Today’s recipe for “Smoky Macaroni” is a rare beast. Smoked foods in general are fairly unusual in Italian cookery outside of the northeast of the country, in regions like Alto Adige-Südtirol and Friuli Venezia Giulia once dominated by the Austrian Empire, where the influence of Mietteleuropa is still felt.
But this delightful pasta dish is the exception that proves the rule. It’s the invention of a certain Maciste, nom de cuisine of chef-bodybuilder Stefano Marzi. You can still enjoy his signature dish at its birthplace in Le Marche, but sadly this is no time to be traveling, to Le Marche or anywhere else.
The good news is this satisfying dish is quite easy to make at home, even if ours will only be an approximation of Marzi’s original recipe, since the inventor is keeping certain ingredients strictly under wraps. (See Notes below for the fascinating backstory behind this dish.)
Even so, I think you’ll you enjoy it. This dish is a real crowd pleaser, especially with kids. With its bacon, cream and mix of cheeses, Smoky Macaroni isn’t exactly dietetic, but in these troubling times heaven knows we can all use some comfort food, and that’s definitely what this is.
- 500g (1 lb) sedanini or penne (or another short pasta)
- 150 g (5 oz) pancetta affumicata or slab bacon, cut into cubes
- 400 g (14 oz) tomato passata, or an equivalent amount of canned tomatoes passed through a sieve
- A pinch each of hot pepper flakes, ground coriander and nutmeg (and other spices if you like, see Notes)
- 150 ml (3/4 cup) heavy cream
- 50g (1-1/2 oz) grated Emmenthal
- 50g (1-1/2 oz) grated Parmesan cheese
- Olive oil
Put the water on to boil.
In a large skillet or sauté pan, sauté the cubes of bacon in olive oil until lightly browned and crispy around the edges.
Sprinkle the bacon with the spices and give them a turn.
When the spices give off their fragrance, add the tomato and give everything another turn. Simmer over gentle heat until the tomato has reduced to a saucy consistency.
Add the heavy cream, stir it into the tomato and let that, too, reduce a bit. Add the grated cheeses and mix everything together until the cheese melts completely and have a creamy, velvety sauce. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
Meanwhile, salt the water well and throw in the pasta. Cook until al dente.
Transfer the pasta to the pan with the sauce and mix well over medium heat, adding a bit of pasta water if needed, until the pasta is well napped with the rich, perfectly velvety sauce.
Serve right away.
Notes on Maccheroncini al fumè
“Smoky Macaroni” was invented by chef cum bodybuilder Stefano Marzi, popularly known as “Maciste”, after the mythical strongman who features in the 1914 Italian film Cabiria and its various sequels. After working in hotels in Rome and Milan, Maciste opened his own pub-pizzeria called “MacIste’s” in the town of Castelplanio near Ancona, the capital of the region of Le Marche. The name is a kind of playful portmanteau of Maciste and McDonald’s. Fast food was just beginning to make inroads in Italy when the place opened in 1978, although McDonald’s itself didn’t open its first location until the mid 1980s—in Rome, infamously right next to the Spanish Steps.
It’s actually impossible to recreate precisely the maccheroncini al fumè that the maestro serves up at MacIste’s at home. While the general outlines of the recipe are known—and you can even watch the maestro himself make the dish in this video (in Italian)…
… Marzi is keeping some key ingredients under wraps. He uses a secret seven spice mix to season his sauce, as well as a mix of cheeses that includes at least one “secret” cheese. It is said that the spice mix includes the three spices included in the ingredients list above. And by the way, you get a glimpse of the spice mix in that video—might some of our more observant readers be able to make some educated guesses… ? Anyway, without any definite answers I say we’re free to follow our imagination and tastes. I added a pinch of garam masala because, why not?
As for the mix of cheeses, it is said to include two or three, depending on the source. Emmenthal is invariably one, for its meltability. To that I added Parmesan and called it a day. If you wanted a third cheese, I’d go for something that melts well and doesn’t have too strong a flavor, another Alpine cheese like Gruyère or Comté perhaps. Or maybe a smoked Gouda, to go with the overall smoky theme.
The original recipe for Smoky Macaroni calls for pancetta affumicata, or smoked pancetta, and Maciste says it must be Italian. You can find Italian smoked pancetta at specialty shops or online, but truth be told, smoked pancetta basically is bacon. Best quality slab bacon, which you will cut into largish cubes, will do fine. If all you can find is pre-packaged sliced bacon, go for the ‘thick cut’ variety and cut it into strips. Either way, fry the bacon until almost but not quite crisp. You want to render the fat and get some nice caramelization. But don’t treat it as if you were making bacon and eggs…
Maciste also insists on the thick cream of the kind sold as panna da cucina in Italy, which has a consistency rather like sour cream or Greek yogurt, rather than liquid heavy cream. As far as I am aware, you won’t find that product here in the US, except online. Personally, I think heavy cream does just fine, you’ll just need a few extra minutes to let it cook down.
The pasta that Maciste uses is a short, ribbed and slightly curved tubular pasta called sedanini. It’s not terribly common here in the US, either, although you can find it online—at a price. Otherwise, the easy to find penne (as pictured here!) make a suitable substitute.
And since the original recipe is a secret, the measurements are also up for grabs. Again, that video provides some clues for the observant. The measurements I’ve given in this post for Smoky Macaroni worked rather nicely for me, although you could add a bit more tomato and/or cream if you wanted a more abundant sauce.
Maccheroncini al fumè
- 500g 1 lb 500g (1 lb) sedanini or penne or another short pasta
- 150g 5 oz pancetta affumicata or slab bacon cut into cubes
- 400g 14 oz tomato passata or an equivalent amount of canned tomatoes passed through a sieve
- A pinch each of hot pepper flakes, ground coriander and nutmeg And other spices if you like
- 150ml 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 50g 1-1/2 oz Emmenthal grated
- 50g 1-1/2 oz Parmesan cheese grated
- Olive oil
- Put the water on to boil.
- In a large skillet or sauté pan, sauté the cubes of bacon in olive oil until lightly browned and crispy around the edges.
- Sprinkle the bacon with the spices and give them a turn.
- When the spices give off their fragrance, add the tomato and give everything another turn. Simmer over gentle heat until the tomato has reduced to a saucy consistency.
- Add the heavy cream, stir it into the tomato and let that, too, reduce a bit. Add the grated cheeses and mix everything together until the cheese melts completely and have a creamy, velvety sauce. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
- Meanwhile, salt the water well and throw in the pasta. Cook until al dente.
- Transfer the pasta to the pan with the sauce and mix well over medium heat, adding a bit of pasta water if needed, until the pasta is well napped with the rich, perfectly velvety sauce.
- Serve right away.