, primi piatti, Soups by Frank58 Comments

Pasta e fagioli, or pasta and beans, which goes by the amusing nickname ‘pasta fazool‘ in Italian-American slang, is one of the most internationally famous dishes in the entire Italian repertoire.  It is, however, a victim of its own success, and is too often made badly, very badly, which is why I would never order this dish in a restaurant outside Italy. The real thing, however, is not at all hard to make at home. In fact, it is a great standby for weeknights where you don’t have much time and need to whip up something quickly. And the results are really wonderful on a cold winter night.  

There are lots of authentic variations on the dish—the recipe varies from area to area and, I would dare say, from family to family—but here is the way I like to make it:

Ingredients

For 4-6 servings

  • 100g (4 oz.) pancetta
  • 2 or 3 garlic cloves, slightly crushed
  • A sprig of fresh rosemary
  • A peperoncino (optional)
  • Olive Oil
  • 3-4 canned tomatoes, plus a bit of juice
  • 500g (1 lb.) (or one large can) cannellini beans, pre-boiled or canned, drained
  • Water or homemade broth 
  • 500g (1 lb.) ditali or other soup pasta (see Notes), parboiled
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Grated pecorino cheese

Directions

Fry the pancetta, cut up into cubes or lardons, in olive oil until just beginning to brown, then add the garlic cloves and rosemary. (You can also add a peperoncino at this point if you like some spice.)

 Just when you start to smell the garlic and rosemary, add the canned tomatoes, which you should crush in your hands as you add them to the pot. (I just add one or two plus a little juice, just enough to lightly color the soup and add a little flavor) and simmer until the tomatoes have separated from the oil.

Then add your cannellini beans, allow them to simmer for a minute or two to insaporire (absorb the flavors of the tomato and other ingredients) and then add water (or broth) and partially cooked pasta (see below). The amount of liquid depends on how ‘soupy’ you like your pasta e fagioli, but I would add at least enough to cover the ingredients by 5cm/2in, as the pasta will absorb quite a bit. 

Continue simmering, squashing some of the beans against the side of the pot so that they ‘melt’ into the liquid and thicken it, until the pasta is fully cooked. Add more liquid if things begin to dry out. 

I like to mix in a bit of grated pecorino cheese to enrich the soup before serving. Serve topped with you choice of additional grated cheese, freshly ground pepper and/or un filo d’olio.

Notes

There are nearly endless variations for pasta e fagioli, beginning with the proportions. You can add more or less of each ingredient according to you taste, which is why measurements for this thing are almost senseless, except as a starting point. If you prefer a vegetarian dish, you can omit the pancetta, which I often do. And if you wish to ‘veganize’ it, don’t use cheese either. Or you can use crumbed sausage meat instead of the pancetta, if you want some meat flavor but can’t find pancetta. Salt pork also works well, as does something called ‘country ham’. Regular cooked ham, however, does not give you the right flavor for this dish, IMHO. You can make the soup even meatier by using broth, but I find that with all the other flavors going on, water is not only acceptable but preferable. If you’ve made the beans yourself, do use the cooking water from the beans, which have wonderful flavor.

You can also use other kinds of beans. In fact, just about any legume could do, although most typical would be a bean like pinto or cranberry beans. Chickpeas are wonderful in this dish, in which case you will have made a pasta e ceci. In our family pasta and lentils are typically made a different way, as a pasta asciutta rather than a soup, but you might want to try it made this way and see what it’s like. By the way, canned beans are perfectly acceptable, but do remember to drain and wash them well. The canning liquid would otherwise give the dish an ‘off’, artificial taste. One legume that I would not try this way are peas; their flavor is too delicate to stand up to such a robust, rustic treatment. Try instead this delicate pasta e piselli dish with just onions, parsley and broth.

And, of course, the choice of pasta can vary, although small, stubby pastas work best. I personally like ditali (as shown above) but small shells or ‘elbows’ would work well. In Italy, it is very common to use the odds and ends of different pastas you have around, called pasta mista–it’s a great way to use up those last few pieces of pasta that inevitably wind up at the bottom of the box. Collect them in a towel or bag, then smash them with meat pounder or the back of a skillet to reduce them all to about the same small size. Some recipes call for adding the pasta directly to the soup pot without pre-cooking them. If you do that, however, be careful; I find that the pasta inevitably sticks to the bottom of the pot and can burn. And be sure to add quite a bit extra water as the pasta will absorb it readily as it cooks.

