If you’re like me (from New Jersey with a last name ending in a vowel), you very likely grew up eating “pasta fazool,” long before we found out that it’s actually “pasta fagioli”—technically pasta e fagioli or “pasta and beans.” Neapolitans, who have their own group of dialects, call it “fasule,” hence the Italian-American pronunciation.
Recipes vary from family to family, but, for the most part, they all include three core elements: pasta, white cannellini beans, and a tomato base. It’s hearty, peasant comfort food in its purest form.
Full disclosure: For the first 17 or so years of my life, I didn’t love it. The main reason was I’d always been a pasta-and-red-sauce fiend. I’m pretty sure the first word that came out of my infant mouth was “macaroni,” and I felt that its bean-heavy cousin was a subpar imposter (impasta?) that didn’t really need to be a part of the bi-weekly dinner rotation. For one thing, the presence of the beans lightened the color of the sauce, giving it a pinkish-orange hue—it literally paled in comparison!
For another, the recipe usually called for a lesser, B-list noodle, like ditalini (the micro-tubes) or tiny elbows. I was a fusilli and cavatelli kid. It didn’t help that the pasta was usually overcooked, broken, and generally mush.
I also had weird, inexplicable texture issues with the beans. When I knew it was going to be fazool night, I begged my parents to purée the cannellini in the blender so I didn’t have to see or feel them.
You probably can sense where I’m going with this. My tastes matured, I got over my bean-phobia and I developed a deep nostalgia for the flavors of my youth. While that’s certainly all true, it’s really only half the story. Somehow I managed to reach adulthood without realizing that pasta fagioli is supposed to be a soup. The version I’d grown accustomed to was unnecessarily “dry,” thanks to an over-abundance of macaroni—the noodles absorbed most of the liquid. I learned only recently that this was my dad’s fault. I was over at my parents’ house and my mom was making chicken soup. I asked her why she dumped an entire one-pound box of wagon-wheel pasta in the pot and the conversation kind of went like this:
Mom: That’s the only way your father will eat it.
Me: You mean chicken “soup” with the faint suggestion of broth?
Mom: Don’t start.
(To her credit, it was delicious. I just don’t think you could legally call it soup.) And then there was the question of noodle consistency.
Me: Why are you letting it cook so long? Don’t you want it to be al dente?
Mom: Your father doesn’t like it al dente.
Everything finally made sense. (Love you, Mom and Dad. Never change).
Since then, I’ve fine-tuned my own recipe for pasta fagioli, using my parents’ iteration as a jumping off point—keeping the small, soup-friendly ditalini and elbows—and jazzing it up with more intense flavors (read: exponentially more fresh garlic and a more generous handful of crushed red pepper), color (fresh spinach and/or arugula), and, well, meat (usually pancetta, but sometimes guanciale when I really feel like splurging. If you don’t indulge in the sins of the flesh, I’ve also included a recipe for the vegetarian version below).
The Ciolettis’ original instructions call for a can full of water, but I opt for chicken or vegetable stock.
Finally, the tomatoes make a world of difference. Most of the time I use canned tomatoes, since the window for really good fresh tomatoes is incredibly narrow and I typically crave this dish in the less agriculture-friendly seasons. I absolutely swear by the San Marzano variety because they really are the best plum tomatoes in the world (it has something to do with the volcanic soil in which they grow). Usually a 28-ounce San Marzano can will cost you $2 to $3 more than a comparable container of your average peeled tomatoes, but you will taste the difference. And caveat emptor: If the label says “San Marzano,” it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the real deal. If the package doesn’t include “D.O.P.” (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, like an AOC), the contents aren’t authentic. Unless you go for the uber-pricey guanciale as your pig meat of choice, the $5 can of tomatoes is likely to be your biggest expense in this easy and economical belly filler.
- 3 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 large can (28 oz.) D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes
- 6 oz. pancetta, finely chopped (for richer flavor, use guanciale, but it’s pricey)
- 1/2 pound small, dry pasta (ditalini or elbows)
- 6-8 cloves of garlic
- 5 oz. fresh spinach or arugula, or a combination of both
- 2 cans (15 oz.) of cannellini beans
- 2 cups chicken stock
- Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes
- 1-2 tsp. salt, plus more for pasta water
- 2 tsp. oregano (optional)
- Grated Pecorino Romano to taste
- 2-3 quarts water
Chop the pancetta into small cubes (it’s available pre-chopped, if you want to save some time). Cut each garlic clove into quarters—I like big pieces, but feel free to mince or slice if you don’t want chunks. Crush the canned tomatoes in a blender or food processor.
Then, in a medium-size pot, heat the oil for about one minute over medium heat. Add the pancetta and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes or until it shows signs of mild crispiness. Toss in the garlic and stir with the pancetta for another 3 minutes or so, or until it starts to soften and show little bits of brown. Sprinkle in the red pepper flakes and let infuse the oil for about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and 1 teaspoon of salt and combine with the ingredients already in the pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring repeatedly.
Pour in the beans, liquid and all and continue stirring. After about a minute, add one bean-can full of chicken stock. Stir again, and after another minute, add the optional oregano. Lower the heat and let cook for about 15 minutes, uncovered. Stir occasionally and keep an eye on the consistency. If the broth/sauce gets too viscous, add more stock, an ounce at a time. Also, check periodically for salt level and add more, to taste.
While the sauce is cooking, fill two-thirds of a medium-size pot with water and bring to a boil. Generously salt the water as it starts to boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente (see directions on the box) and strain. Return the noodles to the empty pasta pot and turn off the heat under the sauce pot. Scoop about 3 tablespoons of the cooked pasta into the bottom of a bowl, ladle in the sauce/broth and stir together. Grate as much cheese as you desire on top and combine with the rest of the soup.
There’s enough pasta for about four servings, with plenty of broth left over to freeze and reheat for another meal. For a larger party, cook a full pound of the pasta. Do not combine pasta with the leftovers before freezing, unless you want a big, mushy mess.
For a vegetarian version, swap out chicken stock for vegetable stock and omit the meat.