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
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).
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.
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 to this dish, 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. And this recipe, supposedly from the Olive Garden restaurant chain, is a true monstrosity, more of a bad chili than an Italian soup.