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Pastaefagioli

Pasta e fagioli

Why is it so damn hard to find ditalini around these parts?

Where I grew up, ditalini was a sine qua non of the pantry, an ur-pasta good for almost any application. It’s the pasta used in minestrone, for example, and is without exception what is used most frequently in the ultimate peasant dish, pasta e fagioli. (Note: That’s pronounced pahs-ta va-ZHAWL.) Yet, look high and low though I may, there was not one box to be found anywhere. I wasn’t all that surprised not to find them in A. G. Ferrari, specializing as they do in less pedestrian fare. That they were missing from mainstream grocery stores I took in stride. But to go to Lucca Ravioli, temple of all things authentically Italian, and still be thwarted really chapped my hide.

Mind you, it’s not that they didn’t have a reasonably suitable alternative. They carry Barilla tubetti. Like ditalini, tubetti are small, tube-shaped pasta (hence the name); the difference is simply in proportions. Ditalini are generally as wide as they are long; tubetti are slightly narrower and longer. Sure, we’re talking by millimeters here, and so of course the tubetti worked just fine, but they’re just. Not. The. Same.

But I digress.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, captures the rustic spirit of cucina povera — the food of the poor, or as my mother calls it, "Italian soul food" — better than this dish. I mean, it’s pasta and beans, basta. It’s a dish that neither requires nor invites embellishment. Getting too fancy with it is like putting lipstick on a pig. It really will improve neither the appearance nor the flavor. That said, I favor Rancho Gordo beans. That’s as much gilding the lily as I do.

It’s not only possible but actually de rigueur for pasta e fagioli to be not only vegetarian but vegan. After all, the poor folks hardly ever could afford meat. Personally, I happen to like a little pork in my beans and chicken in my stock, but both are optional.

So great and pervasive a staple is this that there are many variations on it. Within my family alone, there are two distinct preparations, one from the bloodline hailing from Benevento in Campania (near Naples), and the other from our ancestors from the tip-toe of the boot at Reggio di Calabria. The former version is lighter, using cannellini beans and a touch of tomato; the latter, with kidney beans, is heartier, thicker and stick-to-your-ribbier. That’s a word, right?

To call either of these preparations a recipe would be facile. As my great aunt herself told me when giving me the rundown on the Campanese version, "you have to play it by ear a little, honey." Cook with your heart and your gut as well as your head, and you’ll never go wrong here. It’s the Italian way.

There are a couple key differences in the preparations, besides just the beans. In the Campanese version, the elements are cooked separately and put together; in the Calabrese version, the pasta is cooked right in the bean water.

Pasta e fagioli, in the Campanese style
A few cloves of garlic, sliced or crushed
2 c. cannellini beans, cooked
2 c. ditalini tubetti
A little tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes

If you are using canned beans, rinse and drain them, and keep a little extra water or stock on hand. Otherwise, cook dried cannelini beans as normal. (I follow Rancho Gordo’s method, though this time I used ham hock for flavoring.)

In a wide skillet, add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan and put over medium heat. Brown the garlic in the oil, then add the beans with enough liquid to make a loose stew.

Meanwhile, boil water in a separate pot, and cook the ditalini tubetti until al dente, just a few minutes. Drain the pasta, then add to the beans. Add a good dollop of crushed tomatoes or sauce if you have some on hand. Which we always do.

Pasta e fagioli, in the calabrese style
To make enough for an army:

1 lb. dry kidney beans
1 lb. ditalini tubetti
3-4 qts water or stock
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Soak the kidney beans in plenty of fresh water for at least four hours. Put the beans and their soaking liquid into a medium crock or Dutch oven, with enough water or stock to cover by at least an inch; add approx. 2 Tbsp salt. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until cooked through, several hours. Add a drizzle of olive oil and pepper to taste. Add  ditalini tubetti along with additional water or stock as necessary. Bring to a boil and cook until the pasta is al dente, around five minutes.

Both preparations freeze well, though the pasta will continue to absorb liquid and grow with each subsequent cooking.

