If You Like Pearl Couscous, Try Fregola

October 10, 2017

Fregola (known as fregula in the local dialect) is an ancient handmade pasta produced on the island of Sardinia, where it has been made the same way since the 14th century. Semolina or durum wheat flour is poured into a special terracotta bowl, and tepid water (often mixed with saffron and a pinch of salt, with or without an egg yolk) is dribbled onto the flour with one hand, while the other rubs the liquid through the flour and against the bottom of the bowl, creating small, irregular-shaped blobs of pasta. (It is worth watching how a Sardinian nonna does this before trying it yourself.) Unsurprisingly, this pasta's name is connected to the way it is made: sfregolare means to crumble or reduce to crumbs. It is left to dry overnight (or longer) and then briefly toasted in an oven.

Hand roll your fregola, always. Photo by Emiko Davies

Although fregola is often compared to ptitim, also known as Israeli or pearl couscous, for its appearance, it is more similar to traditional couscous in terms of how it is made (by hand, sun-dried). Israeli couscous was developed in the 1950s during a food shortage and has only ever been factory-made.

Fregola, like other pint-sized pasta types—risoni (rice-shaped) and stelline (tiny star shapes) come to mind—suits a sauce that is more like a stew or a soup, as it is often cooked directly in a sauce. In fact, you can think of it rather like a risotto, or a farrotto (farro that is cooked in the style of risotto), as that is the consistency you are looking for.

Fregola sarda stars in this classic Sardinian clam stew. Photo by Emiko Davies

By far, the most popular way to eat fregola is with shellfish, in particular with arselle (small, sweet wedge clams) in a tomato-based sauce aromatized with garlic, parsley, dry white wine and the liquid from the clams themselves. At the restaurant Il Caminetto in Cabras on the west coast of Sardinia, instead of using tomato passata (you can also use a whole fresh chopped tomato), they use a handful of chopped, sundried tomatoes, which is worth trying too.

Have you tried—or will you try—making fregola from scratch? Let us know in the comments!

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The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


Maria October 19, 2019
What is known as Israeli couscous was actually made way before 1950 and was not factory-made! Palestinian women have been hand-rolling it for centuries :)
Alice October 12, 2017
I love fregola! Also made as a sweet porridge, so you can have pasta for dessert, hah. :)