Paul and I visited the Piedmont region of Italy in October 2014 to enjoy the fruits of the truffle harvest in and around the city of Alba. We dined in Michelin-rated restaurants in the region, but a simple dinner in an Italian couple’s home lingers in my mind as one of my favorite meals on our trip. Rossella and Carlo hosted us with friends at their home in Castelnuovo Calcea in the Province of Asti – about a half hour drive from Alba.
Their home sits atop a ridge with panoramic views of valley farms and sloping vineyards which produce some the best varietals of the region: Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Grignolino, Dolcetto, Moscato, and Brachetto. Rossella and Carlo grow many of their own vegetables, make yogurt from fresh milk and raise chickens and geese for eggs. They share a passion for cooking simple Italian food.
We accepted our hosts’ invitation for dinner on one of the three nights we stayed with them. Rossella and Carlo served a feast of a savory pasta fagioli with Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh greens sautéed with garlic and olive oil, Maiale al Latte (milk-braised pork loin) and panna cotta for dessert in their dining room. Our brief study of Italian left much to be desired during dinner conversation, but Carlo’s facility with English at the table made it work for all of us. We talked about the foodways, wine and spirits of the region, Theo (aka “The Terrorist”) their friendly German Shepherd puppy who loved to greet us with muddy paws each time we returned to the house, Johnny – their donkey – whose morning bray served as our alarm clock each day, and past gatherings with guests. As Airbnb hosts, the world came to visit Rossella and Carlo in their quiet country respite. That night was our turn to experience their hospitality.
Every dish at dinner delighted our taste buds, but the pasta fagioli left a lasting impression on me for its delicious simplicity. The thick rich broth with red beans and leftover pasta from their kitchen leaned more toward a soup than a pasta dish – a consistency I seldom see repeated in popular recipes.
My efforts to reproduce Rossella’s pasta fagioli fall short of capturing the elusive memory, but I keep trying. The pasta absorbs most of the broth. In my latest attempt, I relied on a vegetarian Italian sausage made by Lightlife for added protein and flavor instead of small amounts of cured Italian meats. If you’re going the meatless route, any veggie sausage from producers will work with this recipe. The ditalini swells to the size of the beans.
My attempt to achieve the consistency of the pasta fagioli served to us in Castelnuovo Calcea foundered. But this recipe turned out tasty. Each re-creation of this dish honors the fond food memory of our place at the table with Carlo and Rossella in the Piedmont.
- Bring 2 tbsp olive oil in a large dutch oven to a medium heat. Add sausage. Stir periodically until browned. Remove to a plate.
- Add onion, carrot and garlic and stir in the remaining oil. Add basil, oregano and pepper. Stir contents of pot until vegetables begin to soften. Stir tomato paste into vegetables until thoroughly mixed.
- Add beans, broth and water and bring to a boil. Add ditalini and boil on high for 8-10 minutes.
- Remove pot from heat and serve in bowls. Garnish with parsley leaves and Parmigiano-Reggiano.