Bigoli in salsa

Frankpasta, primi piatti, Veneto22 Comments

Bigoli in salsa

Venice isn’t really pasta country. As Hedy Giusti-Lanham and Andrea Dodo put it in their lovely 1978 cookbook The Cuisine of Venice and Surrounding Northern Regions, now sadly out of print, “In and round Venice, a series of polenta dishes will be mentioned first, then some rice dishes and at the end a couple of pasta dishes. It is really from Bologna southward that pasta is king”. That said, Venice does boast at least one iconic pasta dish the locals dub bigoli in salsa.

Bigoli is Venice’s signature pasta, a kind of thick spaghetti, sometimes made fresh and sometimes dry. Some rather dubious local lore has it bigoli is the pasta that Marco Polo brought back from China. True or not, they have a unique chewy texture that catches sauces beautifully.

To make bigoli in salsa, you dress these long stands with a simple sauce of onion, simmered low and slow in olive oil so as to coax out its inherent sweetness to the full, to which you add a good dose of anchovies. The onion and anchovy cook together until they meld into a creamy and intensely savory sauce. A sprinkling of fresh parsley can add a bit of color if you like.

Don’t let the rather monotone look of the dish fool you. The sweetness of the onion and the intensely briny savor of the anchovies deliver a veritable explosion of favor in your mouth.

Be aware, however, that this is definitely a dish where you will taste the anchovies. They’re not just there for their umami as in so many other dishes, but for their own unique assertive flavor that is admittedly not for everyone.

The main challenge for the home cook is sourcing the bigoli, a regional pasta that can be hard to find outside the Veneto, let along Italy. But you can buy them online or, in a pinch, substitute similar long pastas. Honestly, this sauce will be equally delicious no matter what pasta you pair it with.

Bigoli in salsa was traditionally a dish for meatless holidays like Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but today it is enjoyed year round. And it’s a good thing, too, as it’s too tasty to limit to just a couple of days a year.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 400g (14 oz) bigoli (see Notes)
  • 1/2 large or 1 medium white onion, about 300g (10-1/2 oz), minced or thinly sliced
  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) anchovy fillets, or to taste
  • Water or dry white wine, q.b.
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely. minced

Directions

In a large braiser or sauté pan, gently sauté the onions until they are very soft, adding a few drops of water or wine from time to time to help them along and prevent any browning. Take your time. The process should take about 15-20 minutes.

Add the anchovies fillets and let them melt completely and meld with the onions into a kind of creamy sauce.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of well salted water to the boil, then cook your bigoli until al dente.

Add the bigoli to the onion and anchovy sauce, along with most of the minced parsley if using and a small ladleful of the cooking water. Toss the pasta in the sauce over medium heat until the sauce reduces and clings to the pasta.

Serve right away, topped with the remaining parsley.

Bigoli in salsa

Notes

Bigoli in salsa is so simple to make, you can scarcely go wrong. The only thing I’d say is to make sure you take your time with the onions. They should cook very gently and for as long as it takes so they get very soft, almost falling apart. And make sure they don’t brown at all. Keep the flame low and add that water or wine from time to time.

About bigoli

Bigoli come in various types. They can be made with or without eggs. They can be made with 00 flour or durum flour. Or with buckwheat flour, in which case you call them bigoli scuri (dark bigoli) or bigoli mori (Moorish bigoli).

But what makes bigoli unique is the way you make them. Traditionally you employ a curious extrusion device called a torchio bigolaro. It’s so large you need to attach it to a bench, which you sit on as you rotate a lever on top that slowly presses the dough through a cylinder onto a bowl placed on the floor below. The process sound rather tedious to me, but evidently it can be rather fun. You can buy a bigolaro online. But you need to be a die hard bigoli aficionado, as the contraption costs nearly $400. I like bigoli, but not quite that much…

They also sell a more reasonably priced pasta machine attachment for making bigoli. But frankly based on my own experience I don’t recommend it. Among other things bigoli are by definition extruded, not rolled. And while they also sell machines for extruding pasta, or course, none that I know make bigoli, just regular spaghetti. (And I’m not a fan of these machines anyway.)

Bigoli

Long story short, if you don’t want to dish out the cash to buy yourself a bigolaro, you need to buy your bigoli. Where I live, bigoli are basically impossible to find in stores. But I found the bigoli pictured at left from the Venetian pasta maker Borella on amazon.com. As pasta goes, these bigoli aren’t cheap. They cost about $12 for a 500g package, and I find it fairly maddening that the same pasta sells for about a €2 in Italy. Highway robbery!

