Pasta e Fagioli

When I was growing up, it was amazing how much you could learn if if you listened to the radio and if, like me, you had a mother who liked popular music.  For instance, by the time I was seven years old, I knew that Mona Lisa was a girl in a famous painting because Mom liked Nat King Cole’s song about a “famous work of art.”  When I was ten I learned how you said “God go with you” in Spanish because I listened to Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “Vaya Con Dios” at least a thousand times.  And then, when I was eleven, Dean Martin introduced a lot of us kids to “pizza pie” in a song my mother loved, “That’s Amore.”

I didn’t have a chance to taste pizza for another three or four years until Vin opened the first pizza shop on Hayward’s main street, but most of us kids knew the words to the song, especially the opening line: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that’s amore….”  Sixty years later I finally learned that the song also celebrated pasta e fagioli, an Italian dish of pasta and beans.  The line in the song uses the Neapolitan dialect for the sake of the rhyme.   “When the stars make you drool just like a pasta e fasule that’s amore.”  Fasule is what people call fagioli in Naples.

Whichever name you prefer, this combination of beans, pasta and vegetables makes a hearty and wonderful meal.  You can include meat if you want, but this peasant dish satisfies big appetites without it.  Vegetarian pasta e fagioli is an authentic, rustic Italian bean and pasta soup that’s extremely easy to make and can be on the table in less than an hour.  Be sure to try it sometime.


1 T olive oil

Half an onion

1 large carrot

1 celery stalk

1 zucchini, seven to nine inches long

2 cloves garlic

1/2 tsp. dried basil

1 can (28 oz) of whole tomatoes

1 can (28 oz.) of white beans

About 2 cups baby spinach

1 cup vegetable stock

2 T parsley, chopped

1/2 tsp. salt

Black pepper to taste

About 8 oz. rotini, penne rigate or other short pasta


You need a good knife, two large soup pots or a Dutch oven and a pot, a can opener and a wooden spoon to make Pasta e Fagioli.  You also need four bowls or plates to stage the vegetables.

Clean and chop the onion, carrot and celery into a quarter to half-inch dice and set these vegetables aside in a small bowl. Wash and chop the zucchini into a slightly larger dice and set it aside in a separate bowl.  You should have about one and a quarter cups of zucchini.  Peel and mince the garlic and set it aside in a small bowl.  Rinse the spinach and parsley.  Shred the spinach into half-inch by one inch pieces and chop the parsley medium fine and set them aside in a bowl.

 Heat the pot over medium-high heat and add the oil, onion, carrot and celery. Fry them for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and transparent. 

Add the garlic and sauté it for about a minute, then add the zucchini and basil. If the vegetables look dry, you can add a little more oil.  Cook the mixture for another couple of minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the tomatoes and their juice and use your spoon to break them into bite-sized pieces.

Add the beans and their liquid, spinach, vegetable stock, parsley, salt and a good grind of pepper (about a quarter of a teaspoon). Bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer it for about fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile in a separate pot, cook the the pasta until it is at the al dente stage. Drain and add the pasta to the soup. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately with some good bread and wine.

NOTES:  Since you add the pasta to the hot soup, it will continue cooking, so be careful not to overcook it.  If the instructions on the package say to cook for eight to ten minutes, for example, drain the pasta at eight minutes or even a few seconds before.  

It is important to prepare the vegetables before you begin cooking the soup, so you can add the vegetables at the proper times and not overcook them.  Done properly, the celery will have a little crunch, the carrots more, and the rest of the vegetables will retain their identity.

This soup loses some of its character when you freeze it, but it still tastes good.  If you want to enjoy it only at its peak of perfection, invite some friends over to share your pasta e fagioli with them when it’s done.  There will be enough for six diners.

Cleaning and chopping the vegetables takes half the time to make this soup, so if you prepare the veggies ahead, you can serve this soup in less than thirty minutes!

And if, like me, you don’t speak Italian, you might appreciate knowing how easy it is to say Pasta e Fagioli.  It’s Pasta eh Fa-JOE-lee.

Jerri’s Spaghetti Sauce

This is a simple but flavorful spaghetti sauce that Jerri made dozens of times when I was gainfully employed selling recycling equipment and she was a piano teacher and church organist. Since my office was in a western suburb of Minneapolis, and my customers included companies from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Warroad, Minnesota, I usually called to let her know when I thought I would be home for dinner. However, I was sometimes delayed. Anyone who has commuted through the Twin Cities knows what a shower or snow flurries can do to traffic on highways in the Metro area.

Jerri thus became an expert in flexible meal scheduling. Her students began arriving when the school day ended. She usually said goodby to the last one after 6 PM. To accommodate this schedule she assembled a main dish before her first student arrived, put it in the refrigerator and popped it into the oven or put it on the burner at the appropriate time.

She made a lot of wonderful casseroles and soups and learned how to create a spaghetti sauce that seemed to improve the longer she had to wait for me. Her recipe for the sauce reveals her as not just an expert at putting a meal on the table when the family was ready to eat but also as a “make do” cook who was willing to substitute ingredients that she thought would not be rejected by her husband, son and daughter. Her judgment was nearly always good. At least she never had the kinds of disasters I produced from time to time.

Her basic recipe for spaghetti sauce consisted of the first six ingredients listed below. The final seven represent my guesses about quantities of ingredients contained in her note that said something like, “Add some salt and pepper. Anise or fennel seeds and basil if you like them. Thin with water or red wine and smooth it out with some olive oil. If you like the flavor, mushrooms can be added with the garlic.”

As you can see, you can adjust the recipe to whatever is on your spice rack and “make do” with what you have. I think that fennel or anise, basil, wine and olive oil improve the sauce, but it is edible without them.

You can “make do” with whatever you have, so there’s no excuse for not making Jerri’s spaghetti sauce.


1 lb. Italian sausage
1 or 2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 16 oz. can whole tomatoes
1/2 tsp. anise or fennel seed
1/2 tsp basil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 tsp. olive oil
Grated Parmesan cheese to pass (if you have some)


Remove the paper from the garlic and mince it. Clean and chop the onion into a quarter inch dice. Chop the tomatoes into bite-sized pieces, reserving the juice. Brown the sausage in a two or three quart saucepan over moderate heat. Drain the grease if necessary and add the garlic and onion and cook them for about two minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, juice, tomato sauce and paste.

Blend the fennel seed, basil, black pepper and salt in a mortar or cup and stir them into the pan. Stir in the wine and olive oil.

Reduce the heat and simmer for an hour or so. Stir occasionally and add wine, water or tomato juice if the sauce becomes too thick.

NOTES: If you include mushrooms, clean and slice them thinly and add them with the garlic.

I sometimes use a mixture of fennel and anise.

You can take this sauce off the heat when it has simmered long enough to suit your taste, then reheat it while the spaghetti is cooking.

This sauce freezes well and keeps for at least three or four months.H