You can also make a milder, more ‘refined’ dish by making a different kind of flavoring base or soffritto of onion, carrot and celery rather than garlic, rosemary and red pepper, in which case you can substitute parmesan for the pecorino. Personally, I prefer this heartier, earthier version.

But even if this dish can be highly personalized, there are some limits beyond which you are killing the ‘spirit’ of the dish and, as I mentioned, this soup is all too often subject to culinary abuse abroad. An authentic pasta e fagioli should not be brothy, as you will often see when this and other pasta and legume dishes (including minestrone) are made outside Italy. Rather, you should end up with a thick soup that is almost a stew. And ignore recipes that use this soup as a dumping ground for all sorts of extraneous dried herbs or overwhelm the other flavors with too much tomato. For example, this recipe for pasta e fagioli, supposedly from the Olive Garden restaurant chain, is a true monstrosity, more of a bad chili than an Italian soup.

Pasta e fagioli: The Authentic Recipe

Total Time: 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 4-6

Ingredients

  • 100g (4 oz.) pancetta
  • 2 or 3 garlic cloves, slightly crushed
  • A sprig of fresh rosemary
  • A peperoncino (optional)
  • Olive Oil
  • 3-4 canned tomatoes, plus a bit of juice
  • 500g (1 lb.) (or one large can) cannellini beans, pre-boiled or canned, drained
  • Water or homemade broth
  • 500g (1 lb.) ditali or other soup pasta (see Notes), parboiled
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Grated pecorino cheese

Instructions

  1. Fry the pancetta, cut up into cubes or lardons, in olive oil until just beginning to brown, then add the garlic cloves and rosemary. (You can also add a peperoncino at this point if you like some spice.)
  2. Just when you start to smell the garlic and rosemary, add the canned tomatoes, which you should crush in your hands as you add them to the pot. (I just add one or two plus a little juice, just enough to lightly color the soup and add a little flavor) and simmer until the tomatoes have separated from the oil.
  3. Then add your cannellini beans, allow them to simmer for a minute or two to insaporire (absorb the flavors of the tomato and other ingredients) and then add water (or broth) and partially cooked pasta (see below).
  4. Continue simmering, squashing some of the beans against the side of the pot so that they 'melt' into the liquid and thicken it, until the pasta is fully cooked.
  5. I like to mix in a bit of grated pecorino cheese to enrich the soup before serving. Serve topped with you choice of additional grated cheese, freshly ground pepper and/or un filo d'olio.
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Comments

  1. Wonderful dish, Frank. Your preparation is similar to the one I make and I love it. In fact, it’s on the menu sometime during the days ahead when our temps will remain well below freezing. It was meant for days like these.

  2. you’re so right Frank, the pasta must be cooked separately, there is nothing worse than chewy pasta cooked in a thick broth! In Umbria we use fresh tagliolini or maltagliati or broken up egg pasta, it cooks in seconds and when added to the soup (I toss it first with a little olive oil) it’s heaven!

  3. Thank you Frank! This recipe of Pasta Fagioli brings back childhood memories of having this dish on Fridays, when meat was not an option! My mom also made a simple version of fresh celery and Lima beans. Sometimes she would keep the broth plain and sometimes she would add a small can of sauce, just to color it a bit. I treasure your site for all the memories you bring back to me and for posting all the recipes I thought were lost to me. God bless you. Happy Advent. I used to visit my Nonna Maria on Fridays and she would often make Pasta i Cici. She had 13 children and pasta with beans was economic.Will you be posting any holiday favorites for the Italian saints?

    1. Author

      Thanks so much, Joann, for the kind words. And yes, keep a look out for Christmas recipes coming soon…

  4. Frank, are we related? Your posts always seem to resonate a childhood cord with me and this particular recipe is exactly what I was familiar with as a child.
    My daughter’s first semister at NYU and experience with institutional food was a less than positive one. The tipping point was one evening when Pasta e Fagioli was available and I received an urgent text “ Culturally insensitive liars” – she was appalled – explaining that it was flavorless, lacking texture and without the appropriate ration of pasta to fagioli.

