Pasta with anchovies & onions – two ways

Anchovies are a fundamental ingredient in peasant cooking all over Italy – probably all over Europe… possibly even beyond. In landlocked regions like Umbria, salted anchovies and salt cod were more or less the only marine fish served – though here around Lake Trasimeno there was no shortage of freshwater fish. Anchovies, being far cheaper than cod, were the seafood of choice; moreover, with their strong salt-enhanced flavour, a little of this fish went – and goes – a very long way.

I don’t know why, but we rarely use salted anchovies: they look enticing enough in those big, brightly coloured tins behind every Italian deli counter. But anchovy fillets in oil are just swifter to use: no scraping away at salt. We’re never without a jar in the door of our fridge. Luca, whose deli in town is a source of all kinds of wonderful – mostly local – produce imports jars of fantastic, plump anchovies in olive oil from Galicia, Spain. We keep those ones for eating raw. For cooked anchovy dishes, the supermarket variety does just fine.

Italians have two variations on the anchovy to choose from, and I’m still not quite sure whether I’ve understood the difference. They are alici and acciughe. I believe it’s just a question of size: they are both Engraulis encrasicholus, but acciughe are 12-15cm; alici are smaller. This may be complete rubbish and they may be interchangeable.

Then there are fresh anchovies. I have a love-hate relationship with these. In that I love them: you get all the fish flavour and none of the salt; but it’s almost always me who ends up with the ghastly, fiddly  job of beheading them, gutting them, sliding out the backbone and making sure no scales stick to the little beasts. Unless, of course, our delightful fish ladies up in town are at a loose end in which case they will graciously do this for me. And I don’t end up smelling like a rotting fish for hours after.

This first recipe owes much to the classic Venetian dish bigoli in salsa.

Fresh anchovies – 400 g
Medium onions – 4
Sultanas – 4 tbsp
White wine – 150 ml
White wine vinegar – 2 tbsp
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil
Wholemeal pasta – 500 g

Clean the anchovies, removing the head and backbone completely and washing them well to ensure there are no clinging scales, then chop them coarsely. Slice (don’t chop) the onions in rounds as thinly as you can; any kind of onion is fine but red onions give this recipe a deliciously sweet flavour and a warmer colour. Cover the bottom of a heavy saucepan or frying pan (a cast iron one is best) with a thin film of olive oil, heat it and drop the onions in; begin softening the onions over a very low heat and don’t let them brown. After five minutes, add the anchovies, the wine and the sultanas. Cover the pan, and leave it over the lowest possible heat for anything between 40 minutes and an hour, stirring it from time to time to check that nothing is sticking.

When the anchovies are well on their way to dissolving and the onions are meltingly soft, add the white wine vinegar. You can also add pinenuts, but I suggest tossing them briefly in a small saucepan (no oil) for a couple of minutes first to toast them. I also like to grind very large quantities of black pepper in at this point, but this will depend on your tastes.

At the same time, bring a large saucepan of water to the boil for the pasta. Choice of pasta here is important: you need a pasta which is part of the dish, rather than one which is just a vehicle for a sauce. I prefer pizzoccheri – a pasta from the far north of Italy made from buckwheat, with a slightly bitter flavour. But a good wholemeal pasta will do too: spaghetti- or tagliatelli-shaped pieces are best, though make sure it’s good chunky pasta.

Before the pasta finishes cooking, scoop out a mugful of the cooking water and set it aside. When the pasta is al dente, strain it, put it back into the pot and pour the onion and anchovy sauce over it, plus a tablespoon or so of the cooking water. Turn the heat back on gently beneath the pot and stir the contents gently for a minute, making sure it’s all well mixed. If it looks dry, add a little more of the cooking water.


You can substitute preserved anchovies in the recipe above: use 10-12 fillets and add them to the onions much later in the process – say 20-30 minutes into the cooking. Alternatively, for a really quick anchovy pasta, opt for the following.

Anchovy fillets – 10-12
Garlic – 2 large cloves
Onion – 1 large
Sultanas – 4 tbsp
Olive oil – about 2 tbsp
Pasta – 500 g

If you’re in a hurry, place a large pan of water for the pasta on the stove to heat. This sauce is so quick that you can whip it up in the time it takes to heat water and cook pasta.

Chop the onion finely – the finer you mince, the smoother the end result will be. Chop the garlic. In a heavy frying pan, heat sufficient olive oil to cover the bottom and cook the onion and garlic in it gently: don’t allow them to catch. When they begin to soften (about ten minutes), drop in the chopped anchovy fillets (scraped and washed well if they were in salt; drained well if they were in oil) and continue cooking over a low heat for a further four or five minutes, stirring until the anchovies have dissolved into the onions.

In a small frying pan (no oil), toss the sultanas for a minute or two: ideally, they should just catch, on one side at least, so they turn slightly chewy and toffee-ish. When the anchovy mix is ready, drop the sultanas into it.

I find a nice thick spaghetti goes with this sauce. If it’s wholemeal, so much the better, but regular pasta will do equally well. Cook it until it is slightly harder than al dente, then drain it, setting aside a mugful of cooking water before you do. Add the pasta and a third of the mugful of cooking water to the anchovy mix, and stir over a medium heat. You’ll need to continue cooking and stirring until the pasta is covered by a fairly uniform coating of the sauce; if necessary add more water – a little at a time – until you have a sauce which is the consistency of thick gravy, and your pasta is perfectly al dente.

© Anne Hanley, 2011.
All recipes serve four.


About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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