I remember one night a famous American art critic came to eat at Locanda. This guy looked at the menu and then said, “You know, I have just come back from Sicily, and I loved the pasta they made with the sarde.” I went back into the kitchen and said to Rino, my head chef, who is from Sciacca, on the south coast of Sicily, “We have to cook this pasta for him.” We had some perfect sardines, beautiful golden raisins, and I had just come back from Sicily myself, so I had brought some of the wild fennel that grows so freely. We cooked the pasta for him, and every single year since he has sent me a card at Christmas, saying, “That pasta with the sarde was the best I ever had.”
This is a dish that sums up Sicily for me: The Arabic combination of golden raisins, nuts, and saffron (I think it needs lots) shows the history of the island, yet the ingredients themselves have been indigenous since Classical times. In Palermo they make the dish in the same way but pile the pasta into an ovenproof dish with breadcrumbs on top and bake it in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes at around 325 F.
There is another version of the dish that is typical of the other aspect of Sicilian cooking, which is all about making do with what you have. Pasta con le sarde a mare means “pasta with sardines that are in the sea.” In other words, they had the pine nuts and the raisins and the breadcrumbs and all the other ingredients to make the dish—but they didn’t have any sardines, so they made it anyway just without the fish!
If you can’t find any wild fennel, use 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds instead. Soak them whole in just a little water—only enough to cover them—for a couple of hours, then add them instead of the wild fennel.
PASTA CON LE SARDE
3 salted anchovies or 6 anchovy fillets in oil
1 ⅔ cups breadcrumbs
12 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
¼ cup plus 2 teaspoons white wine
2 tablespoons ’strattu (Sicilian tomato confit) or 1 ½ tablespoons tomato purée
8 fresh sardine fillets
3 tablespoons golden raisins
¼ cup pine nuts
Pinch (about 20 threads) saffron
3 sprigs wild fennel, finely chopped, or 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, soaked in a little water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ pound pasta, such as bucatini
If using salted anchovies, rinse and dry them. Run your thumb gently along the backbone to release it. You should be able to pull it out easily. If using anchovies in oil, drain them. Toast the breadcrumbs in a dry pan over medium heat until they are quite dark golden brown. Take care not to burn them.
Heat half the extra-virgin olive oil in a pan and add the onion. Sauté until softened but not colored, then add the anchovy fillets, stirring them until they “melt.” Add the wine and let it bubble up and evaporate, then add the ’strattu or purée and return to a boil, adding just enough water to give a sauce consistency. Add the sardine fillets, raisins, pine nuts, saffron, and chopped fennel or soaked seeds. Taste and season if necessary. Stir gently and cook for 10 minutes.
Bring a pan of water to a boil, add salt, then put in the pasta and cook for about a minute less than the time given on the package, so that it is al dente. Drain, reserving some of the cooking water.
Toss the pasta with the sardine sauce and the remaining olive oil, adding a little of the pasta cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs.
Excerpt from Made in Sicily by Giorgio Locatelli. Text copyright 2011 by Giorgio Locatelli. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.