Pasta con la mollica (Pasta with Breadcrumbs)

FrankBasilicata, Calabria, pasta, primi piatti, Puglia, Sicilia27 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.

 

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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27 Comments on “Pasta con la mollica (Pasta with Breadcrumbs)”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 🙂

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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 . . .

  7. 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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!

  10. 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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