Pasta c’anciova e muddica atturata is a dish that may sound unfamiliar, but is fundamental to Sicilian cuisine. The name translates to “pasta with anchovies and toasted bread crumbs.” It was typically prepared in the winter by fishermen in Sicily and Calabria. It is composed of only a few simple, preserved ingredients: pasta, anchovies, tomato paste, and breadcrumbs. To understand and appreciate this dish, we consider the history of its ingredients:
Salted, preserved fish such as anchovies and sardines are intrinsic to the Mediterranean culinary culture… and for Sicily, they’re as important as the sun and the sea. In the past, they were associated with the working class. A 1948 Luchino Visconti movie titled La Terra Trema highlights the importance of the ingredient to Sicilians. It tells the story of a poor family in a fishing village near Catania and their quest to command a higher price for their prized product: barrels of salted fish. The family endures hardship after hardship for their pride in their product – the only thing they had. Today, the product continues to be a key export (and a pantry staple).
Sun drying has always been the food preservation technique of choice for Sicily. In order to preserve the bounty of summertime tomatoes, Southern Italians prepared tomato paste. It was made by spreading out a reduced tomato sauce (passata di pomodoro) on a wide, flat dish or wooden board and stirring it under the Sicilian sun. After a few days, the result was a thick, richly-colored paste that could be stored without refrigeration and lasted through the winter. Today, the industrially-made tomato paste found in supermarkets is much thinner and is often dried in an oven, rather than under the sun.
Most Italian pasta dishes call for a sprinkling of parmigiano or pecorino cheese on top. However, cheese wasn’t commonly found in the pantries of poor Sicilian or Calabrian households. What was often available, however, was a hunk of day-old bread. The idea to top pasta with toasted breadcrumbs was an ingenious and economical alternative for adding flavor.
In the end, this simple dish born from the creativity of Southern Italian peasants teaches us valuable lessons about food and cooking:
Preserve seasonal products: In a world where we can get fresh tomatoes in January, the concept of seasonal eating is as important as ever – and gaining in popularity. It’s important to remember that our predecessors preserved by necessity and that we can learn much from their techniques. In the wintertime, consider cooking with preserved items, or try making your own tomato paste at home! You’ll find eating and cooking seasonally will make for more delicious food, as it is grounded in the current season.
Creativity can be simple: Today, we are lucky to have a plethora of ingredients available in supermarkets. Pasta c’anciova e muddica atturata reminds us that creativity born from scarcity achieves delicious results. We owe a lot of respect to cuisine made by peasants (cucina povera). The principles of cucina povera have come to reflect the essence of Mediterranean cooking.
Quality ingredients make for good food: When preparing and eating Italian food, especially simple dishes, it’s important to use only the highest quality ingredients. Keep simple, high quality ingredients at home and it will become easy to whip up wholesome, delicious meals.
As a pro tip, if you find yourself in Southern Italy and want to ensure you’re eating local fish, order a dish with anchovies or sardines. In today’s global fish market, it’s not always guaranteed that the fish is from the region, but the likelihood that anchovies or sardines are imported is low.
On the other hand, if you’d like to make this dish at home, follow the simple recipe below. Buon appetito!
Traditional pasta c’anciova e muddica atturata
Serves 4 people
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove garlic
- 6 salted anchovy filets in oil
- 2 teaspoons (10 grams) homemade tomato paste, or 4 teaspoons (20 g) of store bought tomato paste
- ½ teaspoon (2.5 g) crushed red pepper flake
- ½ cup (65 g) breadcrumbs
- 8oz (~250 g) of high quality dry spaghetti (about half a package)
- Bring ~6 cups (800 g) of water to a boil and add a spoonful of salt
- While the water is boiling toast the breadcrumbs in a pan, stirring often until they become light brown and fragrant, about 5 mins. Set aside.
- In a large pan, heat about 3 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil. Once hot, add a whole clove of garlic. Sautee the garlic for 2 mins
- Add the anchovy filets, tomato paste, and crushed red pepper flakes. Stir the mixture until the anchovies dissolve and the tomato paste takes on color. Add water if needed to loosen the mixture. The goal is a loose and full incorporated sauce. It can take anywhere from 5-8 mins.
- Once the water is boiling, cook the pasta according to package instructions until al dente. Reserve ~1/2 cup (65 g) of the starchy pasta water
- Add the drained, cooked pasta to the pan with the sauce along with the pasta water. Toss until everything is well combined and the sauce clings to the pasta, about 2 mins
- Portion into bowls and top with toasted breadcrumbs. Serve!