From the top to the toe of Italy, you can find regions that claim this humble plate of pasta and beans as their local dish. And as much as pasta e fagioli is a creamy, delicious comfort food, its popularity is in part due to its nostalgia. Historically, pasta e fagioli saved families on the edge of poverty—a cheap, satisfying dish.
While Tuscany and Campania often lay claim to pasta e fagioli—the Tuscans themselves aren't called mangiafagioli (“bean-eaters” for nothing—and Dean Martin made Naples' version famous when he compared a plate of pasta fasul with "that's amore" or falling in love, the Veneto region has an exceptionally long link to pasta e fagioli. The Veneti are the ones to credit for importing the particular beans that Italians now call their own, namely borlotti and cannellini, centuries ago from the Americas.
The "recipe" varies from region to region and even household to household and generation to generation, but the idea is the same: Cooked beans (better of course if you cook them yourself from dried or fresh beans, but otherwise, a can will do) are partially reduced to a thick and creamy purée and cooked with some tomato purée, enough to make it blush. This thick sauce of whole and puréed beans with short pasta swimming in it is somewhere halfway between a soup and a pasta dish, suitable for eating with a spoon.
What changes are the other additions—sometimes the base is cooked with a soffritto of celery, onion and carrot, and, sometimes, with just finely chopped garlic and parsley. The pasta can be parboiled, then added, and other times it's cooked directly in the sauce.
In the Veneto, when this was made in the colder months (called minestra de fasoi, making it decidedly more a soup than a pasta dish) and it coincided with the seasonal butchering of pigs, pig skins or bones would be added for flavor. Today, you can often find pancetta, prosciutto, or lardo, that slab of silky cured pork fat, cut into thin strips, sizzled together with the soffritto. A Parmesan rind is also often used (I save them in my freezer for times like this), thrown into the simmering sauce to add flavor. To keep this dish vegetarian or vegan, simply leave these out and use vegetable stock instead of water.
A healthy topping of grated cheese is entirely optional, too. There are those who, like my Tuscan mother in law, don't like to put cheese on their beans. She says it masks the beans' flavor, which, when good-quality, is earthy and nutty and their texture wonderfully creamy and completely satisfying.
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 1 small red onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 celery stick, finely chopped
- 1 small carrot, peeled and finely chopped
- 2-3 slices of pancetta, cut into thin strips (optional)
- 14 ounces (400 grams) cooked and drained borlotti beans (note that a regular size can normally holds 240 grams of beans)
- 1/3 cup (80 ml) tomato puree (passata)
- 1 cup (250 ml) water or vegetable or beef stock
- 7 ounces (200 grams) short pasta such as ditalini
Tell us: Have you made pasta e fagioli before? What sorts of add-ins do you favor?