Pasta con la mollica (Pasta with Breadcrumbs)

FrankBasilicata, Calabria, pasta, primi piatti, Puglia, Sicilia60 Comments

Pasta con la mollica (Pasta with Breadcrumbs)

All over southern Italy, breadcrumbs were considered the “poor man’s cheese”. Those who couldn’t afford the luxury of the usual grated pecorino—or throwing away stale bread—would sprinkle toasted breadcrumbs over pasta and other dishes. Cucina povera in the literal sense. And yet, as it so often turns out, necessity gave birth to something we can enjoy today, even those of us who don’t need to economize quite that much. Toasted breadcrumbs lend nutty flavor and crunchy texture to dishes, just as appealing in their own way as the finest cheese.

Pasta with breadcrumbs, or pasta con la mollica, is a specialty of Puglia, Calabria and perhaps most famously, Sicily, where they call it pasta ca’ muddicca. Spaghetti is the most common choice for the pasta, but in parts of Puglia they prefer mafaldine, a ribbon-shaped pasta with ruffled edges. Pasta con la mollica is a favorite there for la festa di san Giuseppe, or St. Joseph’s Day, on March 19, which is Father’s Day in Italy. As you may remember, Joseph was a carpenter, and they say breadcrumbs resemble the sawdust you’d find in a carpenter’s shop. Hence you’ll sometime see this dish called pasta di san Giuseppe or St. Joseph’s pasta.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 500g (1 lb) spaghetti, mafaldine or another long pasta
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • A pinch (or two) red pepper flakes, or more to taste
  • 4-5 anchovy fillets, or more to taste
  • A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely minced
  • 100-150g (4 oz) breadcrumbs
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

Directions

In a large sauté pan or skillet, sauté the garlic, red pepper flakes and anchovies in abundant olive oil over gentle heat, until the garlic barely begins to brown. Turn off the heat and add the minced parsley.

In a separate skillet, sauté the breadcrumbs in enough olive oil to moisten them, again over gentle heat, until the breadcrumbs have lightly toasted. (Take care not to let them burn, they cook quickly once the pan is hot.) Turn off the heat. Season with a pinch of salt if you like.

Boil the pasta in well salted water. When the pasta is al dente, drain and transfer it to the pan with the garlic and anchovy sauce, mixing it well over low heat. When the pasta is well coated and any water clinging to it has evaporated, add about half the toasted breadcrumbs and mix well.

Serve the pasta right away, topped with the remaining breadcrumbs.

Pasta con la mollica (Pasta with Breadcrumbs)

Notes on Pasta con la mollica

As mentioned, you can make this dish with spaghetti or indeed any long pasta. But I do agree that mafaldine are a particularly nice choice. Those little ruffles grab the breadcrumb dressing quite nicely. It’s not the easiest pasta shape to find, but mafaldine are sold in Italian food shops or, of course, online. There’s an interesting if tragic backstory to this pasta shape, named after an Italian princess who married a German prince and wound up dying at Buchenwald. You can read about it here.

Many if not most recipes for pasta con la mollica call for mixing all the breadcrumbs into the pasta. But I like to hold back half and using it as a topping. This way, each diner can mix it into the pasta themselves (or not). The breadcrumb topping gives the dish visual appeal, and it keeps the breadcrumbs nice and crispy.

The parsley is optional, but I rather like the flavor and of color that it lends to the dish. Some recipes call for a bit of tomato paste mixed into the sauce. In some recipes, a bit of grated caciocavallo cheese gets sprinkled on top along with the breadcrumbs. (No longer a poor man’s dish, I guess.) In a few recipes, the anchovies are added to the breadcrumbs rather than to the garlic and oil sauce.

The anchovies are mostly there only to add a bit of umami, so if you don’t care for anchovies or are eating vegan, you can omit them. On other other hand, if you really like them, there’s nothing wrong with going to town. If you do, you can call your dish pasta con acciughe e mollica, or Pasta with Anchovies and Breadcrumbs. According to some sources, the anchovies were originally fresh sardines, a nice sounding choice if you have access to them.

Post Datum

According to his daughter Liliana, the late great Neapolitan comedian Antonio de Curtis, popularly known as “Totò”, had a very similar recipe that he dubbed Spaghetti alla Gennaro, after the patron saint of Naples. The only real difference is that his recipe uses slices of stale bread rubbed with garlic and then crumbled up by hand, rather than breadcrumbs. Sounds like another enjoyable variation, especially if you want to make this on September 19 which is the Feast of San Gennaro and, coincidentally, my birthday…

 

Pasta con la mollica (Pasta with Breadcrumbs)

Pasta con la mollica (Pasta with Breadcrumbs)

Ingredients

  • 500g (1 lb) spaghetti, mafaldine or another long pasta
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • A pinch (or two) red pepper flakes, or more to taste
  • 4-5 anchovy fillets, or more to taste
  • A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely minced
  • 100-150g (4 oz) breadcrumbs
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

Directions

  1. In a large sauté pan or skillet, sauté the garlic, red pepper flakes and anchovies in abundant olive oil over gentle heat, until the garlic barely begins to brown. Turn off the heat and add the minced parsley.
  2. In a separate skillet, sauté the breadcrumbs in enough olive oil to moisten them, again over gentle heat, until the breadcrumbs have lightly toasted. (Take care not to let them burn, they cook quickly once the pan is hot.) Turn off the heat. Season with a pinch of salt if you like. 
  3. Boil the pasta in well salted water. When the pasta is al dente, drain and transfer it to the pan with the garlic and anchovy sauce, mixing it well over low heat. When the pasta is well coated and any water clinging to it has evaporated, add about half the toasted breadcrumbs and mix well.
  4. Serve the pasta right away, topped with the remaining breadcrumbs.
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60 Comments on “Pasta con la mollica (Pasta with Breadcrumbs)”

  1. Frank, I’ve made versions of this over the years but this was the simplest and most satisfying. Thanks so much. PS: I know it may sound odd, but I *recently* discovered that my maternal, never-met grandfather was born in Bronte, Sicily. That may account for my lifelong olive-oil nature.

