Pasta con le sarde – pasta with sardines – is a classic Sicilian dish and a metaphor for the island’s cuisine, since it contains most of its characteristic ingredients and flavors. Also called pasta chi sardi or pasta cu li sardi in Sicilian dialect, it is a unique mélange of sweet and sour, sea and land. Although it originated in the Palermo area and is most associated with Sicily’s capital, the dish, with local variations, can be found throughout the island. Its essential ingredients are fresh sardines, fennel greens, onion, anchovies, currants, pinoli (pine nuts), and saffron. The sardine sauce is served with bucatini (also called perciatelli), a kind of ropy spaghetti, and topped with toasted breadcrumbs.
Some versions of pasta con le sarde include tomato, which traditionalist Sicilians regard as a culinary crime. “One must protect this recipe from the deluge of tomato,” says Pino Correnti, in Il Libro d’oro della Cucina e dei Vini di Sicilia (The Golden Book of Sicilian Cuisine and Wine). “I don’t have anything against the tomato,” he adds, “but in Sicily we already had a good two millennia of gastronomic culture when it arrived from America.” Correnti argues that the tomato-less recipe published in 1886 by the renowned folklorist Giuseppe Pitrè is the only authentic (and acceptable) version.
Correnti would have been delighted by the pasta con le sarde that this writer enjoyed at a seafood trattoria in Castellammare del Golfo, near Palermo, nearly twenty years ago. Served as the primo (first course, after antipasti) of a multi-course seafood feast, the dish was prepared without tomato, the flecks of red in the sauce from lo zafferano, the saffron. As we dug into the huge platter our waiter set before us, the blended aromas of fish, fennel and the other ingredients signaled an extraordinary dining experience. The grilled seafood that followed was wonderful, but the pasta con le sarde was the real star of the meal.
Although the recipe for pasta con le sarde was first published in the 19th century, no one seems to know for certain how the dish came to be. Legend has it that Arabs who invaded Sicily in the first millennium improvised it from sardines they caught in the harbor and the wild fennel, pinoli, saffron and currants they found in nearby hills. Like most legends, though, this one probably is more fanciful than authentic.
But regardless of its origins, pasta con le sarde is uniquely and quintessentially Sicilian.
That doesn’t mean, though, that it can only be made in Sicily. But American cooks may have to compromise a bit on the ingredients. The wild fennel used in Sicily is rare in the United States, but the green tops of the bulb fennel found in North American markets work well, supplemented with some crushed fennel seed. Fresh Mediterranean sardines are harder to find, but, imported from Portugal, Spain and Italy, they’re increasingly available in American fish markets. In a pinch, canned Portuguese sardines packed in water make a perfectly acceptable substitute.
1 dozen fresh sardines, gutted, de-boned, and head, tail and fins removed, OR 4 cans Portuguese sardines packed in water
2 cups green tops from fennel bulbs, plus teaspoon crushed fennel seed
1 medium onion, chopped
6 anchovy fillets, chopped
2 tablespoons currants
2 tablespoons pinoli (pine nuts)
1 packet ground saffron or small tube saffron threads
1 quarter cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound bucatini or perciatelli
1 cup toasted breadcrumbs
Fill large pasta pot with water, add 1 tablespoon sea salt and heat.
Soak currants in 1 cup hot water for 10 minutes and dissolve the saffron in a half-cup hot water.
Toast the breadcrumbs until golden brown in a small pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil. When cooled, remove and set aside.
When water comes to a boil, add fennel tops and boil for 10 minutes. Remove fennel tops from water, chop and set aside.
In a large skillet or saucepan, sauté the chopped onion in the olive oil until translucent but not browned. Add chopped anchovies to the onion and mix until the onion and anchovies are blended.
Add the fennel greens and crushed fennel seeds to the onion/anchovy mixture and cook over low heat for 5 minutes.
Add the sardines and mix them with the other ingredients, breaking them up with a cooking spoon. Add the drained currants, the pinoli, and the saffron; season to taste with salt and pepper and let simmer for five minutes, stirring from time to time.
Bring the water used to cook the fennel greens to a boil and add the pasta.
Cook the pasta until al dente, about 11 minutes. When the pasta is done, drain it, add it to the pan with the sauce and mix until the pasta is thoroughly blended with the sauce, about 1 minute. If it seems too dry, add some of the pasta cooking water and stir.
Remove to a large bowl or platter, sprinkle with toasted breadcrumbs, and serve. Dress the pasta with a little olive oil or pass a cruet around so your guests can add the oil to taste.