There are some acceptable substitutes for bigoli. Perhaps the closest pasta are pici from Tuscany, but they can be equally hard to find and, in any event, they are rolled not extruded. And although they lack the same chewiness, the easiest substitution would be spaghettoni (thick spaghetti). Or even regular spaghetti. You will find recommendations for bucatini as a substitute, though to my mind they are a bit too thick.

Anchovies

Traditional recipes for bigoli in salsa call for anchovies (or sardines) packed in salt. These need to be rinsed of their excess salt, then cut down their undersides to gingerly remove the two fillets from the backbone. (See this post for an illustration of the technique.) The operation is rather finicky but purists will tell you it’s worth the effort.

Well, for today’s post I decided to put that bit of conventional wisdom to the test. I compared salt packed anchovies imported from Italy (Scalia brand) with two quality brands of jarred anchovy fillets in olive oil, Agostino Recca and Delfino Battista. To me, the differences among them were very subtle. In fact, I liked the Delfino Battista the best. Of course, any of these options will be better than the kind of canned anchovies you’ll usually find in supermarkets. And the less said about anchovy paste the better.

Variations

The main ingredients for bigoli in salsa pretty much don’t vary much among recipes. Onion, anchovy and pasta. And sometimes parsley. Some recipes call for adding water, others for white wine, to the onions as they simmer. And more traditional recipes call for sardines packed in salt instead of or as alternative to the anchovies. That said, as with so many iconic dishes, the measurements can vary quite a bit, particular the amount of anchovies. So if you are a bit anchovy shy, then feel free to use less than called for here.

The technique, on the other hand, can vary a fair bit. In some recipes, you mince the onions and anchovies together and then sauté them. In others, you add a bit of water or wine to the onions and anchovies to form a thick sauce even before adding the pasta. I tend to doubt these variations make much difference in the end. One variation that does, however, is a fancier version of the dish, where you cover the sautéed onions and anchovies in water and let them together simmer for at least an hour, until they completely melt into a thick, dark sauce which is sometimes puréed.

Some recipes for bigoli in salsa will have you add some breadcrumbs to the sauce, saying it will help the sauce to cling to the pasta. In yet others, you sauté breadcrumbs in olive oil and use them as a topping, in the manner of many southern Italian pasta dishes.

The origins of bigoli and the Marco Polo myth

As mentioned at the top, according to some local lore, bigoli is the pasta that Marco Polo brought back from China, along with the first torchio bigolaro. But this legend is dubious at best.

The origins of pasta

To start, let’s remember that pasta existed in Italy long before Marco Polo. As we’ve discussed before, the ancient Romans had pasta they called laganum, the modern descendants of which are lagane and laganelle, ribbon shaped pastas still popular in southern Italy today.

The origins of pasta are hotly disputed. My own hunch is that it developed independently in various parts of the world, including both China and the ancient Mediterranean basin. After all, the idea of mixing flour and water and then drying it in various shapes to preserve it isn’t exactly rocket science. I agree with food historian Anna Maria Pellegrino, who says

“[e]ver since the birth of agriculture, man has learned to hone crop techniques and shape these to his needs, thus mixing grains with water was an automatic step which happened across all civilisations at some given point in time, probably simultaneously.”

Moreover, as I understand it, the Chinese traditionally made their noodles by hand pulling or rolling rather than extrusion. And as far as I have been able to figure out, the ancient Chinese didn’t employ a contraption like the bigalaro to make their noodles. They also had very different methods for cooking and serving noodles, suggesting that the two culinary traditions developed separately.

Polo already knew about pasta

More to the point, in his account of his travels, variously known as The Book of Marvels of the World, A Description of the World, or (usually in English) The Travels of Marco Polo, Polo recounts that he ate “[foods] like lasagna and the other pasta dishes” in Italy—obviously meaning that he was already familiar with pasta. The notion he brought spaghetti to Italy seems to have started in the US in the early 20th century as a marketing ploy, in a story titled “A Saga of Cathay” which appeared in the October 1929 issue of the Macaroni Journal, a trade magazine of North American pasta makers. The 1938 movie “The Adventures of Marco Polo” starring Gary Cooper, which depicted the great traveler bringing spaghetti to Italy for the first time, brought the myth into the mainstream.

Another more probable story…

So if Marco Polo didn’t bring bigoli to Venice in the 13th century, where did they come from? A less romantic but more plausible story is that they were invented centuries later by a pasta maker from nearby Padova named Bartolomio Veronese. who patented his torchio bigolaro with local authorities in 1604.

