"When the stars make you drool, just like pasta fazool, that's amore..." We've all heard Dean Martin croon these famous lyrics in the song, "That's Amore," but how many of us in these parts know what the heck pasta fazool is?
Pasta fazool is the slang term for a traditional Italian soup called Pasta e Fagioli, which translates, literally, into "pasta and beans." Pasta e Fagioli is a hearty dish that was created by the peasant class centuries ago, consisting of inexpensive and abundant ingredients, like pasta and beans.
To understand just how much Italians love their Pasta e Fagioli, this was the very first dish I was served when I first met Tony's parents 25 years ago at their home in Toronto. And, just like any good Italian boy, Tony gushed about how much I would love his mother Marianna's "pasta fazool."
I was a tepid eater back then, and not much of a bean lover (at all), so I didn't initially share his enthusiasm. But, as I ate my first bowl, I was filled with a comforting warmth that soothed my travel-weary bones and appetite, and I eagerly accepted Marianna's offer for a second helping.
There are as many variations of Pasta e Fagioli as there are stars, depending on the region or tradition from which it hails - some are made like a stew, with sausage or beef added; others may puree all the ingredients to create a thick, creamy soup; others, like ours, are of a broth-like consistency. But all of them share the classic combination of pasta and beans.
Cannellini beans are the standard for this soup, but you could also use Great Northern or navy beans, as well as any other you prefer. My version is a simplified one that takes only about an hour to make from start to finish, as I use canned beans to skip the lengthy rehydration process required with dry beans.
Pancetta, an Italian form of bacon, is diced into pieces and cooked in extra-virgin olive oil first, which gives the soup a robust flavor base. Once crispy, the pancetta is removed and set aside to use later as a garnish, and the fat is used to flavor the onions and other ingredients as they cook. Regular bacon also works just fine.
I cook the onions with a blend of Italian seasonings, which you can find already made and packaged in the spice section of grocery and specialty food stores. My favorite is Victoria Taylor's Sicilian spice blend, which you can find at T.J. Maxx in south Fargo.
Once the onions are almost translucent, minced garlic is added and sauteed until fragrant, no more than a minute, and then the pot is deglazed with a dose of white wine, which helps get all those delicious brown bits of pancetta off the bottom. Crushed tomatoes, beans, chicken stock and fresh herbs are added next to round out the soup's flavor profile, and I'll also toss in a rind of Parmesan cheese, if I have one, for even more flavor.
Marianna never cooks from a recipe, so this version is as close as I can get to her Pasta e Fagioli. While it may never be "just like Mama's," my version is made with the same formula of simple ingredients and enough love to make you drool.
Sarah's Pasta e Fagioli
Serves: 6 to 8
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
4 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup dry white wine
1 quart chicken stock or broth
2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 cups water
2 sprigs fresh basil (about ¼ cup)
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
1 Parmesan cheese rind, optional (any size, for extra flavor and richness)
1 ½ cups ditalini pasta, or other small noodles
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish
Heat a stock pot over medium-high heat and add the oil. When it's hot, add the pancetta bits and cook until lightly brown and crispy. Remove bits, keeping the oil in the pan, and drain on a paper towel-lined plate; set aside.
Add the onion, Italian seasoning, crushed red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to the pot and saute, stirring often, until the onion is soft and translucent, about 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the garlic. Saute for about 1 minute, stirring frequently.
Add the white wine to deglaze the pot and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to remove any brown bits.
Once the liquid has reduced by half, add the chicken stock, beans, crushed tomatoes, water, fresh herbs and Parmesan rind (if using) and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove herb sprigs and discard.
If serving the entire batch at once, bring soup to a rolling boil over high heat and add the pasta. Reduce heat to medium-high and cook for about 8 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Let soup cool for a few minutes before serving, then ladle into serving bowls and garnish with saved pancetta bits and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Store for several days in the refrigerator, or freeze for up to 2 months (without pasta is best for freezing).
"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at email@example.com.