Seafood with pasta is one of the glories of southern Italian cuisine. Zuppa di pesce (fish soup) served over pasta is an old standby of restaurant menus, beloved by generations of Italian Americans. But the possibilities are just about endless. You can use pasta lunga (long pasta, like spaghetti, linguine, bucatini, etc.) or pasta corta (short pasta, like penne, ziti, rigatoni, etc.), in combination with clams, mussels, squid, fish (mostly saltwater), shrimp, anchovies, octopus, scallops and sea urchins. The sauce can be a simple combination of olive oil and garlic, with some herbs like Italian parsley or oregano, or more complex, with tomatoes, olives, capers and wine.
But one rule applies regardless of pasta type or sauce – no cheese! Southern Italians, and Italians in general, omit the formaggio from seafood pasta dishes, instead substituting toasted breadcrumbs or chopped herbs, like prezzemolo (flat-leaf Italian parsley).
Southern Italians, and especially Sicilians, love pasta with swordfish, which, along with tuna, is Sicily’s favorite fish. In America, swordfish, whether domestic or imported, can be pricey. But preparing it with pasta is an inexpensive way to enjoy this pleasantly oily, firm-fleshed fish.
Perhaps the best pasta to use in penne al pesce spada – penne with swordfish – is Setaro, an Italian brand made in Torre Annunziata, a town near Naples, by a family-run company that takes pride in the artisanal quality of their product. Setaro uses bronze extruders to manufacture pasta, which results in a somewhat rougher surface that holds the sauce better than industrial pasta made with Teflon extruders. Italian and American chefs swear by Setaro; some will use no other brand. Although Setaro can be hard to find in American shops, it can easily be ordered online, from major suppliers like Amazon as well as specialty stores.
For penne al pesce spada, try Setaro’s penne rigate al nero, short pasta made with black cuttlefish ink, which nicely complements the swordfish. But regular, hard durum semolina pasta is fine, too. The following recipe has two variations, both authentically Sicilian – one with green olives and capers, the other with black olives, no capers. (If using capers, try to find the salted Italian kind, preferably imported from Pantelleria. Avoid the small French capers called nonpareil, which will not give the proper flavor.) But this recipe, like so many Italian recipes, is more of a guideline than a formula. So feel free to vary ingredients and their amounts to your taste.
Penne al Pesce Spada
One-half to 3/4 pound fresh swordfish, cut into small chunks
2-3 cups canned San Marzano tomatoes, chopped, or the equivalent in cherry tomatoes, halved
2-3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley or basil, or both; or 1 teaspoon dried oregano and 2 tablespoons parsley
Whole garlic, 1-2 cloves, to taste
2 tablespoons chopped green Sicilian olives and 2 tablespoons chopped Pantelleria capers rinsed of their salt
2 tablespoons chopped Gaeta olives, no capers
4-6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lb. Setaro regular penne rigate or penne rigate al nero (black penne)
Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, sauté garlic in olive oil until lightly browned, pressing it into the oil, and discard. (If you like your sauce picante – spicy -- add some hot red pepper flakes to the oil.) Add chopped swordfish and sauté. When the fish is lightly cooked, add the tomatoes. Stir, mashing the fish into the tomatoes until they are blended. Add herbs, salt and pepper. Stir together and let simmer 10-15 minutes. (NOTE: If you’re using capers and olives, go easy on the salt.) Add capers and olives, stir, and let cook another five minutes.
Cook the pasta (about 11 minutes), and, when a little more than al dente, drain and add it to the pan with the sauce. Re-heat the sauce. If the pasta and sauce mixture is too dry, add some of the pasta water. Stir until sauce and pasta are blended, about 1-2 minutes. (This method is called in padella.) Serve, garnished with extra chopped parsley – and remember, no cheese!