Why is it so damn hard to find ditalini around these parts?
Where I grew up, ditalini was a sine qua non of the pantry, an ur-pasta good for almost any application. It's the pasta used in minestrone, for example, and is without exception what is used most frequently in the ultimate peasant dish, pasta e fagioli. (Note: That's pronounced pahs-ta va-ZHAWL.) Yet, look high and low though I may, there was not one box to be found anywhere. I wasn't all that surprised not to find them in A. G. Ferrari, specializing as they do in less pedestrian fare. That they were missing from mainstream grocery stores I took in stride. But to go to Lucca Ravioli, temple of all things authentically Italian, and still be thwarted really chapped my hide.
Mind you, it's not that they didn't have a reasonably suitable alternative. They carry Barilla tubetti. Like ditalini, tubetti are small, tube-shaped pasta (hence the name); the difference is simply in proportions. Ditalini are generally as wide as they are long; tubetti are slightly narrower and longer. Sure, we're talking by millimeters here, and so of course the tubetti worked just fine, but they're just. Not. The. Same.
But I digress.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, captures the rustic spirit of cucina povera -- the food of the poor, or as my mother calls it, "Italian soul food" -- better than this dish. I mean, it's pasta and beans, basta. It's a dish that neither requires nor invites embellishment. Getting too fancy with it is like putting lipstick on a pig. It really will improve neither the appearance nor the flavor. That said, I favor Rancho Gordo beans. That's as much gilding the lily as I do.
It's not only possible but actually de rigueur for pasta e fagioli to be not only vegetarian but vegan. After all, the poor folks hardly ever could afford meat. Personally, I happen to like a little pork in my beans and chicken in my stock, but both are optional.
So great and pervasive a staple is this that there are many variations on it. Within my family alone, there are two distinct preparations, one from the bloodline hailing from Benevento in Campania (near Naples), and the other from our ancestors from the tip-toe of the boot at Reggio di Calabria. The former version is lighter, using cannellini beans and a touch of tomato; the latter, with kidney beans, is heartier, thicker and stick-to-your-ribbier. That's a word, right?
To call either of these preparations a recipe would be facile. As my great aunt herself told me when giving me the rundown on the Campanese version, "you have to play it by ear a little, honey." Cook with your heart and your gut as well as your head, and you'll never go wrong here. It's the Italian way.
There are a couple key differences in the preparations, besides just the beans. In the Campanese version, the elements are cooked separately and put together; in the Calabrese version, the pasta is cooked right in the bean water.
Pasta e fagioli, in the Campanese style
A few cloves of garlic, sliced or crushed
2 c. cannellini beans, cooked
A little tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
If you are using canned beans, rinse and drain them, and keep a little extra water or stock on hand. Otherwise, cook dried cannelini beans as normal. (I follow Rancho Gordo's method, though this time I used ham hock for flavoring.)
In a wide skillet, add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan and put over medium heat. Brown the garlic in the oil, then add the beans with enough liquid to make a loose stew.
Meanwhile, boil water in a separate pot, and cook the
ditalini tubetti until al dente, just a few minutes. Drain the pasta, then add to the beans. Add a good dollop of crushed tomatoes or sauce if you have some on hand. Which we always do.
Pasta e fagioli, in the calabrese style
To make enough for an army:
1 lb. dry kidney beans
3-4 qts water or stock
Salt and pepper
Soak the kidney beans in plenty of fresh water for at least four hours. Put the beans and their soaking liquid into a medium crock or Dutch oven, with enough water or stock to cover by at least an inch; add approx. 2 Tbsp salt. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until cooked through, several hours. Add a drizzle of olive oil and pepper to taste. Add
ditalini tubetti along with additional water or stock as necessary. Bring to a boil and cook until the pasta is al dente, around five minutes.
Both preparations freeze well, though the pasta will continue to absorb liquid and grow with each subsequent cooking.