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When I was growing up, there was an Italian dive half a block away on First Avenue. The front was a pizza parlor, but to locals, the lesser-known back was where families from our building would plunge into bowls of New York Italian staples, all in a sort of Diluvian flood of marinara.
I can't remember what it was called, and it's not there anymore, which is a shame because their baked ziti was something else. But I'll always remember it because it was the first place I tried one of my great food favorites: Pasta e Fagioli, that thick tomatoey soup studded with ditalini, creamy white beans, and a little hint of pancetta floating through the broth. It's so simple, honest, and filling.
I like making comfort food, especially nostalgic comfort food, during the week. Whatever drama happened at the office that day can be washed down with a spoonful of dinner and a swig of wine. So here is my fast, easy take on Pasta e Fagioli à la First Avenue in 1989.
I start with a mirepoix, which is a great start to any soup. If you don't feel like buying carrots, onions, and celery, or chopping, you can actually leave this out. It gives a nice vegetal crunch to the soup, but because we are using storebought broth, you don't need the extra flavor if you want to make this an even quicker dinner. Pour in some bought marinara sauce (they were doing this back on First Avenue) and some vegetable or chicken broth, and bring to a boil.
Next, add canned cannellini beans for that traditional creamy heartiness, and instead of ditalini, those tiny little pasta rings, I add prosciutto (pancetta-stuffed baby tortellini). This does two things. It means I don't have to add and render pancetta into the soup. All the smoky ham flavor comes from the all-purpose, cheesy, meaty stuffing of my baby tortellini. And second, it gives this soup that really thick, stew-like quality that is its signature. If I have some around, I stir in parmesan or sliced up prosciutto.
But at its barest bones, this soup is four ingredients and five minutes to hearty happiness. Perfect for mid-week, and so good that even though I was out for dinner last night, I came home and had a bowl at 11 p.m. just because I could.