A long time favorite of the Italian American Kitchen, Pasta e fagioli is usually called "Pasta Fazool." Every time I hear that term, especially from a non-Italian it makes me cringe a bit. The words are often used as something of a joke, even, I must say, by Italian Americans. I will admit that the words themselves have a funny sound. “Zool” is indeed a funny syllable. It’s just that that one someone says “pasta fazool” I conjure that somewhat stereotypic image of an oversized Italian Giuseppe with a napkin tucked in his shirt collar shoveling spoonfuls of red sauce into his mustachioed mouth while Rosa his rotund, polka-dot aproned wife ladles even more into his bowl.There may even be an organ monkey hopping about on the adjacent sideboard. Italians.
There’s even a musical equivalent. Anyone of a certain age will quickly recall the Dean Martin song: “That’s Amore.” In the song the verse in question is “When the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool.” In the lyrics, the word “drool” reads as the image of Giuseppe with napkin and spoon. The popularity of the song in its day only served to reinforce the stereotype. If you are of the generation that does not know this song either from tradition or from its most, recent presentation on the film “Moonstruck’” check out the Youtube:
What few people know is that the popular name of this dish, “pasta fazool” derives from the Neopolitan dialect word for beans, fasuli ("fa-SU-li,"). Since most Italian Americans come from the southern part of Italy this became the term. Although I must also add that this rather the word as heard by the next generation, almost none of whom spoke Italian. In modern Italian the word for beans is "fagioli" (fah-jo-lee). In Italy today you would order "pasta e fagioli" which means “pasta and beans.” Here’s the conundrum. When I say “pasta e fagioli” as it should be said, I feel that I am being somewhat artificial and untrue to tradition. On the other hand, to say “pasta fazool” makes feel a little too, how shall I say it?, too “South Philly.” As a born and raised suburban boy, I’m not South Philly as such. But, by virtue of my aunts and uncles who stayed on in the city when the rest of the family made the great migration at the close of “The War,” South Philly is the home of many of most cherished kitchen memories. Like many of my generation, from all ethnicities, I live between two worlds. The trick is to take full benefit of the opportunities of the new world, without forgetting the traditions of the old
The history of pasta e fagioli is close to timeless. Dishes that feature beans mixed with other starches go back to ancient times. Clifford A. Wright’s “A Mediterranean Feast,” offers a wonderful Venetian version called in Venetian dialect, “Pasta e Fasioi.” The Venetian recipe as Wright has it is made with a pork bone base. The addition of the pork bone unites the recipe in the family of many peasant dishes from the Italian feudal baronies to the plantations of the American south where the field workers got the remnants of the pig while the landowners ate “high on the hog,” in other words, on the better cuts. Today’s “pork and beans” shares in this lineage.
Yet, many recipes for pasta e fagioli do not start with a pork base. Traditionally, at least in America, pasta e fagioli was a meatless dinner. As such it was a Friday night standard that in years gone by obeyed the rule that forbad meat on Fridays. Very often the pasta e fagioi meatless dinner was often accompanied by or even supplanted by Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks.
There is even a site that preserves a Mrs. Paul’s 1950style jingle, http://www.tvadsongs.com/Mrs_Pauls_-_Fish_Sticks.html a jingle dedicated to “the busy woman.”
As with all traditional domestic recipes there are numerous variations. While most include tomatoes as the foundation there are those that do not. Some start with the base of carrots, onions and garlic while others exclude carrots. Celery is also often included. In short, I think, the traditional recipe used whatever was on hand to accompany the pasta and beans. One of the most interesting variations, and I find a good one, reserve half of the beans which are then smashed and returned to the pot to thicken the broth. In Italy, from what I have found on Google.it the beans are almost almost “barlotti,” a kind of fat cranberry bean. In America, at least in the traditions I know, the beans are usually “cannellini.”
The type of pasta is also another consideration. In most recipes the pasta of choice is ditalini but on Italian sites I have seen a fair variety of pasta types to include even short flat noodles. Ditialini, I think are the best because they match in texture and size with the beans.
In the version I set out here I make the very untraditional addition of some Swiss chard. Why, because I had some on hand fresh from the farm. The addition of a chopped green such as Swiss chard or escarole does not significantly alter the texture of the pasta and beans but it certainly adds to its nutritional value. The important thing to remember is that if you are not going to use all the pasta e fagioli at one sitting, cook the pasta by itself and add it to the soup only as you need it.
What you need
Mise-en-place: getting it all together
Plate and serve
Finish with basil and grated Parmesan