Linguine Pasta with Sardines, Fennel & Tomato

July 12, 2021
16 Ratings
  • Prep time 10 minutes
  • Cook time 25 minutes
  • Serves 2 to 4
Author Notes

Though some of you probably can’t imagine sardines being a crave-worthy food, I’ve been completely smitten with them since my first taste (a long-ago birthday dinner at Prune restaurant in NYC, where my husband and I shared a starter of sardines with Triscuits, mustard and cornichons). These days we’ve always got a few tins in the pantry at home, so it’s easy to put together one of our favorite weeknight dinners – linguine with sardines, fennel, and tomato, my version of a classic pasta dish known as “Linguine con Sarde.” The sweet, slightly caramelized fennel and the bright tomatoes and lemon work really well with the rich flavor of the sardines, and the crunchy breadcrumb topping makes for a fun textural contrast. Think you don’t like sardines? This simple pasta dish just might make you change your mind. (Note: It goes without saying you should use the best quality wild-caught tinned sardines you can find. Some of our favorites are Wild Planet, Cole's, MorGaDa, and BELA-Olhão, all of which I’ve used and any of which work well here. Also, tiny fresh tomatoes are a wonderful replacement for canned during the summer months - Super Sweet 100s, left whole, or halved small cherry varieties work beautifully. Just add a pint or so to the pan in step 3 and let them cook until softened.) - lastnightsdinner —lastnightsdinner

Test Kitchen Notes

When we tasted lastnightsdinner's rich, sea-infused pasta, our first thought was: "It's amazing that you can make something that tastes this good using fish from a can!" This simple, pantry dinner (the only thing you may have to shop for is the fennel) packs a punch with just a few ingredients. Perfectly al dente strands of pasta are tossed lightly in a sauce of garlic, fennel, tomato, lemon and vermouth, studded with briny bits of sardine; the oil from the canned sardines enriches the sauce, and a shower of lemony toasted breadcrumbs brightens the dish. We found it challenging to caramelize the fennel without burning the garlic; if you'd like, you can add the garlic after you've sauteed the fennel. - A&M —The Editors

What You'll Need
  • 1 pinch Kosher or sea salt
  • 1 tin sardines packed in olive oil (about 4 ¼ oz.)
  • 1 splash extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled, smashed, and roughly chopped (up to 3 cloves total, to taste)
  • 1 small or ½ large bulb fennel, fronds reserved
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes, or more to taste
  • 1 cup canned peeled tomatoes with their juice, gently crushed
  • 2 ounces white (dry) vermouth
  • 1 medium lemon, juice and zest
  • 1/3 cup toasted bread crumbs
  • 3/4 pound dry linguine
  1. Bring a very large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
  2. Open the sardine tin and drain a tablespoon or so of the oil into a wide skillet (the amount of oil in the tin will vary by brand, so add additional extra virgin olive oil if necessary to make up a tablespoon). Warm the oil over medium-low heat and add the garlic, cooking until fragrant.
  3. Trim the fennel and slice the bulb very thinly (a mandoline works great here). Add to the skillet with a sprinkle of salt, raise the heat to medium, and cook until the fennel is soft and beginning to caramelize. Add the chile flakes and let them sizzle for a minute, just until fragrant, then add the tomatoes with their juice. Cook until the liquid is reduced, then add the vermouth and let that reduce slightly.
  4. Add the sardines to the skillet with the tomato and fennel mixture, breaking up slightly but leaving some chunks. Zest the lemon and combine a tablespoon or so of zest with the toasted breadcrumbs, then set aside. Juice the lemon and add the juice to the pan. Taste and adjust salt if necessary.
  5. Add the linguine to the boiling salted water, cooking it until it is just short of al dente. Using tongs, transfer the linguine to the sauce to finish cooking, adding a little bit of the starchy pasta water and tossing gently to combine. (You'll want to leave this a little wet, as the breadcrumbs will soak up the sauce and dry the pasta out a bit once you've added them.)
  6. Transfer the pasta and sauce to a large warmed serving bowl (or individual pasta bowls), add a drizzle of olive oil, sprinkle on the toasted breadcrumb-lemon zest mixture, and garnish with picked small fennel fronds and the remaining lemon zest.
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165 Reviews

