The ultimate cucina povera dish, Spaghetti alla puveriello, or Poor Man’s Spaghetti, was invented in the desperate days of post-World War II Naples. This dish could be made with the few staples a family was likely to be able to find, if only on the black market.
Basically, Spaghetti alla puveriello is nothing more than spaghetti mixed with a lightly fried egg and a little grated cheese. And another egg on top if you’re feeling fancy… But like so many frugal Italian dishes, it manages to make something very tasty and appealing out of very little. Yet another example of the Italian genius for eating well, even in the most trying of times.
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) spaghetti
- 1 egg
- 2-3 Tbs pecorino romano, grated
- Another egg for garnish
Put water on to boil in a large pot. When it comes to a boil, salt generously and throw in the spaghetti.
Shortly before the spaghetti is done cooking, melt a good dollop of lard in a skillet. When it’s good and hot, break open the egg and add it to the skillet. Fry the egg “sunny side up”, but not too much, taking care that the yolk remains runny and the whites are cooked but still soft. (If the pasta isn’t done yet, you can remove the egg to prevent it from overcooking and return it to the skillet along with the pasta.)
If using an extra egg for garnish, fry it in the lard also and remove as soon as it’s done.
When the pasta is al dente, transfer it to the skillet, along with the grated cheese, a good grinding of black pepper and a ladleful of the pasta cooking water. Mix vigorously over a gentle flame, breaking up the egg, until the pasta is well coated with its condimento.
Transfer the spaghetti immediately to a plate or serving dish, topped with another grinding of pepper and the extra egg for garnish if you like.
Notes on Spaghetti alla puveriello
This dish is so simple there’s scarcely much to say about it, other than avoiding overcooking the eggs. The yolks should still be runny so that, as in carbonara, they coat the pasta with a “creamy sauce”. The whites should be still soft, so they break up into pieces as you mix them with the spaghetti.
Adding a bit of pasta water is important so things come together nicely during the mantecatura of the pasta, that final stage where you mix the pasta vigorously over a gentle flame with the eggs and fat and cheese so it forms a creamy, savory dressing.
There are subtle variations on Spaghetti alla puveriello. Lard is the fat of choice for authentically old-school Neapolitan flavor, but these days olive oil is common, even among Neapolitans. And I’ve seen recipes that allow for butter as well, however sacrilegious that may be. The cheese could be Parmigiano-Reggiano, for those who prefer a milder flavor although again, this is sacrilege to some. You also make the dish with other long pastas, vermicelli for those who prefer a more delicate pasta or bucatini for those who like one that’s more substantial.
In some recipes, the egg goes on top and the pasta mixed with the lard and cheese only. It’s a prettier presentation but untrue to the original and, even more importantly, less tasty. (Hence my solution: one egg to mix and one to garnish.) And for a more elegant presentation—admittedly something of an oxymoron for this poor man’s dish—a sprinkling of minced parsley adds color.
I’ve also seen additional ingredients that take things too far, in my opinion: Hot red pepper flakes instead of black pepper and, horror of horrors, minced garlic. Avoid those, mi raccomando!
Spaghetti alla puveriello
- 100g 3-1/2 oz spaghetti
- 1 egg
- 2-3 Tbs 2-3 Tbs pecorino romano grated
- extra egg for garnish
- Put water on to boil in a large pot. When it comes to a boil, salt generously and throw in the spaghetti.
- Shortly before the spaghetti is done cooking, melt a good dollop of lard in a skillet. When it's good and hot, break open the egg and add it to the skillet. Fry the egg "sunny side up", but not too much, taking care that the yolk remains runny and the whites are cooked but still soft. (If the pasta isn't done yet, you can remove the egg to prevent it from overcooking and return it to the skillet along with the pasta.)
- If using an extra egg for garnish, fry it in the lard also and remove as soon as it's done.
- When the pasta is al dente, transfer it to the skillet, along with the grated cheese, a good grinding of black pepper and a ladleful of the pasta cooking water. Mix vigorously over a gentle flame, breaking up the egg, until the pasta is well coated with its condimento.
- Transfer the spaghetti immediately to a plate or serving dish, topped with another grinding of pepper and the extra egg for garnish if you like.
I’ve never heard of this dish, but I’m definitely going to try it! I love simple dishes like this. It sounds like pure comfort food.
Of course, this dish of the so-called ‘cucina povera’ is quite lovely as is but, of course, it is also elevated to a more special level by the way you presented it on that lovely Italian hand painted dinner plate, with the runny egg yolk. When I have leftover spaghetti, I often mix them with eggs and Parmesan, herbs and seasonings to turn them into one big omelette but this version will grace our table in the near future!
This is a lovely post with a wonderful presentation!
P.S.: I hope my previous comment came through…
Yes, it did, thanks!
Really beautiful. The reason I say this is I am a vegetarian and still you posts make me almost get up and start cooking. Not only the posts are fantastic, giving even the minutest detail but the photographs are so drool worthy….right from the choice of crockery to the lighting….
Ps: even if I don’t cook non vegetarian for my self but your posts are slowly converting me 😉
You’re so kind, Ash! I’m really happy to hear you’re enjoying the blog. And I do hope of one these days you do get up and start cooking. Not all of my recipes are vegetarian but some are…
Hi Frank. On cucina povera: I have been reading what seems a good book on the subject: it is called “Chewing the Fat: an Oral history of Italian footways from fascism to solce vita” and it is a collection of interviews with people who were really cooking during war 2 and immediately after (and who are now in their 90s) in order to dispel myths about “cucina povera”.It is part social history part personal memoir, so far it is very engaging. One realises how really destitute many Italians were and how the so called “italian cucina povera” is also a cultural construct of later decades
Sounds like a fascinating book, Stefano. I read a snippet online and it definitely intrigued me.
