Penne al baffo is one of those quick and easy pasta dishes that epitomize casual Italian cookery at its delicious best.
Shallots and ham are quickly sautéed, tomato passata and cream are added and reduced into a lovely coral colored sauce. Your pasta, cooked to slightly less than al dente, goes into the saucepan, along with a little parsley for color if you like, for brief simmer. And that’s all there is to it. Depending on how quickly your stove can boil water, you’ll have dinner on the table in twenty minutes or less.
The name comes—probably—from the expression da leccarsi i baffi, which means “so good you’ll lick your whiskers”. It’s the Italian equivalent of our “finger lickin’ good”. And I couldn’t agree more. Penne al baffo is ideal for on-the-fly family dinners, but it’s so fetching I’d be happy to serve it as a first course for company.
- 500g (1 lb) penne (or other short pasta)
- 1-2 shallots, finely minced
- 250 g (8 oz) cubed cooked ham
- 250g (8 oz) passata di pomodoro, preferably homemade
- 250 ml (1 cup) cream
- Olive oil
- A pat of butter
- A sprig or two of fresh parsley, finely mince (optional)
Put on a large pot of water to boil.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet or sauté pan, sauté the shallot gently in olive oil and a small pat of butter for just a few moments, just long enough for it to soften. Add the ham and let it sauté for a minute or two, over slightly higher heat, until it has begun to brown ever so slightly around the edges.
Add the passata and simmer gently until it has reduced and the oil has separated.
Add the cream and let it simmer for just a minute or two, until the cream and tomato have blended and reduced into a lovely coral colored sauce.
While the sauce is cooking, throw the pasta into the boiling pot of water. Cook until it is just a bit under cooked to your taste.
Transfer the pasta to the sauce along with a ladleful of the pasta water. Turn up the heat and let the pasta simmer in the sauce. Mix constantly, until the sauce has reduced enough to coat the pasta well. Add the parsley and give it one last turn or two.
Serve immediately, with a sprinkling of extra parsley on top for color if you like.
Notes on Penne al baffo
Penne is universal choice of pasta shape to use in this dish. But feel free to sub another short pasta if you have it on hand. (Personally, I think farfalle aka bowties would be particularly nice.) I’d steer clear of spaghetti or other long pastas. To my mind they don’t take well to rich, creamy sauces like this one.
And while I’ve called for cubed ham, which for me gives the best taste and mouth feel, if you have sliced ham on hand, you can certainly use it, cut into strips. And as for the tomatoes, canned tomatoes, puréed in a blender or passed through a food mill, can take the place of the passata.
I should mention, first off, that the shallot and butter are personal touches. Most recipes call for onion and omit the butter. My version here will give you a sweeter taste, which I find an appealing compliment to the ham.
The ratio of cream to tomato varies from recipe to recipe. Here’s it’s 1:1, which appeals to me, but many recipes put the emphasis of the cream, with just a bit of tomato for color.
Some recipes call for rather more ham as well, as much as 1:1 ham-to-pasta by weight. If you’d like a more substantial dish, one that could serve as a one-dish meal, then feel free. And in at least one version I’ve seen, the ham is sautéed first, over high heat until quite well browned, then removed to keep it crisp, and added back at the end, a bit like the guanciale when making amatriciana. Personally I prefer the gentler, sweeter flavor you get when the ham is only slightly browned and left in the pan to lend its full savor to the sauce.
And if you like, you could perfectly well use prosciutto crudo instead of the ham. Or Speck, which they say is popular variation in northeast Italy. There are even seafood versions with tuna or shellfish, said to be particularly popular in Sicily.
As mentioned, the parsley at the end if optional but it add a nice touch of color and freshness. I have yet to see a recipes for penne al baffo that calls for grated cheese, but it seems to me a fine idea to serve it on the side for those who’d like some.
Penne al baffo
- 500g 1 lb penne or other short pasta
- 1-2 1-2 shallots finely minced
- 250g 8 oz cooked ham cubed
- 250g 8 oz passata di pomodoro preferably homemade
- 250ml 1 cup cream
- Olive oil
- A pat of butter
- A sprig or two of fresh parsley finely minced (optional)
- Put on a large pot of water to boil.
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet or sauté pan, sauté the shallot gently in olive oil and a small pat of butter for just a few moments, just long enough for it to soften. Add the ham and let it sauté for a minute or two, over slightly higher heat, until it has begun to brown ever so slightly around the edges.
- Add the passata and simmer gently until it has reduced and the oil has separated.
- Add the cream and let it simmer for just a minute or two, until the cream and tomato have blended and reduced into a lovely coral colored sauce.
- While the sauce is cooking, throw the pasta into the boiling pot of water. Cook until it is just a bit under cooked to your taste.
- Transfer the pasta to the sauce along with a ladleful of the pasta water. Turn up the heat and let the pasta simmer in the sauce. Mix constantly, until the sauce has reduced enough to coat the pasta well. Add the parsley and give it one last turn or two.
- Serve immediately, with a sprinkling of extra parsley on top for color if you like.
Holy mackerel…..this was just amazing and amazingly easy to make!!! I stumbled upon it but am so happy I did. Grazie mille
So glad to hear it, Jim. Thanks so much for the kind comment!
I used your recipe as the method for cooking turkish sucuk sausage pasta… it was delicious!!
So glad to hear it, Catherine. And nice to know for future reference. Thanks so much!