Louise C. April 24, 2024
Pasta Con Sarde is a family favorite. It's served on St. Joseph's day. You can take a shortcut by starting with Cuoco Pasta Con Sarde Condiment. That familiar yellow can... <3
deanna1001 May 16, 2023
I can't believe I never reviewed this recipe...have made a dozens of times, though not in the last coupe of years as my mother did not like fennel. Made again last night...pure heaven. I used spinach and chive linguine from Trader Joe's and doubled the sardines. This recipe never fails! Quick and easy with huge flavor reward!
Beth February 21, 2023
I come back to this recipe everytime i find fennel at our farmers market—everything else is already stocked in my pantry! Sooooo tasty and so convenient! Yum and yay!
Änneken July 12, 2021
Just made this again and I am not sure why I didn’t leave a review before. It’s so tasty and easy yet sophisticated and transports me to the Mediterranean every time!
V April 23, 2021
Yum! I didn't have any fennel so I skipped it--used fresh early girl tomatoes, and added plant based butter at the end. Also used GF fettucini (brown rice based) SO TASTY! I will definitely make it again and buy fennel.
Magen June 13, 2020
This has been my “me night” dinner for the past two years. My husband can’t stand the smell of sardines, so whenever he’s gone for dinner, I make this. I had never had sardines before this recipe, and it hooked me! It’s so delicious, I look forward to it for weeks. I’d make it every week if I could. Thank you so much for this recipe!
maryvelasquez April 30, 2020
Dear lastnightsdinner,
Of all the recipes on food52, this is the one I've made the most and it has definitely been the star during the stay at home order. We love it so much.
Kay April 9, 2020
I have made this several times. I use an entire package of linguine or spaghetti depending on pantry stock. I also use an entire can of tomatoes. It is a family favorite and often requested by my children. The fennel adds something magical. It has a kind of frutti di mare taste but is much more economical. Really hard to mess it up.
Kay April 9, 2020
I have made this several times, sometimes omitting the bread crumbs if I don't have good ones. It is a family favorite and often requested by my children. It has a kind of frutti di mare taste but is much more economical.
bhilz March 31, 2020
I used this recipe as a template last night to use up some fennel from a produce box and the results were fantastic! I happened to have some leftover Marcella Hazan-style tomato sauce in the fridge, and used some lemon pepper tuna fillets in olive oil instead of the sardines. I skipped the vermouth as well. The results were fresh and zippy, with just the right hint of the sea.
Pamela T. December 30, 2018
This recipe overall was a hit. I followed the recipe. The only suggestion is to maybe do half a lemon. Then add to taste.
icharmeat October 13, 2018

I really wanted to love this recipe. It was close to a "love" for me but i don't think my wife would be on board (not the recipe's fault). (my) Kids would be okay with it.
To be fair, I didn't follow the recipe exactly: I used good quality, smoked sardines in oil from Latvia and fresh tomatoes from my garden. my fennel bulb was organic and grown only five miles from my home. The problem is that it was harvested three weeks ago and has languished in my fridge. I cleared off the outer layers of the fennel that were damaged and tasted the newly exposed layer- sastisfacory. I subbed pernod for the vermouth to make up for the semi-wasted specimen of fennel that I used. It was pretty delicious out of the pan but the leftovers were not nearly as good, even with new bread crumbs/zest.

I know, pasta doesn't do well as a leftover. This wasn't a textural issue with the noodle, it was a somewhat overly sardiney component that came through. I'm portuguese and I ate right through it but I don't think my kids would have eaten it the next day.

angusb September 8, 2018
a quarter cup of currants adds to this fine recipe.
Julia April 1, 2018
The 'cup of tomatoes', is that a liquid or solid cup?
pottsy.1990 March 29, 2018
Wow was this delicious! Went down very very well with my husband too. I cut back on the linguine a bit and we liked it that way with more of the sauce/sardines and less pasta. Now I want to find more sardine recipes!
Analida B. February 28, 2018
This looks looks like a great dish for Lent and I can't wait to try it! A nice marinara sauce might go well with this dish as well: https://ethnicspoon.com/quick-and-easy-marinara-sauce/
FrugalCat November 21, 2017
Finally got around to making this. I used whole wheat penne and it came out great. I think next time I will try it with anchovies instead of sardines.
Tom B. March 13, 2017
I made this with one change--rather than sardines, I used Latvian smoked sprats in oil, which I had on hand from a local international market, but you can get them online from multiple sources (just more expensive that way). Served with Food52 grilled chard stems with anchovy vinaigrette (which I broiled rather than grilled, and made with sprats instead of anchovies--the sprats were in an 8.8 oz jar so I had leftover ones from the pasta), and Lahey no-knead bread. Really delicious.
Shortrib June 27, 2016
I thought myself lucky to have access to fresh butterflied sardines in the market here in Amsterdam. I love fish btw and I'm pretty adventurous. And normally I'm not bothered by bones. However, these little puppies were boned four times before we could swallow a mouthful: first by the fishmonger (backbone) ; next by me with the tweezers (took at least 40 mins and got a hand cramp!); again by me after removing from the frying pan (since I noticed all sorts of bones now poking out); and finally at the table where hubby and I were both still pulling bones from every bite! Ok, so I've read that sardine bones are so soft that you can just eat them (and they're good for you!) but honestly I couldn't do it. The recipe, by the way, and the fish was delicious! I am going to try it again with canned (softer bones) and see if that proves more joyful. So much for crowing about fresh sardines! (We drank a rose from Puglia along with, which we thought was a good match.)
Shel June 12, 2016
We made it to the letter. It was absolutely delicious. This will be a repeat. Wow!! Love all the layers, the fennel bulb, tomato, lemon, hot flaked peppers; it's all there in a single mouthful. We enjoyed it with Chianti.