This is one of my favourite all time pastas. Tried and tested on appreciative friends from London, to Paris, to Sydney for its sweet, slow cooked onions and how the anchovy melts to create a delicious sauce. You will find this dish in good restaurants all over Venice, known there as bigoli in salsa and, happily, it is not difficult to replicate at home.
6-8 anchovy fillets, of good quality, finely chopped (depending on how much you like them)
2 white onions (your can also use a normal brown onion, but you will lose a little sweetness)
1 small clove of garlic, finely sliced
Butter (2 Tbsp)
pinch of sugar
pinch of allspice (alternatively, you can throw in a clove but remember to fish it out at the end!)
splash of milk
A fatter, longer version of spaghetti, eg bucatini, bigoli (which is what they use in Venice) or linguine
1/4 C (approx 1 ladleful) of hot water taken from the pasta towards the end of cooking
Preparing the onions
First, cut the onion in half, retaining the end that has the root attached, then slice both halves into long, thin strands. The root is holding the onion together as you chop. Take a medium sized frying pan and turn it to low-medium heat. Pour in a good splash of olive oil, melt 1 tablespoon of butter (this recipe is not the time to scrimp on oil and butter) and add the onions and a liberal sprinkling of salt, then turn the pan to low heat. The onions will take around 20 minutes to cook. The objective is to add no colour to the onions – they should be soft and melting, even before you add any further ingredients. The salt will draw water out of the onions, which helps them to soften. If you hear them start to sizzle at any point, turn the heat down or if necessary, take the pan off the heat to reduce the temperature before popping it back on the stove.
Cooking the pasta
Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. Time this so it will be almost ready once you have finished cooking the sauce below.
Creating the ‘sauce’
When the onions are very soft, add the garlic, allspice and sugar and cook for a few minutes until the sugar begins to caramalise and turns the the onion mix ever so slightly darker. Throughout this process it is important to have enough oil in the pan because now you will add the chopped anchovies and they need to hit the heat of the oil in order to melt into the mixture. If you add anchovies to dry onions, they will not melt into the sauce and you’ll get chunks of anchovy which noone likes. After a minute or so of stirring them in the oil, you’ll see that the anchovies have blended into the onion mix. Now add a splash of milk which is a handy trick I read to help to bind the sauce. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter to add richness, grind in some black pepper and continue to cook on low heat for a further five minutes.
Once the pasta is nearly cooked – by this I mean it still has a good bite, taste a strand if necessary – lift it out of the pot with tongs and add it directly to the cooked onion sauce, still in the pan on the heat. I do it this way because some cooking water goes into the sauce along with the pasta, which helps the pasta to finish cooking, soaking up all the flavour of the anchovies and onions in the process. Alternatively, you can drain the pasta into a colander, making sure to retain some of the pasta cooking water, which you will then use to moisten the sauce and ensure an even distribution of onion mixture throughout the pasta. Cook the pasta with the sauce for one more minute, and you are ready to serve.
If you like the sound of this, you will probably enjoy another favourite pasta of Venice, Spaghetti con le Vongole.
Who needs Harry’s Bar when you have Vino Vero (insert name of other local establishment) hidden along the canals of Cannaregio. From sitting canal-side, spritz in hand, nibbling on cicchetti to wandering the narrow lanes almost alone at night, there is nowhere more romantic to lose yourself. Absent of vehicle noise and managing to avoid the ‘highway’ of tourists running from the train station to San Marco, the backstreets of Venice are one of life’s great pleasures. Well, one of mine anyway! It’s easy to imagine the city in its prime – a global superpower, full of elaborately dressed merchants and seafaring explorers who introduced Europe to the flavours of the East.
Subtle use of Spices
The past is reflected in many traditional dishes featuring spices, intermingled with ingredients harvested closer to home. If you listen to historians, you’ll know that spices were very expensive and used to impress discerning dinner guests, although I would like to think it’s also because food tastes better, for example, with pepper. Anyway! In a Venetian seafood risotto, you’ll find plenty of delicious prawns, clams and squid from the Lagoon mingling with the flavours of cloves, cardamon, cinnamon… the list goes on. Another typical dish features sardines and onions served cold and steeped in vinegar, the onions similarly slow cooked as described in the recipe above but flavoured with raisins and pine nuts. And of course, the pasta on this page is a classic example of a dish that would still taste delicious without spices, yet adding allspice creates a refined and unique flavour.
A note on the Fish Market
When I was last in Venice the fishmongers were campaigning to find a way to remain open, no easy task in a city whose local population is being replaced by more tourists every year. Which is really very sad, because the fish market is beautiful. Set amongst historic columns opening onto the Grand Canal, the variety of seafood on offer (and the characters selling it) bring to life the dishes of the city. When one lives for seafood pasta, it’s tough to go past the excellent clams, but here you’ll find hordes of different fish, the freshest mussels and jars of home-prepared anchovies, a favourite treat to take home. You may even be convinced to try the little black sea snails, which you can eat raw with a toothpick, but admittedly, this is one for the hardcores. And for the frugal traveller, the best thing about the fish market is the cheap and cheerful boat nearby that will take you across the Grand Canal. For only a euro, it is well worth avoiding the Rialto Bridge for.