This sounds utterly delicious. You’ve made my mouth water! I think this will please my family one night this week. 🙂 ~Valentina
I think they’d like it… !
Simplicity is the best. It looks very yummy! Ciao Frank
Not only does the dish sound good, I love the pretty coral colored sauce especially when served in a beautiful dish like yours.
Thanks so much, Karen!
I saw this post on Instagram last night, and I immediately started craving pasta with cream sauce. This seems to be the epitome of a creamy (and easy) pasta dish. Definitely a good one to keep in your back pocket. I’m thinking there would be a ton of fun ways to play with the ham here – perhaps guanciale or even cubed, sautéed salami? Either way, I’m in the mood for this one now! Plus, the title is awesome.
Thanks, David! This is definitely one of those recipes you can play around with. Enjoy!
A fast, easy and comforting dish, perfect for a busy weeknight dinner. Thank you for another delicious recipe dear Frank 🙂
You’re welcome my dears!
Thank you for this quick and elegant recipe, Frank. I made it tonight and it is delicious and certainly lip-smackingly good!
That’s fantastic, Carol. Thanks for letting us know!
Glad I still have whiskers to lick! Mark has been having a blast looking at all the recipes on your blog. He requested the carciofi e funghi this week, and we also plan to do your penne al baffo. FYI – since buying passata isn’t possibile here, I always make my own. Hope you are well, D
Ha! Happy to hear my recipes are being perused at Casa Allen. Do enjoy, my friend!
Methinks most of us make variations of this . . . we may not know to give the dish a name ! In my case shallots rather than onion, oil rather than butter, yogurt or similar rather than cream . . . in Australia we have wonderful quality and very cheap passata. Probably it is the first thing one sees, in huge pyramids and in litre-bottles, when entering any supermarket 🙂 ! About a dollar a bottle ! Love that you have used a certain plate again . . .
I didn’t know that about passata in Australia. In which case this dish should be a breeze to source and prepare. Enjoy!
This looks like Italian cuisine at it’s best, the simplicity allows all of the ingredients to shine! I love the colour. And I happen to have farfalle on hand, will sneak this into this week’s menu plan, thanks so much Frank.
This looks delicious, I’m definitely going to be making this soon. What’s the regional origin? I’d guess Lombardia on account of the ham and cream.
The dish per se doesn’t have strong regional variations as far as I know. It’s not an old dish, I don’t think, probably dating from the 70s or 80s when these “pink sauces” were all the rage (think also penna alla vodka or maccheroncini al fumè). Just where it was invented, though, I haven’t been able to figure out. There are some variations that do have regional associations, as I mention in the post, as they use substituted ingredients from their regions: Speck in the Trentino-Alto Adige, tuna in Sicily, etc…
Simplicity at it’s best!
Ooooh, if I had ham, I’d be making this tomorrow! I may try doing it with pancetta (which I have) which, although not the same, can’t possibly be bad! Right? Thanks for the recipe, it looks SO good!
Thanks, Christina! I think pancetta would be a fine variation. Surely very tasty!
This looks great! I’ll eat anything that has cream in it. And ham and cream combine wonderfully. I’ve made something kinda similar in the past, but I was just throwing ingredients together. Your list of ingredients have purpose behind them, and this is such a nicely balanced dish. I like Ron’s idea to use Canadian bacon — that sounds delightful. Such a nice recipe — thanks.
And thank you for stopping by, John. I hope you like it if you do give it a try!
My mouth is watering just reading about it. I love the saying and I agree with Ron – I wouldn’t mind licking my fingers should I get some sauce on them.
Thanks so much, Marisa Franca! Enjoy… 🙂
I think Prociutto would be out of this world delicious in this recipe!
Is Prociutto Crudo the same as Prociutto de Parma?
I have never seen it called that, in the Italian grocery that I shop in.
Is it cut paper thin, like regular prosciutto? You mention cutting it into cubes and sautéing it, so I’m guessing you need to ask for a thicker cut of prosciutto, maybe 1/4-1/2″ thick?
Since most pasta and pizza dishes add the thin cut prosciutto towards the end of cooking time,
how would you suggest to use it in this recipe? I’ve heard that prosciutto should never be cooked, just warmed. Maybe that is just an “old wives’s tale”?
Thanks for all your mouth watering recipes…I’ve made so many of them to rave reviews!
You are always spot on with your directions, which I greatly appreciate…Grazie Mille 😉
Prosciutto crudo in Italian is what English speakers would just call “prosciutto”. You say “crudo” in Italian (sometimes) to distinguish it from prosciutto cotto which is cooked ham. Anyway, I’d use prosciutto in this recipe just as you do the ham, perhaps not browning it but sautéing it until it just turns color, which only takes a few moments. I do agree that caramelizing prosciutto ruins its unique qualities, but that doesn’t mean you can’t cook with it, although I’d use the ends and save the best parts to eat raw.
And thanks for the kinds words!
Frank, I think “so good you’ll lick your whiskers” sounds a lot better than “finger licking good”. Although I’d have no problem at all licking my finger should they get some of your Penne al baffo on them. The shallots substitution sound perfect to me. We have kassler (Canadian bacon) in the fridge so I’ll cube that up and give this a go. I’m sure it’ll make an easy but very satisfying Monday dinner.
I’ve actually made this with Canadian bacon and it’s very good indeed. Enjoy!