Italy is a land of many regions like every other country and each area fiercely promotes it’s different foods, traditions, and dishes. One of the biggest arguments you will encounter when two Italian-Americans get together will be about food, precisely about a dish. One says his mother never made the dish, or makes it a certain way. The other fights back with his mother made better and more importantly his mamma’s way is the RIGHT way because that’s what Mamma made. This bickering is fueled by repetitive filling up of empty red wine glasses and reaches a crescendo when their stomachs are full and the argument is a draw. Both sides walk away thinking regardless of what just went down, they are right, their momma is queen, their region of Italy is the only one that matters so, let’s have espresso and maybe a cannoli. Italian-Americans are a very unique blend of these hardcore Italian regions. Most Italian-Americans (let’s call them IAs, too much typing) are American born of one or both parents having Italian lineage but there are many different regions that married together to form the current IA profile in America. Take A FOOD OBSESSION, my Paternal grandparents were both born in Sciacca, Sicily. My mother’s mother was born in Castelbaronia, Avellino and lived in Naples from 10 to 20 years of age and my maternal grandfather was born in Grassano, Matera in Basilicata. That makes me a product of 3 distinct regions, with my mom’s mom having lived in 2 towns in Campania bringing both those areas’ food traditions into the kitchen. At some point the cooking of Italian food in America became an amalgam of all these regions, some very similar some quite different so remember that next time you hear two IAs making a fuss about whose food is more authentic. What’s all this blabber about anyway? It sets up this blogpost and I present to you a very regional dish, ANELLETTI AL FORNO which comes from in and around the Palermo region of Sicily. It’s basically a baked pasta that uses ANELLETTI (means Little Rings). That’s right..WHOAAA…they look like Spaghetti-O’s..that All American kid’s canned pasta from Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. I’m sure some of you love it as it was served with love to you as a child. IA’s don’t do canned pasta, ever. We’d rather have our tongues cut out. I’m sure the good Chef Boiardi’s employees used this pasta dish as the basis for stuff in the can. Let’s freshen that idea up and go a little “authentic” (almost a silly word, no one really knows exactly what was or is authentic anymore but this is close) and go with my preparation of Anelletti Al Forno. To show you how regional and isolated the food cultures of Italy can be, my Sicilian Grandmother who did cook a tomato sauce with peas (and potatoes) in a very Sicilian style never ever made Anelletti. Why? She came from Sciacca which is directly south on the Mediterranean shore below Palermo. A few hours and some mountains made this dish totally unknown in her kitchen. I was introduced to this dish at the FEAST OF SAINT ROSALIA on 18th Avenue in Brooklyn in the 70’s. Back then the feast which celebrates the patron saint of Palermo was mostly lined with Sicilian food vendors, along with the usual suspects at an Italian-American street feast. In the shadow of Santa Rosalia I enjoyed Stuffed Artichokes, Panelle (Chick pea fritters), Arancini (Rice Balls) and a serving of Anelletti al Forno. I fell in love and never looked back. Sept. 4 in the traditional Feast of St.Rosalia but it’s celebrated in Palermo on July 15 during a celebration called IL FESTINO. Don’t use one or twospecial days to make this pasta, although making it on those days does make it taste a little special..i’m not lying to you..maybe just a little bit. Make it anytime and serve with a nice salad. Let ‘s hit the kitchen.
Makes: 5-6 servings Time: about 3 hours
1 LB. ANELLETTI (PASTA RINGS), COOKED TILL JUST UNDER AL DENTE, follow the package directions but knock off a few minutes at the end.
1/2 lb. GROUND VEAL or BEEF
1/2 LB. GROUND PORK
3 TBS. OLIVE OIL
1 FINE DICED ONION
1 28 OZ CAN IMPORTED ITALIAN TOMATOES (SAN MARZANO IF YOU HAVE THEM, not Sicilian, but very delicious)
1/2 can IMPORTED ITALIAN TOMATO PASTE
3 CHOPPED CELERY LEAVES
1 fine diced CARROT
1 cup RED WINE
2 cups WATER
pinch of OREGANO
1 cup shelled GREEN PEAS
Olive oil and butter for greasing the Baking Pan
3 tbs. BREAD CRUMBS for LINING THE PAN
1 cup grated PECORINO OR CACIOCAVALLO
1 cup diced PRIMOSALE CHEESE or MOZZARELLA or PROVOLONE
OPTIONAL INGREDIENTS: FRIED SLICES OF EGGPLANT (no breading), CHOPPED WHOLE HARD BOILED EGGS, CHOPPED SOPRESSATA
In a large dutch oven, heat 2 tbs of olive oil…add the onions, carrots, and 1/2 the celery leaves , season with salt and pepper and cook until soft, about 15 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add the ground meats to the pot and cook until you don’t see any pink, stirring from time to time, about 10 minutes. Now season with salt and pepper and the celery leaves. and oregano. Cook for 2 minutes then add the wine, bring to a slow boil. Add the tomato paste and cook for 5 minutes, then add the water, bring to a boil then down to a simmer. Add the tomatoes, that you crushed with your hands, to the pot. Let this cook down for a good 1 hour 15 minutes. It should be thick, if still watery, continue to reduce until that water is cooked out. Add the peas and the balance of the celery leaves and cook for additional 10 minutes.
While all that is happening, cook the pasta until just under al dente according to the package directions. Notice I’m not telling you to substitute the pasta. This is not a universal pasta dish, it’s a regionally SPECIFIC heritage dish from the Palermo province of Sicily. There’s no substitute..and to make it easy for you here’s a link where you can buy it on line:
There are other places too on the web. as well. It’s INTRINSIC to use the Anelletti. In a baking pan that you have lightly greased with butter or olive oil sprinkle 3/4 of the breadcrumbs around the pan. Mix the pasta and the cheeses together with sauce( reserve 1 cup of sauce for the top) then turn it into the pan. Sprinkle with the diced cheese, the reserved sauce and more breadcrumbs.
Bake in a 375 F degree oven for 40 minutes. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.
This delicious treat sometimes has a thicker layer of crumbs around it, or is cooked in a ring pan or mold. Be creative but keep to the traditions, there’s plenty of wiggle room there.
Here’s the “moral” of this blogpost/story, especially for the most opinionated of you out there—open your mind to things that are not part of the kitchen you grew up on and see why it may be a valid authentic dish. Until that visit to the streets of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn for the St.Rosalia Feast in the 70’s I would have said that Anelletti is NOT a Sicilian dish because my grandmother didn’t make it. How wrong I would have been! And when you hear this jingle from the 60’s you’ll have a WHOLE’nother idea of what that dish is: