Aside from spaghetti, this was the first Italian dish I ever heard about. It was a big joke, or supposed to be. TV comics of the early fifties assumed they could always get a laugh by bringing up pasta fazool, a dialectal version of pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans). I didn’t get the joke as a child, and I don’t want to get it now. Of course, now nobody would dream of trying to get a yuck from saying something in peasant Italian, unless it was somehow connected to the Mob. Too many people still think organized crime and its alleged folkways are hilarious.
On an episode of The Sopranos, the mafiosi wives go to a lecture at their church in New Jersey to hear an advanced Italian-American woman give them a pep talk on how they’d all come a long way, baby, One of the speaker’s self-esteem–building examples was gastronomic: “When they [people making fun of your lifestyle] say spaghetti and meatballs, you say eggplant parmigiana and broccoli rabe.” It gets worse: “When they say your mothers wore black, you say we wear Armani.”
The wives are furious. They think this woman is putting them down, that she is agreeing with the Italian-hating world that there is something embarrassing low class about unreconstructed Sicilian-American food or other features of the world their immigrant ancestors created in America. I don’t get it, because I don’t believe that one recipe is classier than another—more complex, more expensive, sure, but intrinsically superior, not on your life.
The truth is that pasta fazool is a pan-Italian dish with many variations on the same idea: noodles cooked together with beans, starch on starch. There are four basic varieties of this dish: with lard, with olive oil, pureed, and not pureed. In all of these categories, the beans are cooked until quite soft.
This opulent recipe from Pordenone, in the Friuli region of the extreme northeast of Italy, goes beyond the basic idea of the dish, adding potatoes, which are unusual for Italy but typical up there. I have tried pasta e fagioli with lard and prefer It that way. I am also amused by the belt-and-suspenders inclusion of unpureed beans with the puree.
When you serve it, if a guest, suppressing a giggle, says pasta fazool, you say—Actually, better not.