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Traditional Soup with a Side of Charm

Dense, flavorful, and comforting sagnette e fagioli is the Abruzzo region’s take on the better-known pasta e fagioli (or pasta fazul in dialect familiar to East Coast Americans and fans of Dean Martin).

The soup is forever linked in my memory to Mario and Lucca, two engaging little characters I met over my first bowl of it many years ago at a restaurant near the Bosco di Sant’Antonio.

We'd just sat down and ordered our plates of sagnette e fagioli when I noticed one of the cutest little kids I’d ever seen roaming around the restaurant as if it belonged to him. Turned out it kind of did, since he was the seven-year-old son of the owner. He was sporting a stick-on name tag that spelled out M-A-R-I-O, and I asked him why. He looked at me quizzically for a second while he processed my accent, then answered matter-of-factly that people who came into the restaurant kept asking his name.

Mario’s disarming answer nearly did me in. The idea that the exhausting attention of sycophants had driven him to slap a label on his chest made me laugh so hard and so long that I started to see little black dots. (I think poor little Mario was further bemused at the violence of my reaction. I caught him looking at Antonio as if to say “What’s wrong with her?”) When I caught my breath, I told Mario that I, too, wished to wear a nametag. He disappeared and returned a minute later with a small stack of yellow stickers. I wrote my name on the square he proffered but told him that I really wanted to be M-A-R-I-O. As if he’d seen that coming, Mario, without missing a beat, removed his own nametag and slapped it onto my collarbone, then applied my “K-A-T-H-R-Y-N” label to the back of the head of his unsuspecting little brother, who’d plopped himself at the table sometime during my laughing fit and who till that moment had been known as Lucca. Lucca took the affront in stride; he flashed a billion-lira smile and let the label stay, enjoying the anticipation of more laughter to come. Of course, it did.

I so wish I could post a photo of the two winning brothers, which I do still keep after quite a few years. Alas, it would be neither fair nor legal to do so. You don’t know what you’re missing.

Abruzzo, like much of the south, has known its share of privation, and beans and lentils have long figured prominently in the local cuisine. As the saying goes, I legumi sono la carne dei poveri. (Legumes are the meat of the poor.) Though its ingredients are humble, sagnette e fagioli is a dish that traditionally was --and possibly still is -- associated with days of celebration. Sagnette, the first title character of the soup, is homemade pasta made of flour and water (no eggs) that’s flat and generally cut into irregular rhombus-like shapes. A good packaged alternative is maltagliati. The fagioli in question are usually borlotti beans.

Just as different regions have their takes on pasta e fagioli, different provinces within Abruzzo have their various spins on sagnette e fagioli. Some variations are entirely tomato-based, some lean more toward broth. Some include carrots, some only celery. Up in the highlands, you’re likely to get sausage or pancetta in the pot.

This is my take, based on what I’ve had at little woodsy restaurants near the Maiella mountains like the one hosted by the family of Mario and Lucca —where they served up a piquant variation in a sauce dominated by fried onions, tomatoes, and hot peppers.

4 servings:

1/2 cup olive oil

1 very large onion or two medium, chopped

4 tomatoes, chopped

8 oz passata

4 large cloves garlic, chopped

1 small fresh hot red pepper, chopped

One rib celery, chopped

1 cube or spoonful powdered vegetable broth

1 tbsp Italian seasoning

Splash of white wine

Salt to taste

1/2 cup water (add more if consistency becomes too thick at any point)

1 jar borlotti beans, rinsed

1 tbsp hot peppers fried in oil (see recipe in this section)

1/4 box or 125 grams maltagliati pasta

2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped

Fry onions in oil until a bit browned. Add tomatoes, passata, garlic, red pepper, celery, vegetable broth, Italian seasoning, wine, salt, and water; cover and cook for five minutes. Add beans and a spoonful of fried peppers in oil. Cook another five minutes. Add cooked pasta and a little pasta water if necessary. Dress with basil.

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