50 shades of Pasta and Beans
It seems that even Cicero was a glutton for them. Of course, we can’t know how true that is, partly because the idea of pasta at the time of the Ancient Romans was rather different to ours, and partly because beans as we know them today came to Italy long after the fall of the western Roman Empire. But what we do know is that the Ancient Romans, the gourmet Cicero among them, made a sort of pasta with buckwheat and a close ancestor of today’s prized Fagiolina del Trasimeno.
As the centuries unfolded and dough-making techniques developed, the marriage of pasta and beans established itself as a cornerstone of popular cuisine, even with the setbacks and sea-changes that affect most great loves.
Delicious and nutritious, the dish is usually made with egg pasta, normally cut into roughly the same form as party pastries. These “maltagliati” (literally, “badly cut”) have a narrow diamond shape and are prone to flicking sauce into the face of whoever is eating them. Hence their vernacular name in the Po valley, "sprècagrògn", meaning “face-sprayer”. But beans are also eaten with sagne, short and wide pappardelle, and a variety of forms of pasta made not with egg but with water and durum wheat. This dried pasta lends itself to thousands of shapes and sizes, among which we must mention the tiny ditalini, plus the famous and stupendous Neapolitan pasta mista, which has already achieved legendary status.
In Naples, they make this dish by cooking dried pasta not in water but directly into the bean soup, maybe with a few clams dropped in. The result is thick and creamy, “azzeccata”, as they say down there.
As for the legumes, there’s another embarrassment of riches. Italy grows beans of superb quality, such as the Pigna, Conio and Occhio varieties, along with the ubiquitous borlotti. The slightly more upmarket dish might use paler beans, like cannellini, or the decadent Bianchi del Papa. But popular cuisine is at its best when it’s working from necessity, when “we cook what we have”. Hence lard and celery, with or without tomatoes; garlic, stock, herbs from the garden, olive oil and, if you grew up in the lands that produce Parmigiano Reggiano, the aged parmesan rinds.
In Tuscany, pasta e fagioli is traditionally paired with Chianti. And here, as with the beans and the pasta, there’s a wealth of stuff to choose from!