Why It Works
- Tomato estratto and anchovies give the sauce an intense savory depth of flavor, which is balanced by the natural sweetness of onions and a sprinkling of golden raisins.
- The sauce's consistency is achieved simply with additions of the pasta cooking water, which is very lightly seasoned to ensure that the dish doesn't become too salty.
- Tossing the pasta with toasted breadcrumbs helps to achieve the perfect noodle-coating sauce consistency, and a sprinkling of the same crumbs gives the finished pasta a crunchy topping.
The sea, the sun, and the interplay of salty, sweet, and sour. This is the tongue-twisting list of things that come to mind when I think of Sicily and its cuisine. And all of these qualities are at play in a dish I was recently introduced to called pasta c'anciuova e muddica atturrata, which hails from Palermo.
This no-frills title translates from dialect to "pasta with anchovies and toasted breadcrumbs."* The name might turn off anchovy skeptics who prefer to have the presence of delicious salty fish hidden behind names of back-stabbed Roman emperors (or maybe they've unknowingly made a wildly popular, more "approachable" version of this Sicilian pasta already, and refer to it by its viral internet title that cleverly plays up the allium elements of the dish rather than the 'chovies). These people are missing out.
*Palermo dialect to be precise, where "anciuova" gets a "u"; the best I can describe the way it's pronounced is ahnch-woah-vah, whereas in other parts of the region it is just "anciova," so it sounds more like ahn-cho-vah.
This is an incredibly simple dish to make, with a huge savory-salty-sweet flavor payoff. It starts with onion and garlic gently cooked in olive oil until they just begin to soften. Anchovy fillets are added to the pan and allowed to dissolve before a large spoonful of Sicilian tomato estratto is folded into the mix. While similar in appearance, estratto, or "astruttu" in dialect, is exponentially more concentrated and intensely flavored than the regular "double-concentrated" tomato paste used in vodka sauce. It's made with ripe tomatoes, that are lightly cooked and "passed" or milled (as with passata). The tomato purée is seasoned lightly with salt, spread out on wooden boards, and sun-dried over the course of several days until almost all of the water has evaporated and the mixture has reduced to a thick paste. As with sun-dried seaweed or the shellfish in XO sauce, this process concentrates glutamate levels to produce a deeply savory product.
Combined with the punch of anchovies, the estratto makes for a [redacted] bomb if there ever was one. At this point, what you have in the pan is more of a paste than a sauce. So, the mixture is loosened with the simplest of things: Hot water from the pasta pot, which is barely seasoned with salt to compensate for the saltiness of the anchovies. A quick stir, and you have a full-bodied sugo.
Bucatini are cooked shy of al dente (I am a fan of cooking pasta to "al chiodo," or "to the nail," in the water) before transferring to finish cooking and marry with the sauce. Once the noodles are well-coated and cooked to your liking, golden raisins and pine nuts (a classic Sicilian combination that shows the North African influence on the island's cuisine) get tossed in, along with a handful of the "muddica atturrata," or toasted breadcrumbs. The raisins provide pops of sweetness that complement the onion and balance the salinity of the estratto and anchovies, the pine nuts lend a hint of nutty bitterness, and the breadcrumbs tighten the sauce, helping it cling to the pasta even better. Once plated, the pasta is topped with another sprinkling of breadcrumbs for a crunchy finish.
This dish has it all—intense savory and salty notes from the anchovies and estratto, acidity from the tomatoes, sweetness from the onions and raisins, bitterness from the pinoli, and crunch from the muddica atturrata. Not bad for what is essentially a pantry pasta. By that token, I've written this recipe to work with both the traditional (but pricey in the States) Sicilian tomato estratto, and the more affordable (and widely available) concentrated tomato paste. Both versions are delicious, but I highly recommend purchasing the estratto if it's within your means. Because the recipe calls for such small quantities, the pine nuts and raisins are also listed as optional, but are highly recommended; the dish will still taste very good without, but they really make this pasta shine.
- For the Toasted Breadcrumbs:
- 8 ounces (225g) bread, cut into 3/4- to 1-inch pieces (see note)
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- For the Pasta:
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 small yellow onion (about 3.5 ounces; 100g), thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves (10g), thinly sliced
- 10 to 12 anchovy fillets (40 to 50g) (see notes)
- 3 tablespoons (50g) tomato estratto or 1/4 cup (65g) tomato paste (see notes)
- 12 ounces (340g) bucatini or other long dried pasta, such as spaghettoni
- 1 tablespoon (15g) golden raisins (optional, see note)
- 1 tablespoon (10g) pine nuts (optional, see note)
- 1/2 cup (60g) toasted breadcrumbs, divided
For the Toasted Breadcrumbs: If using fresh or lightly stale bread, adjust oven rack to middle position, and preheat oven to 325°F (165°C). (If using fully stale and dried bread, skip baking step.) Arrange bread in single layer on rimmed baking sheet, and bake until completely dried, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven, and allow to cool to room temperature, about 5 minutes. Transfer bread to food processor bowl (set aside but don't clean rimmed baking sheet), and pulse until reduced to small crumbs, taking care not to over-process into a fine powder, 8 to 10 pulses.
