Spaghetti alle cipolle rosse e alici (Spaghetti with Red Onions and Anchovies)

Spaghetti alle cipolle rosse e alici (Spaghetti with Red Onions and Anchovies)

In pasta, primi piatti by Frank38 Comments

What would the world be without onions? Along with their close cousins garlic and shallots, they seem to make their way into just about every savory dish. That’s certainly true of Italian cooking, at least. And yet, except maybe for onion soup, it seems onions are always the proverbial bridesmaid, never the bride. What a shame, since onions are packed with tremendous flavor.

Today’s dish, Spaghetti alle cipolle rosse e alici, Spaghetti with Red Onions and Anchovies, gives onions a rare chance to shine. The use of the sweet and relatively mild red onions prevents the dish from becoming overwhelming. A drizzle of white wine adds a subtly acidic note to balance out the onion’s sweetness. Yet another umami-packing ingredient, anchovies, creates a flavor combination that’s truly addictive. And personally I like to add a few drops of colatura before serving, just to gild the lily…

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 500g (1 lb) spaghetti
  • 500g (1 lb) red onions, sliced
  • 8 anchovy fillets, or more to taste
  • A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely minced
  • White wine
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Optional:

  • Toasted breadcrumbs
  • A few drops of colatura

Directions

In a wide skillet or braiser, sauté sliced red onions over low heat in a generous amount of olive oil, drizzling them from time to time with a few drops of white wine to help soften the onions and prevent them browning.

When the onions have softened and become translucent, add the anchovy filets and the parsley and cook for a few more minutes, just until the anchovies have melted into the oil. Add one last drizzle of wine and let it mostly (but not completely) evaporate. Season to taste with pepper and if you think it needs it, salt. (You should need very little if any.)

Cook the spaghetti al dente and, when they’re done, drain (but not too well, you’ll want some of the water to cling to the pasta to help moisten the dish) and turn them into the skillet with the onion and anchovy sauce, along with a few drops of the colatura if using. Mix well, then add the toasted breadcrumbs if using and mix again. (Also add some of the pasta water if you find the mixture too dry; the pasta should slither nicely as you toss it.)

Serve immediately, with some more chopped parsley and a drizzle of olive oil on top.

Spaghetti alle cipolle rosse e alici (Spaghetti with Red Onions and Anchovies)

Notes on Spaghetti alle cipolle rosse e alici

The shape, flavor and texture of the sliced onions would go equally well with other long pasta shapes like spaghettini, spaghettoni, tonnarelli, linguine or bucatini.

The ideal choice of onion would be the cipolla rossa di Tropeaa varietal grown in Calabria since ancient times famed for its exquisite sweetness and beautiful color. I’ve never seen them sold here in the US, but apparently you can grow them from seed. If you don’t have red onions on hand, look for a sweet varietal like Vidalias or Walla-Wallas. Otherwise, good old yellow onions will do, for a more intensely onion-y if less colorful result.

A tip on slicing onions: It makes a big difference if you slice an onion lengthwise or across. When you want to onion slices to retain their individuality—and that’s what I wanted to for this dish—slice them from root to tip. If you want to onion for its flavor only, slice them thinly across the grain, and they will melt into whatever sauce you’re making.

On using anchovies

The anchovies would ideally be sotto sale, the kind that are packed whole in salt, rather than fillets in olive oil. They come in large cans of 800 g (or almost 2 lbs). That’s a lot of anchovies, but if you store them in the fridge they last more or less indefinitely. Rinse them under running water, gently separating the fillets from the backbone with your fingers as you go. Each anchovy will give you two fillets, so four whole anchovies will give you the 8 fillets called for in this recipe.

Even if you don’t like anchovies, don’t be put off. In these quantities, the anchovy melts into the sauce entirely and lends a background savor, leaving hardly a trace of fishiness. But if you must, you can do without the anchovy, too. The onions have plenty of flavor on their own. Or you could go a different direction and add a few bits of pancetta to the onions. That would give you a result slightly reminiscent of the classic Neapolitan pasta and onion dish, la genovese.

Same ingredients, different dish

Spaghetti con cipolle rosse e alici  is fairly close in spirit to the famous Venetian dish bigoli in salsa, a thick spaghetti-like pasta typical of Venice, served with a similar sauce, only that the anchovies take center stage and the onions assume their usual supporting role. While the ingredients are practically the same, taste both as you’ll see they are two quite distinct dishes. Another example of how subtle changes in a recipe—in measurements or technique—produce very different results. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to present bigoli in salsa for quite a while now, but I’ve been working to perfect my bigoli-making before I do. Stay tuned…

Spaghetti alle cipolle rosse e alici (Spaghetti with Red Onions and Anchovies)

Spaghetti alle cipolle rosse e alici (Spaghetti with Red Onions and Anchovies)

Ingredients

  • 500g (1 lb) spaghetti
  • 500g (1 lb) red onions, sliced
  • 8 anchovy fillets, or more to taste
  • A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely minced
  • White wine
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Optional:
  • Toasted breadcrumbs
  • A few drops of colatura

