What’s the Bigoli Deal?

Oftentimes when I have a specific ingredient I want to cook, I’ll have a vague recollection of a wonderful dish I had once, read about or made myself that uses said ingredient. And then I’ll set out — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to remember what it was and find it.

Venetian bigoli in salsa

That was what was happening on a lazy Sunday afternoon as I contemplated what I was going to make for dinner. I felt like Italian, and moving jars, bags and boxes around in the pantry, I discovered a forgotten bag of whole wheat spaghetti.

First of all, let me just state for the record that I am not a person who believes it is acceptable to prepare a standard spaghetti dish — spaghetti pomodoro, let’s say, or spaghetti with clams — and replace your standard semolina spaghetti with whole wheat spaghetti. No, no, no, no, no. This is what yoga students and health food fanatics do. It is not what they do in Italy, this is not what you should do in America. In Italy, whole wheat spaghetti is reserved for a limited number of dishes designed specifically around this particular noodle. And it was just such a dish I was trying to remember.

The only things I could recall were anchovies and parsley. “Hey, should we throw this out?” my wife said earlier in the day, tidying up the fridge and discovering a bag of limp and yellowing Italian parsley. “No,” I replied, “I can salvage some of it and I may use it this evening.” I set out in search of the preparation I was hazily recalling. First, I checked the recipe section of my blog and found nothing. Then I went to a few of my favorite Italian cookbooks — a Lidia Bastianich book, two by Mario Batali, even Culinaria — and again, nothing. Then, for some reason, I was drawn to my shelf of old issues of Saveur magazine on a hunch. I pulled out one of my favorites — an oil-stained, dog-eared special issue on Venice from 1999. And there, there indeed, I found what I was looking for — bigoli in salsa! Whole wheat spaghetti with anchovy sauce.

I’ve written and written — and written again — about Venice on this blog, certainly more than any other Italian city. And here I was again, waste-deep in lagoon floodwaters, waxing nostalgic about campaniles, narrow alleyways, little footbridges and olive green canals. I could almost smell the briny, fishy convergence of sea and city, the unique olfactory profile of centuries of salt eating away at marble and travertine. In my mind’s eye, I could nearly see the wondrously exotic attractions of the Rialto fish market. Venice is a place that takes its inspiration directly from the waters that flow like blood vessels to its heart, especially when it comes to food. And this pasta represents that beautifully.

You are afraid of anchovies, you say? You have terrible childhood memories of them assaulting you from the face of an otherwise amiable pizza pie? But in this dish, much like in a Caesar salad, the salty filets retreat from prominence in service of the whole, actually disintegrating to become an ensemble player in the multiple layers of flavors that radiate across your palate. Even my picky kids will eat this dish. And so should you.

The recipe, I discovered, doesn’t even include parsley. I must’ve added that myself at some point. I’m not Italian, but parsley’s one of my favorite things, and it’s a good addition. Cin cin!

*   *   *

Bigoli in salsa
serves 4

12 oz. whole wheat pasta
12-15 large anchovy filets
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large sweet onion, cut in slivers top to bottom
1 1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup minced parsley
flaky sea salt & freshly ground pepper

Heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a large skillet. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until translucent. Stir in the anchovies, mashing up with the back of a wooden spoon as you do. Add the wine and bring to a simmer, then lower the heat to medium-low. Cook until reduced by half, about 30 minutes, adding more wine if needed.

Heat water in a large pot to cook pasta. Add 1 tbsp. salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta, stirring with a wooden spoon to prevent clumping. Cook as directed on the package, usually 8-10 minutes, until al dente.

Using tongs, lift the spaghetti from the water and add directly to the skillet with the sauce, turn heat to high and cook, tossing, for about 2 minutes, until sauce thickens and coats pasta. Remove from heat, toss in the parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide between four plates.

Top with additional anchovy filets if you’re into them. Or grate with a little pecorino romano, if you’d like. (I prefer to eat the pasta naked. The pasta, that is — not me.)

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michelle
    Nov 20, 2012 @ 02:46:16

    Bravo! I get so annoyed with my friends who, in restaurants, will say to the waiter, for example: “I want the _____, but I want it made with angel hair pasta.” And when I try to explain that Italians have centuries of quite specific and well-founded reasons for doing a particular sauce with a particular pasta, I get looked at as if I was from Mars. In addition to being appropriate, this looks quite delicious!


  2. rachelocal
    Nov 20, 2012 @ 03:56:52

    This looks fantastic and so easy! I usually turn my nose up at whole wheat pasta, but I’ll give this a try.

    One can never go wrong with Saveur!


    • scolgin
      Nov 20, 2012 @ 15:27:55

      You are right to turn your nose up. Whole wheat pasta in the wrong dish is dreadful. (Like I said, when people try to substitute it for regular pasta when they shouldn’t.)


  3. g
    Nov 20, 2012 @ 23:49:43

    Chris loves anchovies, so this should be worth a try. And you’re making me feel bad about procrastinating on my Venice promises to you – perhaps this weekend I will finish it and get it to you – it’s almost there!


  4. Jessamine in PDX
    Nov 21, 2012 @ 08:10:08

    I have totally had that experience of a vague recollection of a recipe and it’s so rewarding when you finally track it down! This looks fantastic by the way. I am embarrassed to admit I forget that I like anchovies. It’s one of those things I don’t seek out but when I eat them, I always enjoy them. In fact, I just had a lovely version of pasta aglio e olio with anchovies and it rocked my world.


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