    1. Author

      Alas, your daughter’s story is all too common these days! Trying in my small way to buck the trend…

  5. Love this dish! And I make mine similar to the way you make yours. In the past I’ve used chicken broth, but I think you’re right that water gives a better dish. And mine is just a bit soupier than yours. At first, at least — after some time, the pasta really absorbs much of the liquid. Anyway, really good. Thanks!

    1. Author

      I know what you mean about the pasta absorbing the liquid. I like mine thick but still juicy, which is hard to achieve for more than a minute or two!

  6. “if the stars make you drool, just like pasta fazool, that’s amore” as Dean Martin famously reminded us. This dish is real cucina povora. You can also make it with potatoes in addition to the beans. It sounds rather stodgy carb-laden but don’t let that pit you off. This is comfort food and, like most cucina povera dishes is truly decilicious. Let me tell a personal story in which pasta fagioli features. A few years ago my wife and I were in Naples. I persuaded her to explore the back streets near our hotel although she was convinced there would be nothing of interest. It took just a few minutes to come upon a queue of people outside an entirely unassuming building but my ‘nose’ for such things told me this was important. We had come upon Nunella a Naples institution known only to the locals and not mentioned in any guides. A little restaurant with a fixed menu that changes daily so popular that by the time we had sat the place was packed and the queue outside was prepared to wait. The owner insisted I let him select the dishes. Ten minutes later, he returned with about 6 plates arranged along both arms four of which went to other tables. one plate was placed before my wife leaving the ladt in the crock of his arm. That the whole room was now watching our table should have forewarned me. With a broad smile he bent his arm and then flexed it sharply sending the plate spinning in the air. As it came down having somersaulted at least three times he caught and flipped it rapidly onto the table in front of me to huge applause. The dish was fazool with potatoes and, yes, it was enough to make you drool.

  7. This is very similar to mamma’s recipe. Yes! I do remember it very thick and it was the meal. You could say our cucina was povera but we were well fed. My folks didn’t waste anything and we used up every bit of food. I like your rustic version of the dish — beautiful memories of mamma’s food.

  8. My grandpa which is from Italy made this with kidney beans fat back Rosemary elbow noodles. He would cut up fat back very very very small and then cut the Rosemary into the fat back and fry it then add broth or water then add some kidney beans. Some beans he would mash the meat out of beans and then add noodles. THE BEST SOUP I’ve ever had. Cant seem to find this recipe anywhere. Have you ever heard of this recipe?? Thank you

    1. Author

      Well, it sounds to me like your grandpa’s own variation on pasta e fagioli. There are so many versions of this dish—probably at least one per Italian household!

  9. I add my pasta to the soup base when it’s just about cooked, stir vigorously, bring back to simmer then take off the heat, cover and leave for 5-10 minutes. No sticking then. Although I do find that the thinner the soup base then the more the chilli bites.

  10. I add my pasta to the soup base when it’s just about cooked, stir vigorously, bring back to simmer then take off the heat, cover and leave for 5-10 minutes. No sticking then. Although I do find that the thinnedr the soup base then the more the chilli bites.

    1. Author

      I like the idea. Will try it next time—although personally I’ve got to have my pasta e fagioli *thick*. It’s the one way I’ll eat it.

    1. Author

      That depends on how ‘soupy’ you like your pasta e fagioli, but at a minimum enough to cover all the ingredients by a good 5cm/2in I’d say, as the pasta will absorb quite a bit of liquid as it cooks. Add more liquid if you see things are drying out.

  11. Mmm…you’re makin’ me feel like an old man! I’m gonna get the beans & search for the right pasta tomorrow. There’s a really pretty pasta Mafalde at Trader Joes, I could break it into pieces. Also, the Olive Garden recipe…vergonata! I’ve played around with some Italian things & called it Italian Chili, which was at least honest.

    PS — loving this website! I was looking for the string beans in tomato sauce for Thanksgiving, now I’m hooked!!