This is absolutely an example of how Italians can take super simple dishes and turn them into a delicacy. I’ve heard of this one before, but I’ve never had the chance to try it. I need to move it up on my list! Also, I would’ve totally added a bit of garlic – I appreciate the note of advice there!
Definitely worth a try, David. If you like carbonara this has a similar but distinct taste profile. With the advantage that it’s a lot easier to get right.
Gotcha! Grazie, Frank!!
Frank, I love this dish. A dear Italian friend used to make a similar version of your Spaghetti alla puveriello. He called it “mamma’s pasta”. He was a young boy during WWII and said this was a family favorite when they had extra eggs. Most meals for them during that time was polenta with a small amount of veg and protein if they had it. I still make his version, which differs from yours only in that it uses poached eggs rather than fried egg. I like the fried egg idea.
Like your friend, we also had a lot of dishes we used to call after family members, like “Nana’s cookies” which later in life I found out wasn’t my nana’s invention at all but taralli dolci. Same thing for “Nana’s honeyballs” which were struffoli. And so on…
Desperate times bring the best meals. My family’s best dishes are dated back then when my grandmother was hiding lard in ” empty” grappa barrels to save to feed the family. Enemy armies never found any.
Good for her! Hard times really do bring out the best (and sometimes the worst) in people.
So the fridge is nearly empty, our favourite restaurants are still COVID closed & my husband is starting to complain about being hungry. I check my inbox & see the Memorie e-mail. Lo & behold, I see a recipe that I still have ingredients for. Eggs, pasta, cheese, substitute olive oil for lard & a delicious meal is born. Accompanied with a few salad vegetables, it was outstanding & my husband insists, a new addition to the regular repertoire. Who knew pasta water & grated cheese could make such a smooth, unctious sauce? A great almost summer meal. Thank you.
You’re welcome, Ursa! I love how this dish has found a kind of second life. It’s probably been my most popular new post ever, much to my surprise… But it really is amazing how just a few odd ingredients can produce such a tasty dish.
I have to smile at the utter foolproof simplicity of this, especially at a time some may have limited access to shops with somewhat empty shelves anyways . . . and, put two tasty foods together and you know you will enjoy ! Oh, definitely two eggs for me also, please !
Coming right up…!
I had a poor man’s egg dish at at agriturismo a few years ago, but have never heard of this one! I have a question on how one would eat this, Frank: is the egg (the one on top) mixed into the pasta after being served or would it be cut with the fork and eaten separately from the spaghetti? Asking for a friend, haha! Will check back for your answer. Grazie!
Ah well, I can only say what I do, which is to open the yolk as pictured and use it as extra “gravy” for the pasta, along with a bit of the white.
Sounds great! I wonder, though, how this could be made with poached eggs. Serving multiple people with fried eggs, esp. pulling some out for garnish, seems like a kitchen hassle. The key would be to replicate the effect of the fat from the fried eggs …
Interesting question. You’re right that this is not the most practical dish for a crowd, although I’d say it would work fine for say, up to 5-6 (without the optional topping) if your skillet is large enough. As for poaching, yes, my immediate thought was how to introduce the fat, but I guess you could melt the lard and add the pasta and eggs at the same time. Worth a try… Let me know what you think if you do give it try.
What a nifty recipe! I haven’t heard of this, but love its simplicity. Definitely two eggs for me — a fried egg is one of the best garnishes going. Don’t have lard on hand, alas, but I can easily get some fresh-rendered lard from my favorite butcher. Good stuff — thanks.
I bet this’d be fantastic with freshly rendered lard. Thanks for stopping by, John!
My all time favorite comfort food is a riff of this. When I wasn’t feeling well as a child, my grandma Flora would make me pastina. She’d cook the pastina and immediately after draining, add some butter and crack an egg into the pasta and stir well until it cooked through. Then add a generous handful of pecorino romano and some black pepper. So simple and so delicious.
Sounds delicious, Flora! And very comforting. I’m going to try that some time.
Less is more!
I was about to make a “Northern” version of the same poverty dish; funny how such dishes from times of want (many Italians were short of food then, also because their German allies stole everything). I was thinking of a (late) friend in Friuli who had been a partisan there, so some polenta topped, yep, with a fried egg. He was amused by polenta becoming fashionable as in northeastern Italy (and nearby Balkan countries) it was a staple food of the poor.
There is nothing wrong with adding parsley as many people would have had a pot or patch of it, even if they had little else. But while I adore garlic, it would be wrong here.
Interesting to hear about polenta being made the same way. I guess it makes sense that similar solutions to shortage would result in similar dishes made with the staples one would have on hand.
Wonderful recipe, Frank. Especially now when, every once in a while, we are craving egg dishes for dinner. I would, of course, serve with the extra egg on top! Lard won’t be happening here because Trader Joe doesn’t carry it and I have no pork to render. I do have duck fat, though… your thoughts—would that work and be better than olive oil?
Well, I love duck fat, so it gets my vote! I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts if you make it that way.
And if you’re *really* poor, use toasted breadcrumbs instead of cheese!
Thanks for clarifying the authenticity of this recipe, these days recipes are usually a mash up so it’s nice to read about the real deal. I just love these simple, old recipes. The egg on top is a lovely addition.
Thanks Eva! The egg on top is optional, but makes the dish more “bloggable” if you know what I mean…