Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: An Italian classic that's part soup, part pasta, and all comfort.
Cold winter days call out for comfort food -- and what could be better than this soupy, homely, immensely satisfying southern Italian dish, pasta e ceci? (A little Italian lesson here: "ce" is pronounced as in the first three letters of "checkers" and "ci" as in "ciao.")
It is a strikingly simple recipe, a cousin of pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans) and a staple of households in the center of the Italian peninsula and below. Head to Rome or Naples, and this would be a fixture on many a menu and kitchen table.
There are many different ways to prepare pasta e ceci, tweaked to perfection over generations according to regional or family preferences. There are those who like it without (or with very little) tomato, and those who like it stained vermillion (and then there’s the question of whether you use fresh, concentrated, canned whole, or puréed tomatoes). There are those that purée a portion of the chickpeas (a third, half, or three quarters) and those that leave this dish at its most elemental with whole chickpeas -- alla romana, for example.
Then there’s the argument over whether to cook the pasta with the chickpeas or separately -- and then, finally, whether to use short or long pasta. Ditalini (short, round tubes of pasta) are the classic short pasta for this dish, but you could also use pasta mista -- broken up pieces of pasta in a mix of shapes -- or rombi, a frilly ribbon pasta cut short into diamond-shapes, which is what I’ve used in the photos.
So rather than a strict recipe, let’s say this is just one way you could prepare this wonderful dish. All the variations have their merits!
This version does not involve a soffritto (chopped carrot, celery and onion) at the start; it just uses garlic, rosemary, and a touch of chili. A heavy-handed dose of tomato –- probably a bit more than “normal” –- in the form of chopped canned tomatoes adds color, and about a third of the chickpeas were puréed (but I could easily sway to using half). For me, when you have this soupy sauce that wants to be eaten with a spoon, short pasta is the way to go with pasta e ceci. If you’re not intending on keeping this a vegan or vegetarian dish, you could also add some chopped pancetta (fried crisp separately, then scattered on top) or melt some anchovies together with the garlic.
It goes without saying that with any dish as simple as this one, the quality of your ingredients goes a long way -- I cannot stress how important this is for the chickpeas and olive oil in this dish, especially.
7 ounces (200 grams) of dried chickpeas, or about 14 ounces (400 grams) of canned chickpeas, plus liquid from cooking
1 fresh bay leaf (if using dried chickpeas)
1 whole garlic clove
1 sprig fresh rosemary
Fresh or dried chii, chopped (optional)
About half a 14-ounce can of peeled, chopped tomatoes
7 ounces (200 grams) of short pasta such as ditalini, pasta mista, or rombi (see above)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
Salt and pepper
Photos by Emiko Davies