Why It Works
- A quick and easy scratch-made sausage captures the flavors of Norcia-style sausage, which is centered around garlic and white wine instead of the fennel seed and dried chiles common in store-bought Italian sausage.
- Finishing cooking the pasta in the sauce ensures that the noodles are well-coated and al dente.
- Black pepper and nutmeg give this pasta a hint of warm spice, balanced by savory sausage and Pecorino Romano.
The Umbrian town of Norcia is famous for its pork, and it has a rich tradition of sausage- and salumi-making. So much so that butcher shops all over Italy that specialize in fresh and cured pork products like salami, prosciutti, pancetta, and guanciale are known as "norcinerie." Located at the foot of the Sibylline Mountains, Norcia has the perfect cool and humid climate conditions for meat-curing and, in the fall, truffle hunting. These two local specialties come together in pasta alla norcina: pasta dressed in a rich and creamy sauce studded with juicy sausage, traditionally finished with a showering of shaved black truffles.
Of course, we aren't about to start developing recipes that require expensive fresh truffles (and we don't recommend using synthetic truffle oil). This pasta is excellent without them, and it's commonly served when the tubers aren't in season. In any case, this dish is really about the Norcia-style sausage used in the sauce, and the best way to recreate that flavor is by making the sausage yourself.
Unlike "Italian" sausage commonly available in the States, the salsiccia di Norcia used in pasta alla norcina isn't seasoned with intensely aromatic fennel seed or red pepper flakes. It's a milder sausage, made with garlic, white wine, salt, pepper, and, sometimes, a touch of grated nutmeg. It's cool-weather sausage, not summer cookout links. Now, before anyone gets worked up and turned off by the seemingly daunting project of scratch-made sausage, hold on! We're not asking you to spend days seasoning, grinding, and stuffing meat into casings.
For this recipe, I settled on a shortcut method: you aggressively mix store-bought ground pork with seasonings by hand (or in a stand mixer if you prefer to bust out the heavy machinery) to develop the myosin protein, which binds the meat, giving sausage its characteristic tacky and sticky texture. Pop the mix in the fridge for as little as an hour and up to a couple of days to allow the seasonings to take hold, and then you're cleared for pasta takeoff. If you still aren't convinced about the payoff of scratch-made sausage, this recipe will still work fine with store-bought links, and I've provided instructions for using them as well. I conducted side-by-side tests during recipe development, and while I strongly prefer the homemade sausage version, my tasting panel of one (my wife) enjoyed both iterations.
The cooking process for the dish couldn't be easier. You form the sausage mixture into patties (for easier flipping), brown them on one side in a skillet, flip them over, add chopped onion to the pan, break the sausage up into small pieces and cook until the onion is softened. Deglaze the pan with white wine, add cream, and then simmer it down to a saucy consistency. While that's happening, you cook pasta in boiling water until it's almost done, then add the noodles to the sauce along with a healthy splash of starchy pasta cooking water for a high-heat, glossy, saucy finish. Like other dairy-rich pastas with meaty morsels, you can make this dish with both dried, short, tubular pastas like penne or rigatoni, or with long, fresh, egg-dough pasta like tagliatelle or fettuccine. And because it's so hearty, the twelve ounces of pasta called for in the recipe is more than enough for four servings.
When the pasta comes off the heat, you shower it with Pecorino Romano, freshly ground black pepper, and grated nutmeg. It's meant to be a rich dish, and while it may be tempting to sneak in some brightness with fresh herbs or a splash of acidity, those ingredients would distract from and dull the flavor of the sausage. And, of course, if you're in a celebratory mood or you just happen to have them around (good for you!), you can go all out with a black truffle finishing move. But rest assured you'll be plenty satisfied without them.
