By Pamela Capriotti Martin
In my husband’s Italian/Irish household there were very specific dinners for every night of the week with some variations. Sunday was always a roast and his mother would make a sauce for the week ahead, which may have been used on a carne pizzaiola, or just pasta. Other nights there would be Nana potatoes and pork chops, minced beef and onions with a Bisto gravy served over mashed potatoes with a side of turnip or peas, and on Fridays, if there was money – fish and chips. If money was tighter than usual it would be chips and eggs or chips and beans. If the Sunday roast was a ham then the bone would be available for a nice pasta e fagioli later in the week. Like many households in the 1950’s in Canada and the U.S, this was a family. on a tight budget. Beans and pasta made for a great week night dinner and meat was meant to be stretched to feed a family of five.
Most of my children are fans of the soup, although M2 was never enamored as a child. M3 feels quite proprietary about her soup. She would order it in every Italian restaurant we frequented and then rate it. One chef took her to the restaurant kitchen and showed her how he made his version. She didn’t like the kidney beans. She was six. I’m pretty sure she told him he was ruining the soup. Another, Chef Frank would see the girls walking in Yorkville and would make it only for them since it wasn’t even on his upscale Italian menu. It’s Italian comfort food.
The dish has simple inexpensive ingredients and began as a peasant dish. John’s mother was from Naples and so while the word for beans is ‘fagioli’ in standard Italian, it’s ‘fasule’ in Neopolitan. So in this house, this simple family favorite, is affectionately known as “fazoo.”
I was introduced to my mother-in-law Giulia’s version of the soup when we traveled to John’s parents every Saturday for lunch. While I felt it was okay – I thought it lacked something. It became a discussion for us as to how we could give the soup more depth of flavor.
John’s mother always used only water in hers and when she taught me to make it was specific that I was to use only four tomatoes from the can. The water in the soup was changed to chicken stock and I cut mine with water in about a 60/40 ratio, and John uses only chicken stock. If you don’t have that handy ham bone, we use pancetta. I find bacon too salty and don’t like the smoky flavor here, but would use it in a pinch and pull the salt back and use low-sodium chicken stock. Vegetarian M3 won’t use chicken stock or a meat product so substitutes vegetable stock.
This is one of those recipes that depends on who is making it and what you have in your pantry and fridge. I’m certain every Italian household has their own version and certainly John and I even have our own way of making this flavorful and filling soup. Little hands can pick basil leaves or grate cheese to make this a family event. This is my recipe. So, this is a starting point and is definitely open to change with the person who stirs the pot – of soup.
1 T extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
3 ounces pancetta (or bacon)
1 medium onion, chopped fine
4 medium cloves of garlic, minced
1 t dried basil
1 28 ounce can San Marzano tomatoes (diced works well)
1 Parmesan cheese rind
2 cans (15 ounce each) Cannellini beans (drained and rinsed)
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
8 ounces small pasta (ditalini, tubetini, conchigliette)
¼ cup fresh parsley chopped
Black pepper, salt
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1. Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking, about 2 minutes. Add pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes.
2. Add onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic, basil (not fresh), stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. 3. Add tomatoes, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of pan.
4. Add cheese rind and beans; bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer to blend flavors, 10 minutes.
5. Add chicken broth, 2 cups water, and 1 teaspoon salt; increase heat to high and bring to boil.
6. Cook pasta separately and until tender, about 10 minutes. If you keep the pasta separate and put it in the bowl under the soup, then you can actually reheat the soup base the next day and just boil a new batch of pasta. If you add it to the soup, the pasta becomes flabby and honestly – ruins it.
7. Discard cheese rind. Off heat, stir in 3 tablespoons parsley; adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle soup into individual bowls over pasta portion; drizzle each serving with olive oil and sprinkle with a portion of remaining parsley. Serve immediately, passing grated Parmesan separately.