  • Okay, this makes me want to run up to Federal Hill in Providence, buy out the ditalini supply at Tony’s Colonial, and ship it off to you! In our part of the world, this soup is called Pasta Fazool, but whatever you call it, it’s one of my all-time favorites.

  • Joyce Colucci

    We call it Pasta Fagioli in Rochester NY. Avon NY about 20 minutes from here is now home to a new 90 million dollar Barialla Pasta plant. Barialla said they chose Avon because it reminded them of Parma Italy where they have been making pasta for 100+ years. Any time you want ditalini I’ll zip over to local Wegmans and have it shipped!

  • Ace

    I’ve found ditalini at Le Beau Market, Leavenworth at Clay. But I agree, it’s almost impossible to find in this town!

  • I don’t think I did get to try pasta e fagioli while in Italy. Thanks for sharing this: will have to try these two versions soon.

  • Tea

    You’ve got TWO different Italian bloodlines in you? No fair, you lucky sot. I don’t have even a one.
    But lucky me, I get your recipes:-)
    Thanks!

  • Thanks to Ace, Lydia and Joyce do not need to ship me ditalini. 🙂
    js: Yeah, this is definitely not a dish you’ll find in the restaurants, nor even are you likely to have it served to you if you’re a guest in someone’s home. It’s far too humble for that.
    Tea: Actually, I have three. My mother’s mother’s father’s bloodline comes from Salle in Abruzzo. Ironically, despite this post, that is the line that we derive most of our food heritage from.

  • If upstate NY resembles Parma, the person to whom it seems so was impaired while passing time at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo.
    No matter. Pasta e fagioli is a different thing in different parts of Italy. All are good. Some have ditalini, most do not. You have a lifetime of cursing at alterations in front of you!

  • My mother was once told (by a non-italian waitress, in an Eye-talian type restaurant) that the soup of the day was ‘Pasta Fon-GOOL’…my poor NY Italian mom just turned to her and said, “sweetheart, that’s ‘Pasta Fazool–Fongool means F— You!” and then ordered the soup. I can’t hear about that soup without thinking of that story!

  • Judith: Naturally there are as many variations on Pasta e Fagioli as there are families in Italy, but in *my* family, it’s ditalini or nothin’
    Rebecca: That is too damn funny. I would have been laughing too hard to eat much less order soup.

  • Oh, Sean, my paisan, I so feel your pasta withdrawal. Where I grew up in RI, there was an entire aisle of pasta in the general supermarket. That’s not even counting the endless Italian markets that had every type of pasta imaginable. Now is San Diego, all they ever have is penne, spaghetti, and farfalle. Ugh. And though tubetti may resemble ditalini, I’m with you– it’s not the same. As for the pronunciation, my family says it more Soprano’s style, as “Pasta Fa-ZOOL.”

  • Did you try looking at the Pasta Shop in Berkeley/Oakland?

  • Nope! But nor am I likely to cross a bridge for pasta. 🙂 Wonder if there’s someplace down in the peninsula?

  • Tina

    Man, they have Barilla Ditalini at Wal-Mart!

  • Bob

    “Stick-to-your-ribier” is actually my favorite secret weapon in Scrabble. I always win when I can play that.

  • Especially when you use the archaic spelling with the silent Q, Z and X

  • Erin

    Meijer–if there’s not one in your town, look into getting one–start a petition or something. They have every pasta I can think of, granted I’m not much of a pasta savant, but they have a great selection, I am eating ditalini as we speak.

  • circusvue

    I found your amusing site while looking up the meaning of ditalini on the internet. Does anyone know the meaning? I add it to all my soups. I love it.

  • < !DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN">
    Hi there. Ditalini is the diminutive of ditali, which means thimbles, so ditalini means little thimbles. Makes sense, no? 

  • SebastianFortLaud

    Wow! This is WAAAAAAAAAAAAY simpler than the recipe my Sicilian mother raised me with. It required onion, tomato sauce, garlic (of course) & occasionally a sausage to give it some meat. She also boils the ditalini separately. I like this. I will throw the beans in water, go to work then come home & make the rest!