Whenever I am asked about typical Venetian recipes, my list starts from “bigoli in salsa“.
Perhaps to me, this dish of bigoli is the pasta dish par excellence, the first I think of when I see spaghetti on the shelves of the pantry, and what I’ve probably eaten more in my life, even more than the evergreen pasta al pomodoro.
Bigoli are a type of thick, fresh spaghetti made just with two basic ingredients: whole wheat flour and water, and their origin seems to date back to the 1600s.
Originally the fresh dough was kneaded at home and then hand-pressed through a specific pasta machine with large holes to get some very thick and long spaghetti, but in more recent times it’s common practice to use the dry bigoli you can find at the supermarket.I have many memories associated with this recipe, but the most vivid one for sure is the one about my grandmother Edera, in her dark kitchen, a typical old Venetian kitchen with vaulted windows overlooking onto a narrow calle of Rialto, where the light struggled to enter even in the central hours of the day. I remember it was a hell of a mess. In the pantry there were so many open and unfinished packages of pasta that would have been enough for a whole year. Nonna liked the new pasta packages, which she bought at the supermarket of her Sestiere, maybe because they gave her the impression that the pasta was fresher, just like when she was a child and she could buy it loose at the *biavarol, bringing it home wrapped in a piece of newspaper.
* Biavarol: typically Venetian word. They are the ancient sellers of grains, legumes and staple foods. Going from the biavarol meant going to the grocery store.
This recipe for me is the essence of traditional Venetian cuisine, ancient and rich, but basically simple, as are the ingredients and the method of preparation handed down from one generation to another for centuries.
Each Venetian family has perfected its own recipe, and there are endless variations of what is actually a poor dish, affordable for everyone.
This recipe to me is the typical dish you can always make with ingredients that usually never fail in a italian kitchen, even when you do not go shopping for a month: spaghetti, white onions and anchovies are the essentials.
In fact, I often resorted to this recipe in the last year, not even because the ingredients were always available, but because it a constant success especially among my foreign friends, “foresti” as Nonna said.
My friend Betty Liu, who came to visit me in Venice two summers ago, liked bigoli in salsa so much that once she returned to Boston she wrote an entire post on her blog, with her own version of this recipe.
Even Flore, was particularly pleased when we all ate them together with my family in the large table in the living room of my parents’ home. She said she would make them once she got home in Sydney, and she wrote down somewhere my mom’s recipe.
As I said, it’s a dish that lends itself to many variations, despite the necessary ingredients are very few and easily available almost anywhere in the world.
I really like how this dish is so intimately connected to the history of my family, is traveling with my friends, thus reaching the kitchens of other countries.
Have been precisely my foreign friends the onces asked me why I did not have this recipe on the blog, and do you know what I said ? Something like “Boh (typical italian sound when you do not know what to say!), I have NO idea!”. Later I realized that all those things obvious to us, almost granted, like the recipes of every day that we don’t give too much importance, are actually the most interesting to share.
Sometimes you just need someone to remind you that your own food culture – especially when it’s ancient and rooted into your family traditions – can be inspirational and a novelty for many others, it’s heritage and knowledge, and at the same time also an intimate way of sharing part of what we are.
So here I am, bringing to the world the Zarotti’s recipe to make bigoli in salsa.
The same one that filled my Nonna’s kitchen with that intense scent of onion fried into old consumed pans. The same scent that came out of the windows and spread along the street, when I was arriving for lunch and I knew my Nonna was waiting for me. The same scent that now, years later, reminds me of her and that ancient Venetian world that now is disappearing, made of strong smells, messy kitchens, recipes handed down to voice among the most absurd stories, now become legend, like this dish.
- 400 g dry wholegrain bigoli (or just choose the thickest spaghetti you can find!)
- 400 g white onions
- 8 to 10 olive oil-packed anchovies (anchovie paste is forbidden!).
- 160 g canned light meat tuna in brine (Zarotti's extra ingredient, *optional!)
- 40 g pine nuts (Zarotti's extra ingredient, *optional!)
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ½ glass of water
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Begin by bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- Peel and wash the onions and slice them as finely you can.
- In a large frying pan over a low heat, fry the onions in olive oil and half glass of water until very soft and creamy, stirring from time to time with a wooden spoon. About 20 minutes are needed to get the onions soft.
- Add drained anchovies and let them to dissolve within the onions, stirring well until a paste is formed.
- Add drained tuna and cook the sauce for other 10 minutes till it's well incorporated and melted. You should get a creamy sauce, but if it's too dense you can add a little of the pasta water (just a little!!).
- Attention to salt! Taste the sauce because it may get too salted or a bit flavorless, it depends by the anchovies and tuna you use. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
- Place bigoli in boiling water and cook them until al dente, drain and transfer to the pan with the sauce.
- Toss the bigoli with the sauce over medium heat, add the pine nuts and season with black pepper.