My paternal nonna Ada used to make the best pasta e fagioli. I grew up hearing it pronounced more frequently as pasta e fasoi, since the Venetian dialect is what nonna Ada and nonno “Gigi” spoke with each other and their friends in their tiny village of Lovadina di Spresiano, where most of my summers were spent as a child. Nonna Ada was an urban homesteader long before the term was invented. She tended an enormous garden that ran the perimeter of a huge back yard. She grew a dizzying amount of vegetables, her plants prolific and her yields abundant. I wish I could remember if she grew the beans that went into her pasta e fagioli, or if they came from the open air markets in the neighboring towns of Conegliano and Treviso. The only vivd memory I do have is of her sitting at the metal table under the front portico of her house shelling fresh borlotti beans from their long, striped pink and white pods. She was never idle, even when sitting down, and most everything she did around her homestead revolved around tending and cooking the fruits vegetables she grew (and sometimes bought) to feed her family.
Pasta e fagioli is a dish that rests firmly in the category of the cucina povera (kitchen of the poor). Italy’s culinary history is one of extreme poverty and food scarcity over many centuries, all the way up to World Wars I and II, which left Italy in economic depression until the late 1940’s. It was from these times of extreme hardship that the cucina povera was born. This style of cooking is based on the philosophy of not wasting ingredients and using a variety of simple cooking techniques to extract the best flavor and texture from what was available to eat. It relied exclusively on ingenuity, creativity, and reverence for every ingredient, and the recipes that emerged endure to this day.
For the most flavorful pasta e fagioli, you will need to use fresh or dried beans. The best beans to use for pasta e fagioli are borlotti, and if you are fortunate to find them fresh, don’t miss the chance to buy them. Once shelled, fresh beans take less than an hour to cook. Dried borlotti are often labeled “cranberry beans”. Dried beans require the extra step of pre-soaking the day before cooking them, a hands-off step that is necessary to re-hydrate the beans. If you cannot find borlotti, you can make an equally successful pot of pasta e fagioli using dried cannellini beans.
As with most Italian recipes, cooking methods and ingredients can vary from region to region and household to household. Most recipes for pasta e fagioli call for some form of pork, whether a ham hock or pancetta, to add to the soffritto (flavor base), which permeates the soup with a subtle smokiness. Some recipes use beef broth while others use chicken stock, vegetable stock, water, or the cooking liquid from the beans. Crushed tomatoes can also be added for extra color and richness. By far my favorite addition to pasta e fagioli is a small piece of rind from a wedge of Grana Padano (or Parmigiano Reggiano) for its unmistakable salty-nutty flavor. This soup can be easily made vegetarian as well with excellent results.
Since this is a dish of resourcefulness, almost any short, small shape pasta that you have in the pantry will work: ditalini and tubetti are popular and the pasta shape I prefer in this soup simply because that’s how I grew up eating it. Small shells or broken spaghetti also work well. Some recipes will instruct you to cook the pasta in the soup, but I don’t agree with this method because in order to cook pasta correctly, it needs to “swim” in an ample amount of water. As the pasta e fagioli cooks, the liquid reduces and there isn’t enough for the pasta to cook adequately, so cook it separately. Reserve some of the pasta cooking water to thin out the soup if it needs more liquid. Pasta e fagioli should be neither too “soupy” or too thick. This recipe makes a generous amount of soup and leftovers taste even better two to three days afterwards. It’s also freezer-friendly, so stash some away (without the pasta) for when you’re craving something hearty and comforting.
Pasta e Fagioli
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
Do not salt the beans when you are cooking them–they will get enough seasoning when you assemble and cook the soup. Salting the beans can also cause the skin to split or crack.
This recipe is easily adaptable for vegetarian preparations–simply omit the pancetta and substitute vegetable stock in place of the beef broth.
½ lb. (8 oz.) dried cranberry (borlotti) beans (see below for instructions on cooking dried beans)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large celery stalk, small dice
1 large carrot, small dice
½ medium onion, small dice
¼ lb. (4 oz.) pancetta, small dice (omit if making vegetarian)
1 15 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 15 oz. can low-sodium beef broth (substitute vegetable stock for vegetarian)
1 cup reserved bean cooking liquid
2 cups cold water
1½ teaspoons salt, divided
½ teaspoon pepper
1 rind from wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano
Ditalini (or other short, small pasta), cooked to al dente and drained
To cook dried beans
The night before, measure out the amount of dried beans called for in the recipe. Sort through the beans, removing any shriveled or discolored beans and/or small debris. Place the dried beans in a large bowl and cover completely with cold water. Set aside at room temperature. The next day, drain the beans through a colander and rinse with cold water. Transfer the beans to a large pot and cover with cold water by 3 inches. Cover the pot partially with the lid and cook the beans over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 1½ hours, until tender. The cooking liquid should simmer gently throughout the cooking process. When the beans are finished cooking, leave them in the cooking liquid until you are ready to use them. If you are making the beans several days in advance, cool them completely and store in the refrigerator in the cooking liquid. Reserve 3-4 cups of the cooking liquid (optional, but recommended) and then drain the cooked beans through a colander before using. The cooking liquid can be used in place of (or in addition to) water in the recipe as it has great flavor.
To make the soup
Heat a large soup pot over medium heat and add in the olive oil. Add in the celery, carrot, onion and ½ teaspoon of the salt, and sauté until softened, about 5-7 minutes, stirring often. Add in the diced pancetta and cook until it’s lightly browned. Add in the crushed tomatoes and simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring often. Adjust the heat so the mixture simmers gently and does not scorch.
Add the drained, cooked beans, stirring thoroughly to coat them with the tomato mixture. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add the beef broth, bean cooking liquid, water, remaining 1 teaspoon salt, the pepper, and the Grana Padano (or Parmigiano) rind and stir well to combine. Cover the pot partially with the lid and bring the soup to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. Cook the soup for 45 minutes to 1 hour. The liquid should reduce slightly. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper to taste. Add in the cooked pasta and stir well to combine. Serve immediately with grated Parmigiano or Grana Padano.