    1. Interesting, Jeff! I’m sure there’s quite a story there… And if you have Bronte blood in you, in addition to olive oil you would probably love pistachios… The town is famous for them.

  2. I remember the first time I saw this recipe in a cookbook a million years ago. I was so intrigued, but a bit skeptical. Well, of course it’s fabulous! It was a perfect way to learn about what anchovies do in a pasta, as well as appreciating bread crumbs.

  3. My second ‘hello’ on this page . . . have enjoyed this oh so many times since ! I berate myself often for my immature ignorance in having visited Italy both on business and for pleasure so many times always somehow staying in the northern part of the country . . . it is inly now I find that so many of its culinary riches and fabulous dishes stem from the south . . .

    1. Wonderful to hear you’ve enjoyed this humble pasta, Eha. And don’t berate yourself. There is wonderful food both north and south, after all. The fact that you’ve not yet been south just means you still have new horizons to explore next time you visit the country!

  4. I missed this when you first published as 2019 was an amazing year of travel for me (maybe I had a premonition)! I was gone for 4 months, in total. LOVE breadcrumbs on pasta and the Neapolitan version sounds lovely, too! Can’t wait until we’re able to go back and discover more Italian dishes in person!

    1. Wow, what a year of trips! I remember reading about them on your blog. Looked like a blast. Hold on to those memories until we can all travel again. Hopefully won’t be too long now.

  5. Such a great, simple dish! I made this a couple of months after you first posted this — really enjoyed it. Need to make it again. 🙂 Thanks!

  6. Frank,
    I love reading your contributions. The breadcrumbs as a poor man’s cheese is evocative.
    Another lovely dish.
    I hope you are doing well.
    Conor

  7. Thank you for yet another delicious recipe and food history lesson! My grandfather and his family emigrated from Sicily to New York in the early 1900s. One of the meals my great-grandmother prepared often, which has become a family staple that even my sons now prepare (although we now roast the cauliflower) was what we kids called “spaghetti and cauliflower”. She would par boil the cauliflower, then sauté it with a little garlic, anchovy and parsley. Add the spaghetti and top it with a mixture of breadcrumbs/Parmesan cheese. As a kid, I thought the breadcrumb topping was very fancy – but know I now the reason why she did that! Grazie!

  8. I hadn’t realized the connection between St. Joseph’s vacation, saw dust and breadcrumbs; thank you for that historical reference. The transition fro Cucina Povera to a popular presence at today’s Italian restaurants always amuses me. Those toasted bits of bread on top of a pasta dish really give it both substance and the nutty flavor you described.

  9. Mafaldine pasta is so pretty and I love when those ruffles capture bits of other delicious ingredients — like those crispy breadcrumbs. Delicious. Such bits of interesting history I’ve learned in your post today.

  10. I’ve never made this dish, but I know I would love the flavors here and the crunch of those bread crumbs. Happy St. Joseph’s Day and thanks for posting this traditional regional recipe.

  11. Thank you! In my family it is the traditional Xmas eve primo. But we toast the bread crumbs dry, in a non-stick pan, not in oil 🙂

  12. What a sad time that was in history, it’s nice that something good came out of it with this interesting pasta shape. Fortunately, we have a fantastic cheese shop that carries an immense variety of authentic Italian pasta so I’m sure to find this shape there. The Hungarians use breadcrumbs as toppings for many dishes, I never associated it with a poor man’s ingredient but it certainly makes sense.

    1. Interesting about the use of breadcrumbs in Hungarian cookery. I don’t know much about it—other than goulasch, of course—but I’ve always been curious to learn more about it.

  13. What a fun story behind St. Joseph’s pasta! I always love hearing the stories behind some of our favorite recipes. I absolutely love pasta, and this sounds like a super easy and flavorful dish. The concept of toasted breadcrumbs as a topping sounds quite tasty. Quick and easy, but not lacking in the flavor department at all!

  14. Have made this cucina povera dish without knowing the story . . .yours looks wondrously appetizing . . . the pasta shape is one I have not used but that can be remedied . . .

  15. Always in for vintage frugal dishes… pasta prepared this way is on our menu once a month; even gnocchi prepared this way are so tasteful to both of us … Thank you and have a great week end.

  16. Love the shape of mafaldine! Much more versatile than pappardelle and easier to handle than spaghetti. Anyway, I know about this dish but have never made it. Haven’t often seen it in restaurants, either. Next time I have leftover bread that I can make into breadcrumbs, I’m making this! — John

  17. Hi, Frank! Great minds must think alike. We were planing on putting out our Pasta con la mollica on Tuesday. We wanted to celebrate Father’s Day with san Giuseppe. We’re tired of St. Patrick getting all the publicity!! 😀 Buon weekend!

  18. Frank, I love simple pasta dishes that hero the pasta. Mafaldine is a lovely shaped pasta and one I really enjoy, so it would be my choice when I prepare your Pasta con la mollica. Anchovies, absolutely. Thanks for sharing another great pasta dish.

    1. You’re welcome, Ron. As you well know, I’m a big pasta fan, too. And a big anchovy fan, and it’s always good to know I’m not alone. 🙂

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