- For the Sausage Mixture:
- 12 ounces (340g) coarsely ground pork, chilled (see note)
- 1 large garlic clove (8g), minced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 3/4 teaspoon (2g) freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) dry white wine, chilled
- For the Pasta:
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 recipe sausage mixture (from above) or 12 ounces (340g) fresh pork sausage (4 links), removed from casing (see note)
- 1 small yellow onion (about 3 1/2 ounces; 100g), finely chopped
- 1/2 cup (120ml) dry white wine
- 1 cup (240ml) heavy cream
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 12 ounces (340g) dried, short, tubular pasta such as penne or rigatoni or long fresh egg-dough pasta such as tagliatelle or fettuccine
- 1 1/2 ounces (45g) finely grated Pecorino Romano, plus extra for serving
- Freshly grated nutmeg, for serving
- Freshly shaved or grated black truffle, for serving (optional; see note)
For the Sausage Mix: In a medium bowl, combine pork, garlic, salt, pepper, and nutmeg and stir with a wooden spoon to evenly distribute seasoning. Add 2 tablespoons (30ml) chilled wine and stir vigorously with wooden spoon, working meat mixture against bottom and sides of bowl, until wine is incorporated and mixture becomes tacky and sticky, 1 to 2 minutes. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days.
Alternatively, combine pork, garlic, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until seasonings are evenly incorporated, about 1 minute. Add wine, increase speed to medium, and mix until wine is incorporated and mixture becomes tacky and sticky, 1 to 2 minutes. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days.
For the Pasta: When ready to cook, remove sausage mixture from refrigerator and, using clean hands, form into four 1/2-inch-thick patties (don't worry about making them perfectly round as they will get broken up into smaller pieces; if using store-bought sausage, form uncased sausages into 1/2-inch-thick patties). In a large skillet or straight-sided sauté pan, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add sausage patties and cook until bottom side is light golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a thin metal spatula, turn sausage patties onto uncooked side, leaving an open area in the center of the skillet. Add onion, lower heat to medium, and cook, using a wooden spoon to break up sausage into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces, until sausage is just cooked through and onion is softened, about 2 minutes; lower heat at any point if sausage or onion threaten to scorch.
Increase heat to medium-high and add wine. Bring to a simmer and cook, swirling pan and scraping up any stuck-on bits with a wooden spoon, until wine is reduced by roughly half, about 30 seconds.
Add cream, bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring frequently to keep cream from scorching on sides of the pan, until sauce is slightly thickened, 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and reduce heat to lowest possible setting to keep sauce warm and prevent it from over-reducing.
Meanwhile, in a pot of salted water, cook pasta until just shy of al dente (about 2 minutes less than the package directs). Using a spider skimmer, transfer pasta to sauce, along with 1/2 cup (120ml) pasta cooking water. Alternatively, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 1 cup (240ml) pasta cooking water.
Increase heat to high and cook, stirring and tossing rapidly, until pasta is al dente and sauce is thickened and coats noodles and pools around edges of the pan, about 2 minutes; add more pasta cooking water in 1/4-cup (60ml) increments as needed to achieve desired consistency.
Remove from heat, add Pecorino Romano, and stir rapidly to incorporate. Divide between warmed serving bowls, top each portion with a grinding of black pepper, grated nutmeg, cheese, and truffle (if using). Serve immediately.
Large skillet, spider skimmer
Coarsely ground pork shoulder is ideal for this recipe, if your butcher counter takes requests. Keep the meat as cold as possible when preparing the sausage mix to prevent fat from breaking during cooking; only take the meat out of refrigeration when all of the other ingredients for the sausage are measured out and you are ready to mix.
The traditional Norcia-style sausage used for this pasta does not feature the fennel seed or red pepper flakes commonly added to "Italian" sausage here in the States. Therefore, this pasta is at its best when made with the homemade, shortcut sausage mixture outlined in this recipe. However, if you prefer to use store-bought sausages, you'll still end up with tasty results. Fresh Italian-style garlic sausage is ideal, but sweet Italian sausage will work fine.
In Umbria, this pasta is traditionally finished with shaved fresh black truffles when they are in season (fall and early winter), but it's also common to serve this dish without truffles when they're unavailable or out of season. It's delicious either way. If you are looking to go all-out with the truffle version, use fresh black truffles. We don't recommend using truffle oil, which isn't made from real truffles and has a synthetic aroma.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Sausage mixture can be made in advance and refrigerated in a zipper-lock bag for up to 2 days, or frozen for up to 1 month. The pasta is best enjoyed immediately.