Directions

  1. In a wide skillet or braiser, sauté sliced red onions over low heat in a generous amount of olive oil, drizzling them from time to time with a few drops of white wine to help soften the onions and prevent them browning.
  2. When the onions have softened and become translucent, add the anchovy filets and the parsley and cook for a few more minutes, just until the anchovies have melted into the oil. Add one last drizzle of wine and let it mostly (but not completely) evaporate. Season to taste with pepper and if you think it needs it, salt. (You should need very little if any.) 
  3. Cook the spaghetti al dente and, when they're done, drain (but not too well, you'll want some of the water to cling to the pasta to help moisten the dish) and turn them into the skillet with the onion and anchovy sauce, along with a few drops of the colatura if using. Mix well, then add the breadcrumbs if using and mix again. (Also add some of the pasta water if you find the mixture too dry; the pasta should slither nicely as you toss it.)
  4. Serve immediately, with some more chopped parsley and a drizzle of olive oil on top.
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Comments

  1. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen my Dad’s video on making spaghetti with anchovies? He’s pretty much a nutcase and starts with taking a shot of whisky! 🙂 Anyway, I had him “guest post” on my site as he absolutely LOVES anchovies! I’m sending him this recipe as I think he’d have a go at it. Thanks, Frank!

    1. Author

      No, I haven’t actually seen that video but now I really must search it out. Sounds like a blast.

  2. I’m making this for my 81 yr old Dad today because he adores onions and anchovies! I love your recipes, and I also need to thank you for having your recipes in a print friendly format. It is so helpful..

    1. Author

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying and using the site, Dolores! Hope your dad liked the dish.

  3. Adoro…That can of salted anchovies is a staple at our home, couldn’t imagine the kitchen without it. The simplicity of this dish is the essence of Cucina Italiana, grazie Frank…

  4. What a gorgeous dish, and just reading the ingredient list had me licking my lips! The red onions are cooked to perfection without losing the lovely colour. Anchovies are one of my favourite ingredients and I must say, I do appreciate the tip about the Italian colatura, in fact, you had me rush to the fridge to check the ingredient list of my present Asian fish sauce and sure enough, sugar was the last of four ingredients! Tomorrow, I shall source the more reputable brand that you recommended and dump this one down the drain (mainly because I use it quite frequently, so I’d prefer quality).

    1. Author

      Good on you, Eva. I made the rather bold statement that the best Asian fish sauces are comparable to colatura, and I’ll stick to that position. But unfortunately, the popularity of fish sauces has unfortunately led to a lot of poor quality imitations on the market.

  5. Nice dish Frank. I love red onions. In Italy we have many varieties. The addition of anchovies gives a special taste that I should try. I usually prepare a sauce with only red onions. Paola

    1. Author

      Red onions alone are delicious, I agree. But I do think a little anchovy gives the dish an extra something.

  6. Hello Frank, this recipe not many people outside Italy know about it, and to tell the truth I also forgot about it. It was way back when I last had it, my dear mother when coming back fron London each summer used to make it, bring back nice memories. Thank you so much. Tante belle cose.

    1. Author

      So glad I could bring back those fond memories, Vittorio! Thanks so much for stopping by.

  7. My favorite pastas are the simplest – the bare minimum and this fits the bill. I will have to make do with red onions… wish we could get wall wall. And will confess that I had to look up colatura!

    1. Author

      Ha ha! Colatura is a rarity here in the US, but if you checked out by post on it, you’ll see that a good quality Asian fish sauce is not a bad substitute.

  8. amo la dolcezza delle cipolle rosse. Durante i miei viaggi ho scoperto diverse varietà rosse, quelle di Certaldo in Toscana e quelle di Cannara in Umbria, l’Italia ha tante altre varietà oltre a quelle di Tropea. Ottimo questo primo, qui a Trieste abbiamo alici (sardoni) molto particolari, grossi e saporiti ! Buon we Frank !

    1. Author

      Ho sentito parlare dei sardoni ma non li ho mai assaggiati. Spero un giorno di mangiare i sardoni fritti mentre ammiro il Golfo di Trieste…

  9. I’ve never seen this dish — sounds wonderful. And thanks for the link to the anchovies. I sometimes buy salt-packed anchovies individually in a Italian market, but never thought just to get a can myself (because the cans are so large). That’s a pretty reasonable price for what you’re getting. Great post — thanks.

    1. Author

      Thanks, John! I’d actually be happy to have a place where I could find salted anchovies individually. Not around here, though…

  10. I’ve got some red spring onions onin my CSA box this week and will try them in this dish. Thanks four the inspiration👍

  11. I am new this this site and greatful that I have stumbled across it. Great memories taste all brought together wonderfully
    Much appreciated

  12. Beautiful dish, Frank. I love the simplicity of it and I bet the flavors come together fantastically. I always wonder about people turning up their noses at using anchovies when cooking. The flavor is great!! Buon weekend.

  13. Oh, sadly this might serve just the two of us… I should have given up pasta for lent! We make bigoli in salsa quite often, so it will be fun to try this “deconstructed” version. I say deconstructed because you can actually see the onion…

    1. Author

      You’ll have to tell me more about your bigoli making, David! I’ve never been able to find commercially made bigoli Stateside, have you? And I’ve been experimenting with different ways to make my own but haven’t settled on a technique yet.

  14. che bella ricetta Frank… and rather unusual: I like the fact that the onions are cooked but not melted into a sweet mess… yes, of course: with cipolle di tropea this should really be phenomenal (I must check when they are in season)
    + acciughe sotto sale: impossible to find here the medium to giant tins one can find in Italy – I found little silly packages at exorbitant prices
    I might be tempted to add some oregano, to keep up the calabrese/souther Italian spirit of this recipe
    s

    1. Author

      Thanks, Stefano! I guess we’re lucky here, they do sell those cans of salted anchovies online. Surprising they’re not available in the UK…

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