“One of Rome’s favorite humble dishes,” pasta e ceci, comes together quickly, deliciously with the aid of pancetta and garlic. Recipe below.
As with most national cuisines, the food of Italy is very much a collection of individual regional cuisines. Sure, there are national common threads, but there are also distinct differences. From Piedmont in the North, known for its cheeses, wines, white truffles and quality herbs to Sicily at the Southern tip, melding Arab and Northern techniques in dishes heavy on seafood and simple peasant ingredients [and a wonderful touch with rich sweets], to Tuscany in the middle, whose food has been described as being “of the earth”—wild game, cured meats, crusty breads and some of Italy’s best olives.
This Valentine’s Day, I was introduced to yet another Italian regional cuisine with a wonderful gift, an unfortunately out-of-print cookbook, Roma: Authentic Recipes from In and Around the Eternal City. I don’t know about you, but I’d never thought of a distinctly Roman cuisine before. Major capitals are such magnets for people from everywhere, each bringing and sharing their own foods, that it’s hard to imagine them having their own food personalities. Well, I’m happy to report that I’m wrong. Author Julia Della Croce and photographer Paolo Destefanis take us on a tour through the history of food in Rome and then sit us down at the table, serving up dish after delicious dish. Marion often says that if she gets one really good recipe from a cookbook, something she’ll make again and again, the book has earned its place on the bookshelf. If this simple, hearty dish is any indication, I think this book will earn its place many times over.
Chickpeas? Garbanzo beans? Whatever you call them, these delicious, nutlike legumes are nutritional powerhouses. Cultivated since around 3,000 BC, they’ve spread from their Middle Eastern origin to the Meditteranean, India, Africa and elsewhere around the world.
And no wonder. Chickpeas are packed with protein and fiber, making them an ideal staple in many cultures. They can lower your cholesterol, reduce your risk of heart attacks and stabilize your blood sugar while providing steady, slow-burning energy.
In this dish, they help a little bit of animal protein go a long way; the pancetta is mainly there for the meaty taste it adds. Vegetarians could probably leave it out and still have a flavorful, satisfying meal. Pasta and chickpeas is partly a pasta dish, partly a soupy stew. The book lists the recipe as one of its primi piatti—first plates—meant to serve four. I served it as a generous meal for two, with leftovers.
Pasta and Chickpeas [pasta e ceci]
Serves 2 as a main course, with leftovers
3 cups canned chickpeas, divided [see Kitchen Notes]
6 cups water
1 whole peeled clove garlic, plus 3 cloves minced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary chopped, plus one small sprig
1/2 teaspoon sea salt [plus more, if needed]
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, diced [see Kitchen Notes]
1 rib celery, with leaves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 ounces tagliatelle or other ribbon pasta, broken
freshly ground black pepper to taste
Drain and rinse chickpeas. Combine 2 cups of chickpeas and water in a soup pot and bring it to a gentle boil. Meanwhile, bash whole garlic clove with the side of a knife enough to bruise it and release oils, but not break it up. Add it, the rosemary sprig and sea salt to soup pot. Mash remaining cup of chickpeas in a bowl with hand masher, adding a little water from the pot to aid in mashing. Stir mashed chickpeas into the pot. At this point, things won’t look or smell very promising. Don’t worry. It will be delicious.
As the chickpea mixture gently boils, heat a skillet over a low flame. Add olive oil, pancetta, chopped rosemary and celery and sauté for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add minced garlic to pan and sauté until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add tomato paste and about 1/2 cup of broth from the soup pot, stirring to dissolve tomato paste. Add mixture to soup pot. Cook for a few minutes to combine flavors. Discard rosemary sprig and whole garlic clove. Add “broken” pasta—I broke mine into quarters [you eat this dish with a spoon, not a fork, so you want the pasta in manageable pieces].
Cook until pasta is just barely al dente. Check seasoning—you may need more salt, but with canned chickpeas and tomato paste, the saltiness may vary. Ladle into individual soup bowls and top with a generous helping of freshly ground pepper. Serve with a crusty bread.
Canned is quicker. The original recipe called for dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and cooked for well over an hour. Using canned chickpeas speeds up the dish considerably.
Pancetta. An Italian delicacy, pancetta is dry cured pork belly. It has often been called Italian bacon, but it is salt cured, not smoke cured. If you can’t find pancetta, I would substitute thickly sliced ham, not bacon. I think bacon would take over the dish.