Back in my Boston days, I lived for several years in a tiny (300 square-foot) but adorable apartment in the North End, Boston’s version of Little Italy (but so much more charming, in my opinion, than NYC’s Little Italy). Boston’s North End was settled in the 1600’s and has all the requisite charm of history: twisty, cobblestoned streets, narrowly packed brownstones, tiny and ancient graveyards that pop out of nowhere, the Old North Church and Paul Revere’s house. Despite ongoing gentrification, and a plethora of young, single flight attendants and other airline employees who find the North End’s 10-minute jaunt to Logan convenient, the neighborhood clings fiercely to its Italian heritage: when I was there (almost a decade ago now!) there were still old Italian families, the parents or grandparents of whom had emigrated from Italy, settled in the North End and never left. Despite the hoardes of tourists that descend every weekend and all summer long, I agree with them: I didn’t want to leave either. And do you know why? The food.
Italian restaurants abound in the North End, mainly centered around the main drag of the neighborhood, Hanover Street. The worst of these restaurants are mediocre and jam-packed with tourists; the best? Sublime. While there were certainly days when I would have killed for a simple Thai takeaway, for the most part, living in the North End has spoiled me for Italian food anywhere else (except, perhaps, Italy, but I have yet to put that to the test). Sorry that I have to be the one to break this to you, New York, but the vast majority of your Italian food? Sucks. While I have not yet managed to cross the hallowed threshold of any Batali establishment, I’ve been to my fair share of Little Italy dives, Soho holes-in-the-wall, East Village “locals’ secrets,” Upper West (and Upper East) family restaurants, Tribeca trend-o-ramas, and Midtown old-faithfuls. Occasionally I’d get a dish that would surprise me: a really fresh vegetable minestrone with a killer herb pesto; wood-fired margherita pizza with handmade mozzarella and basil so fresh it sings; but for the most part, I was disappointed with gummy pasta, commercial tinned tomato sauce, leaden gnocchi and soupy risotto. So what’s a New York girl to do when she gets a craving for old-school good Italian? Make it herself.
I had some runner cannelini beans from Rancho Gordo (note to self: stocks running low. Time to visit Christina.) in the pantry. I had some fire roasted tomatoes from last summer. I had some orzo from Trader Joe’s (I know, I know; not only non-authentic, non-local. I’ve been busy. So sue me.). I had a distinct taste memory of the amazing pasta e fagioli from the hole-in-the-wall café about a block from my apartment on Endicott Street. Pasta fazool it is! I even had a recipe: Jimtown Store’s Pasta Fazool in Steve Sando’s cookbook, Heirloom Beans (have you bought this yet? If you ever eat beans, you must have this book. Srsly.) I tinkered a bit (more tomatoes, a little spice, more oregano), and a bit more (even more tomatoes, more liquid, more spice) and eventually came up with something that was not much like my beloved North End pasta e fagioli, but was wonderful all the same: flavorful, earthy, yet surprisingly light for what seems like a stew but eats like a soup. A little bit of Hanover Street in Westchester County. Now if only I could figure out how to cobblestone the driveway…
Adapted from Jimtown Store’s Pasta Fazool in Heirloom Beans by Steve Sando
- 1/2 lb dried cannelini beans, soaked overnight and drained
- 2 tbsp bacon grease (or olive oil)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 2 celery stalks, with leaves if possible, chopped
- 1 large carrot, scrubbed and sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 and 1/2 tsp dried oregano (or 1 and 1/2 tbsp fresh)
- 4 cups stock, chicken or vegetable
- 2 pints canned tomatoes (I used fire roasted), chopped or crushed
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp red chile flakes
- 1 cup orzo, tiny pasta shells or other small pasta
- 2 cups filtered water or stock (optional)
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 tbsp tomato paste (optional)
- freshly grated hard cheese, like parmesan, for serving
- In a soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the bacon grease and olive oil over medium heat until hot but not shimmering. Add onion, celery and carrot and sauté over medium-low heat until vegetables are soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and oregano; stir and sauté another 2 minutes. Add stock and beans. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until beans are tender, about 1 hour.
- Add tomatoes and red chile flakes. Season to taste with salt & pepper. Add pasta and water, if desired, and bring to a low boil over medium heat. Cook until the pasta is al dente (about 10 – 15 minutes for orzo). Stir in parsley and tomato paste, if desired. Taste and adjust seasonings. Allow to sit for at least 10 minutes for flavors to blend, then serve garnished with additional fresh parsley and grated cheese.
Serves 8 – 10.
- Nearly endless. I was shocked by how many different varieties of pasta e fagioli there are out in the internets. It would appear that some type of pasta and some type of bean are the only requirements. Other than that – have at it.
- I made quite a few tweaks to the Jimtown Store recipe: I suggest you buy the book to find out what they were.
Refrigerated for up to 5 days. Soup will thicken and become stew-like over time.