Combine breadcrumbs and 1 tablespoon (15ml) oil in a large skillet, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring and tossing occasionally, until crisp and golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Season lightly with salt. Transfer toasted breadcrumbs to reserved rimmed baking sheet, spread into an even layer, and set aside to cool to room temperature. Once cool, set aside 1/2 cup (60g) toasted breadcrumbs for the pasta, and transfer remaining crumbs to an airtight container for future use; the extra breadcrumbs can be stored at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
For the Pasta: Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat, and season very lightly with salt; use a ratio of 1 tablespoon (12g) of Diamond Crystal kosher salt per 1 gallon (4L) of water.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons (45ml) oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until softened but not browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Add anchovies and cook, stirring and breaking up anchovies occasionally with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, until anchovies have dissolved, about 4 minutes. Add tomato estratto or paste, stir to combine with allium-anchovy mixture, and continue to cook until mixture turns dark brick red and is very dry, 2 to 4 minutes longer. Transfer 1 cup (240ml) boiling water from pot to skillet to loosen tomato-anchovy mixture, and stir until it becomes homogenous and saucy. Reduce heat on skillet to lowest possible setting, to just keep sauce warm; if your burner can only be reduced to a simmer, then turn heat off entirely.
Cook pasta in the pot of boiling water until just softened on the exterior, but well shy of al dente, and still uncooked in the center (2 to 3 minutes less than the package directs). Using tongs, 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 coats noodles and just pools around the edges of the pan, about 2 minutes, adding more pasta cooking water in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments as needed. Add raisins and pine nuts (if using), half of the breadcrumbs (1/4 cup; 30g), and toss to combine. Pasta should be well-coated but not swimming in sauce (this dish is meant to have a slightly drier consistency than typical sauced pastas). Adjust sauce consistency as needed with more pasta water if it seems too dry, or an additional small handful of breadcrumbs if it seems too loose. Remove from heat, divide pasta between individual serving bowls, sprinkle with remaining breadcrumbs, and serve right away.
Muddica atturrata (toasted breadcrumbs) are traditionally made with pangrattato—breadcrumbs made by processing stale bread. This recipe is written to make extra toasted breadcrumbs from fresh or stale bread (we used sourdough bâtard during recipe testing, but most types of white bread will work fine) because if you are taking the time to make your own breadcrumbs, you might as well make a big batch so you have some ready to go in your pantry for future use. If you don't want to make your own breadcrumbs, you can substitute 1/2 cup (35g) panko breadcrumbs, and toast them with oil as written in the recipe.
Both salt-packed and oil-packed anchovies will work for this recipe. If using firmer salt-packed anchovies, cut them into 1/2-inch pieces before cooking, as this will help them break down more quickly. If using tomato estratto, use 10 fillets (40g). If using tomato paste, use 12 fillets (50g), to compensate for the increased sweetness and diminished savoriness of the tomato product.
Sicilian tomato estratto is made by sun-drying milled tomatoes on wooden tables or terra cotta trays for about 1 week to produce a super-concentrated paste that is sometimes homogenized with a small amount of extra-virgin olive oil. While similar in appearance to tomato paste, estratto has a much more intense savory flavor, and a drier texture. It is a key component to this dish and worth seeking out (purchase it online here), but it is an expensive specialty product. As a result, I have provided instructions for making this recipe with more affordable tomato paste. Tomato paste is much sweeter and has a more forward, bright, fresh tomato flavor. For this reason, if using tomato paste, the amount of anchovies should be increased to 12 fillets, and the golden raisins should be left out. The dish won't have quite the same savory punch when made with regular tomato paste, but it will still be very tasty.
Raisins and pine nuts are important ingredients in Sicilian cuisine; they provide pops of sweetness/nuttiness and textural contrast in dishes like pasta con le sarde and caponata, as well as this pasta. That said, if you don't have them on hand, you can certainly do without them in this recipe without worrying about ruining the dish. No need to make a special run to the grocery store for 1 tablespoon of each.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The toasted breadcrumbs can be made up to 2 weeks in advance and stored in an airtight container at room temperature. The cooked allium-anchovy-tomato mixture (prior to loosening with cooking water) can be made in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 7 days, though there is no real need to do that.