Win a copy of Giulia Scarpaleggia's new book; plus a recipe for a luscious weeknight pasta
Those of us who love Italian cooking probably know the term “cucina povera.” It is usually translated as “poor man’s cuisine” or “peasant food.” But neither of those terms, with their derogatory whiffs, does it justice.
In the introduction to her new cookbook, Cucina Povera: The Italian Way of Transforming Humble Ingredients into Unforgettable Meals, food writer Giulia Scarpaleggia provides a much more accurate definition:
“Cucina povera is not just a unique approach to cooking and ingredients; it’s the highest expression of the Italian arte dell’arrangiarsi, the art of making do with what you’ve got.”
There is an art to making do, to transforming basic ingredients into a dish or a meal that is at once nutritious and enticing. It’s a subject Giulia has been writing about for a long time. She is the voice behind thenewsletter here on Substack and the popular blog Juls’ Kitchen, which she started in 2009. The blog was a way for Giulia to share recipes from the rural countryside outside of Siena, where she was born and raised and where she still lives with her family.
Giulia and I have been friends for awhile now; you might remember she wrote a guest post for Buona Domenica a few months back, sharing her recipe for Pinolata Senese, a Sienese pine nut cake. (I hope some of you have made this rich yet rustic cake!)
Giulia has written five previous cookbooks, but Cucina Povera is her first to be published here in the U.S. Full disclosure: Giulia sent me a copy of the galleys, asking if I would consider offering a quote for the back jacket. Here’s what I wrote:
“In the hands (and kitchen) of Tuscan food writer Giulia Scarpaleggia, the art of cucina povera shines with new allure. Giulia’s deep knowledge of and respect for her country’s culinary traditions come through every recipe of this beautifully photographed book.”
I meant it. There are dozens of recipes to savor in this book; familiar yet fresh, and accessible, from savoy cabbage and barley soup and pappa al pomodoro to fish brodetto and oxtail stew with rigatoni. (I’m barely scratching the surface here.)
I’m happy to be giving away a copy of Cucina Povera to one of my paid subscribers. It’s easy to enter: just leave a comment here about l’arte dell’arrangiarsi—the art of making do; or a favorite dish of yours that exemplifies la cucina povera—a dish you cobbled together with what you had in the pantry, or maybe a dish your mother or grandmother used to make. I’ll choose a winner at random and will announce the results in next week’s newsletter. If you’re not yet a paid subsriber, you’re still in time to become one and enter the giveaway. A paid subscription gains you access to all Buona Domenica archives and recipes, plus discounts on online cooking classes and other perks.
A Weeknight Pasta You’ll Make Again and Again
The recipe I’m sharing is one from Giulia’s book that I’ve already made several times; Bigoli in Salsa, or Pasta with Anchovy, Onion, and Black Pepper Sauce. It’s a weeknight dinner saver because it requires so few ingredients, and they are ones that I always have in my pantry.
Bigoli in salsa is a staple of Venetian trattoria menus, Giulia writes in the recipe’s headnote, typical fare eaten on lean (meatless) days. Bigoli, the traditional pasta used in this dish, is a thick, rough-surfaced noodle made by extruding pasta dough through a bigolaro, a special pasta press. The shape dates to the 1600s, and nowadays you can find it (fresh or dried) in food shops in and around Venice.
You can find bigoli online, but good boxed spaghetti makes a fine substitute. This recipe may be an example of cucina povera, but please don’t skimp on the quality of pasta. In a dish with so few ingredients, it makes all the difference. Giulia uses whole-wheat pasta, but regular also works. Use spaghetti, spaghettoni, or bucatini to approximate the bigoli. Brands I like include
As with the pasta, you also should not skimp on the anchovies. Giulia’s recipe calls for salt-packed anchovies, like these from Cetara, in Sicily. I substituted my all-time favorite anchovies (many of you already know about them), Rizzoli Alici in Salsa Piccante. These fillets are packed in a velvety, spicy sauce of olive oil, vinegar, tuna and wine. I love the boost of umami they add.
Finally, take the time to cook the onions properly. You won’t believe the transformation that takes place as you cook down the wine-spiked onions and anchovies, and then when you toss this rich, robust sauce, made from so little, with the noodles.
The recipe doesn’t call for it, but I was tempted to add grated pecorino cheese to my serving. I’m glad I held off. It doesn’t need it.
I mentioned in last Sunday’s newsletter that this pasta goes well with my 17th century(ish) salad, and it does. The salad’s gentle notes and spring green color make for a nice contrast to the pasta’s brown palette and robust flavor. Also, since bigoli and the salad are from the 17th century, it only makes sense that they go together.
Makes 4 servings
6 salt-packed anchovies (70 g) or 1 tin Rizzoli alici in salsa piccante
6 tablespoons (90 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 large-ish or 2 small white onions, thinly sliced (3 cups)
1/2 cup (120 ml) dry white wine
1 pound (455 g) dried bigoli or thick whole-wheat or regular spaghetti
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. If you’re using salted anchovies, rinse them under cold running water. Gently remove and discard the backbone, opening each anchovy and separating it into 2 fillets. If using Rizzoli anchovy fillets, remove them from the tin. Finely chop the fillets (reserve the sauce in the tin).
2. Pour the olive oil into a large frying pan and set over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they start to sizzle and turn golden, 5-8 minutes. (I cooked mine closer to 20 minutes, to allow them to soften and turn a shade darker and brown in spots.) Add the anchovies (and reserved sauce, if using) and stir to melt, gently cooking them in the oil for a few minutes.
3. Raise the heat to medium and pour in the wine, letting it bubble for a minute or so. Lower the heat and cook, stirring from time to time, until the mixture reduces to the consistency of a sauce, about 5 minutes.
4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add some salt; keep in mind that the sauce is salty so you won’t need much salt in the pasta water. Add the pasta and cook according to package instructions until al dente.
5. Use a pasta fork or tongs to lift out the noodles and transfer them to the anchovy sauce, allowing the pasta water to drip into the sauce. Add a splash more of the pasta water—about 1/2 cup—and toss the pasta over low heat for a couple of minutes, until well coated with sauce. Sprinkle in the pepper and toss to distribute it evenly. Serve immediately.