Bigoli in salsa

Venetian Thick Spaghetti in Onion and Anchovy Sauce
Total Time1 hour 10 minutes
Course: Primo
Cuisine: veneto
Keyword: boiled

Ingredients

  • 400 g (14 oz) bigoli
  • 1/2 large or 1 medium white onion about 300g (10-1/2 oz), minced or thinly sliced
  • 100 g (3-1/2 oz) anchovy fillets, or to taste
  • Water or dry white wine q.b.
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • A few sprigs of fresh parsley finely. minced

Instructions

  • In a large braiser or sauté pan, gently sauté the onions until they are very soft, adding a few drops of water or wine from time to time to help them along and prevent any browning. The process should take about 15-20 minutes.
  • Add the anchovies fillets and let them melt completely and meld with the onions into a kind of creamy sauce.
  • Meanwhile, bring a large pot of well salted water to the boil, then cook your bigoli until al dente.
  • Add the bigoli to the onion and anchovy sauce, along with most of the minced parsley if using and a small ladleful of the cooking water. Toss the pasta in the sauce over medium heat until the sauce reduces and clings to the pasta.
  • Serve right away, topped with the remaining parsley.

22 Comments on “Bigoli in salsa”

  1. Bigoli in salsa sounds like a delightful Venetian treat! I love how you’ve captured the essence of this dish, the chewy texture of bigoli pasta, the sweetness of slow-cooked onions, and the intense umami flavor of anchovies all coming together to create a savory explosion in every bite. I can’t wait to give this dish a try and transport myself to the canals of Venice with each forkful! Grazie mille for sharing this culinary gem!

  2. Ciao Frank…
    I got my hands on the bifold and would now like to make this dish (which sounds amazing!). But, I am wondering if you used sardines or whole, salt-packed, soaked and cleaned anchovies (which I have ordered).
    Have you tried making it each separately? If so, which do you prefer.
    Looking forward to hearing from you and letting you know how it goes. It sounds so simple, but quite delicious!

    1. I used anchovies because I love anchovies. And to be honest, I have never tried salted sardines so I can’t say which I prefer. Enjoy!

  3. As always, thanks for the recipe Frank and the history lesson! I love anchovies and pasta and will have to try this dish.

  4. So many recipes have very dubious backgrounds – it makes me laugh since half of them were probably invented by a grandma in her kitchen. 🙂 This sounds delicious, and somehow I’ve never actually tried this on our trips to Venice. I do love that city! I’ll have to try this one out for sure.

    1. If you’re a lover of assertive flavors, I’m sure you’d enjoy this, David. Worth a try! And yes, even with all the tourism Venice might be my favorite Italian city. For starters, no cars! And I can’t think of a more beautiful city.

  5. I would not spend that much money to extrude bigoli either. But I do have a spaghetti extruder which I use when I am in the mood to make extruded pasta. In and off itself, it is quite a chore. This is not Dave’s favourite sauce and in fact when I made it several years ago he refused to eat it. He is not an onion fan at all. I love it, and I adore anchovies. But not just any ones. They need to be from Italy or Morocco as I find them to be the best we can get.

    1. Too bad about Dave. Anchovies can be “controversiaL” but I adore them. So packed with flavor. So long as they’re good quality.

  6. I absolutely adore pasta and anchovies, so this recipe will be high on my to do list. It’ll have to be when JT is golfing because he is mot an anchovy fan. I’m intrigued by the pasta, a chewy texture reminds me of ramen, I wonder if there is sodium carbonate in the dough.

  7. Bonjour from the Loire Valley! This is one of our all-time favorite pastas, Frank. We had it in Venice, of course, at the Taverna San Trovaso. I came home, found a recipe, and have been making it ever since. Thanks for your version (almost identical) — maybe we will make this in France (though no bigoli is to be found).

    1. Bonjour!!! So that’s where you’ve been… 😉 Trust you’re having a great time. And thanks for the tip for Taverna San Trovaso. Duly noted for my next trip to Venice!

  8. That sounds delicious – a bit like Pissaladière, without the dough!
    I’m quite convinced the Marco Polo story is fiction. A recipe for lagana was recorded by the Greek Athenaeus of Naucratis in 2nd Century AD – sheets of dough made with wheat flour and lettuce juice, (which were spiced and fried).

    1. 5 stars
      Interesting comparison! And yes, I agree. There are ancient Roman sources as well that mention lagana, though, as you probably know, for etymological reasons many scholars believe they were Greek in origin.

We'd love to hear your questions and thoughts! And if you tried the recipe, we'd love to hear how it went!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.