  12. Oooooooo, this sounds so wonderful. When you say 1 peperoncino, do you mean a hot chili pepper? Or a sweet pepper? Just curious. I shall be making this as soon as I can get some pancetta and the ditali. Thanks for sharing!!!!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Chris! A peperoncino is a small dried red chili pepper. It’s very much like the Mexican chile de árbol, if you’re familiar with that. Enjoy!

      1. Ah, okay. I think I can get those at our supermarket. Can’t wait to make it. Tony’s aunt used to make pasta fagioli of sorts, but it was definitely a shortcut. This recipe looks fantastic.

        1. Author

          Another substitute would be red pepper flakes, which you can find just about everywhere these days.

          If you can’t find them, don’t sweat it. It’s an optional ingredient. Most times I make pasta e fagioli I don’t use it. In fact, I’d say most people don’t—it’s just for those times when you feel like a little ‘kick’ to the dish.

          1. Well, now, that makes it even easier. I have red pepper flakes in the house, and often use them (especially in broccoli rabe!). We’re starting to see long hot peppers at the local farm stands, but they are green ones so not too hot. One of those could be tasty in this dish too without giving it too much kick. Hmmmm…..

            Now I REALLY can’t wait to make this dish….and we won’t even talk about Tony’s reminders. Thank you so much for your clarification.

  13. Pingback: Pasta e patate (Pasta and Potatoes) | Memorie di Angelina

  14. In our family we always had this every Fri during lent. Meatless of course but we used kidney beans some smashed some whole. On side we pushed out 5 in circles of dough fried till golden drained on paper towels with sprinkle of salt . Loved Fri.nights

  15. I’ve been the victim of some of those ‘bad’ recipes. I knew I would find the ‘true’ recipe from Frank. Thanks so much. I’ve got some canned cannellini beans and also have the ditali so I’ll be diving into this tonight.

  16. We had this every Friday growing up (so I just dated myself). I was shocked to go to a certain chain restaurant and see meat in the recipe! This is just lovely in its own simplicity.

  17. This is true Italian comfort food. This and its cousin, pasta e ceci, are wintertime favorites in our household. Based on all of the comments, you definitely struck a chord with this one, Frank!

  18. “Victim of its own success” unfortunately applies to a number of Italian dishes. I appreciate your call for boundaries and balance in this and other dishes.

  19. The original roman recipe is without rosemary and garlic ( we use them for “pasta e ceci” pasta and chickpeas ) , use always lardon ( but now no-fat cousine esclude it ) and onion !

      1. Dear Frank ask me all what you need about roman and abruzzese cousin ! I am a public manager 5 days and an home cook on week-ened ! i am on facebook ! Have a nice day Maurizio

  20. Thanks, all, for the kind comments! This is one of my favorites, too, with or without meat.

    And yes, certainly,a cheese rind would give it even more delicious flavor! I would just cut it into smallish pieces since this soup does not cook for that long…

    @Bob, thanks for the message. Glad you're enjoying the blog and welcome! Maybe this can help you recreate the flavors when you get back to the States!

  21. I grew up having this on Fridays (so obviously no pancetta). Always loved it and it made meatless Fridays worthwhile.

  22. this is a good example of a soup that you could add the heel of a Parmesan rind to, while cooking. Don't you think? (I save the heels in my freezer for soup-like opportunities!). I agree, this is delightful but so often made horribly!

  23. This is one of my favorite dishes my great grandmother used to make. She always made it vegetarian and with pinto beans.

    For the longest time I never saw it anywhere outside of home, until it gained popularity in chain restaurants in the late 90's…like you said, those restaurant versions are nowhere near to what it should be!

    Thanks you for sharing…I still try to replicate my grandmother's but it's very difficult.

  24. Ok, I am super excited because this (minis the pancetta) is more or less how I make it. So I was being all authentic hmmm? yay! *pats self on back*

  25. Our landlord here in Monte di Procida (suburb of Napoli) makes it just like your recipe. It is wonderful! I will miss his cooking when we return the states next fall. Just discovered your blog today — it's great. Love Italian food, love to eat it, love to cook it.

  26. You won't believe it, but for years I've been singing “That's amore”, by Dean Martin, without understanding what the heck he was saying… now I know he said pasta fazool!!! Thanks!

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