Why It Works
- Prosciutto cotto is more mild and delicate in flavor than prosciutto crudo, so you can pack in thick cubes of the ham without making the dish overly salty.
- Reduced cream and starchy pasta cooking water form a velvety sauce without any need for making a roux.
- Adding frozen peas at the very end of the cooking process, off-heat, ensures they get warmed through rather than overcooked.
I went to culinary school in Emilia-Romagna, and after a long day at La Scuola Internazionale di Cucina Italiana trying to digest lessons about pasta-rolling, wine-identifying, and cheese-tasting taught in another language, the last thing I wanted to do was go grocery shopping and make myself dinner.
Luckily, the pantry staples of Parma are pretty delicious. Your fridge is usually stocked with prosciutto, panna da cucina (“cooking cream”), and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Grab some peas from the freezer, and you can have a sweet, salty, creamy bowl of pasta prosciutto e piselli in no time. It’s as classic and crowd-pleasing as American mac & cheese, just much, much better.
Choosing the Right Prosciutto
In the States, the word "prosciutto" is synonymous with the dry-cured hams famously made in Parma, in Emilia Romagna, and San Daniele del Friuli, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. In Italy, those hams fall in the category of prosciutto "crudo" (raw). Of course, they're not raw legs of pork—they're cured for months—but they also aren't cooked, like prosciutto "cotto," or smoked, like speck from Alto Adige (if you want to learn more, check out our guide to Italian salumi).
While prosciutto crudo may reign supreme for salumi boards, cotto is generally a better ham to cook with. First and foremost, cotto is much more affordable, since it isn't aged for months (time, reduced yield due to moisture loss, and the space required for hanging are all factors that drive up the price of dry-aged meats). Second, prosciutto cotto stands up better to cooking than crudo, which becomes chewy, leathery, and intensely salty when subjected to intense heat, while also losing many of the nuances of its distinctive flavor. The more subdued salinity and delicate flavor of prosciutto cotto, which is much closer to American-style deli ham, is better suited for recipes like this pasta; save the crudo to eat on its own, in sandwiches, or draped over pizzas after they come out of the oven.
For this dish, you'll want ham that's been cut into a small dice, rather than into thin slices; cubes of ham are easier to eat, and they work well as a salty counterpart to the sweet little peas. Ask the person at the deli counter to cut the ham in a thick single piece that you can then dice up at home.
Which Makes a Better Sauce? Butter or Cream?
The sauce for pasta prosciutto e piselli is sometimes a buttery emulsion (melted butter emulsified with starchy pasta cooking water to make a creamy sauce) and sometimes made with cream for a quadruple-P: pasta, panna, prosciutto, e piselli. I prefer the thicker and richer cream–based version, which is also easier to make because there's no finicky emulsion to tend to: reducing cream is as easy as it gets for pasta sauces. Remember, this is the dish you should make when you're exhausted and needing some extra pampering.
Making this version couldn't be easier: Sweat a little onion in butter along with the ham, fresh woodsy herbs, and ground nutmeg. Add a little white wine, followed by cream, and simmer that while cooking dried penne. Once the pasta is just shy of al dente, transfer it to the sauce with some starchy cooking water to finish cooking. Fold in a handful of frozen peas right at the end and shower everything with Parmigiano and you have the perfect comfort pasta.
- 2 tablespoons (30g) unsalted butter
- 1 small (6-ounce; 170g) yellow onion, finely chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 8-ounce (225g) piece of prosciutto cotto, cut into 1/4-inch dice (see note)
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary leaves
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves
- 1/4 cup (60ml) dry white wine
- 1 1/2 cups (355ml) heavy cream
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 1 1/2 cups (8 ounces; 225g) frozen peas, thawed (see note)
- 12 ounces (340g) dried penne rigate
- 2 ounces (55g) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
In a large skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion, season lightly with salt, and cook until softened but not brown, about 6 minutes. Stir in prosciutto cotto, rosemary, thyme, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cook until prosciutto cotto is warmed through and herbs are fragrant, about 4 minutes.
Add wine and cook until reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Add cream and nutmeg, bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Reduce heat to low to keep sauce warm, or turn off heat while pasta cooks if your stove isn't capable of cooking below a simmer.
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 so that it coats noodles and just 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 peas and grated cheese, and stir rapidly to incorporate and heat peas through. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
large skillet, spider skimmer
Prosciutto cotto can be found at the deli counter of some well-stocked grocery stores, and at Italian specialty shops. Ask for a single 8-ounce piece of ham, measuring approximately 1/4 inch thick. You don't want thinly sliced ham for this recipe. If you can’t find prosciutto cotto, you can substitute American-style ham steak, just make sure to use a lighter hand while seasoning both the sauce and pasta cooking water with salt, as American ham steak is generally saltier than Italian prosciutto cotto.
Because they are picked and frozen at the height of freshness, frozen peas are a better year-round choice than fresh peas. However, if you are making this dish during the height of spring pea season, and have access to high quality fresh peas, you can absolutely substitute those for frozen. If using fresh peas, blanch them in the boiling pasta water pot until just cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes, before adding to the pasta in Step 5.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This dish is best enjoyed immediately. Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Reheat over medium heat on the stovetop with 1 to 2 tablespoons (15 to 30ml) water to loosen the sauce.