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04 April 2013

Spaghetti With Breadcrumbs, Wild Fennel and Anchovies (Pasta Ca' Muddica) and the Town of Civita di Bagnoregio

Pasta ca' muddica is the Sicilian of pasta con la mollica which is the Italian of pasta with breadrumbs.  Now that we are done with the introductions, let me tell you how simple (as you can guess from the ingredients) and good this pasta is.  It's a poor man's dish in Sicily and it comes in different versions per province, per town, per household and per person which I think is like every classic recipe.  What I can say about these kinds of dishes is that they have a reason for being around for hundreds of years.  They are simple, inexpensive, healthy and very good. 

I have a wild fennel plant growing in the fissure between the wall and the road at the back of our house.  I have long adopted it as my own and when the leaves start to come out again, my usage of wild fennel starts too and this pasta is one of them. I like disrupting our usual Italian - Asian dishes at home with something Sicilian like this one. 

Pasta ca' muddica is a perfect window to the tastes of Sicily. Indulge in this pasta and you will understand how simplicity can create something gargantuan in the blending of flavors. 

For this year's Easter holiday, I refrained from cooking. Just like that.  I had an idea of having a nice passeggiata in a simple town and eating traditional food in the area. We went to a beautiful, small hamlet that I had been wanting to revisit for a long time.  The first time I was there, I still remember the feeling of sucking in my breath as I stared, mesmerized at one of the most beautiful panoramas of a hilltop town that I have ever seen in my life.  Civita di Bagnoregio captivated me the first time and it continued to do so on the second time.

See what I mean?  If you look from another hill in front of this town, you will understand how breathtaking this town is.  The walking bridge is the only way to reach the town where you enter through the only remaining door among the five that the town used to have hundreds of years ago.   

The town was founded by the Etruscans over 2,500 years ago but the first mention of the town in the official records was in the 6th century under the name Bagnorea.

In 1695, it suffered its first devastating earthquake that, coupled with its continual problem of erosion, caused big damages to the town. Almost a hundred years later, it went through another earthquake that made the natural bridge connecting it to the outer town collapse.  Most of the inhabitants abandoned the town and settled at the connecting outer town called Rhota which is the  historic center of the present-day town called Bagnoregio

The present bridge in use to connect Civita (di Bagnoregio) to Bagnoregio was constructed in 1965 and it's the third bridge constructed in place of the natural one that crumbled during the big earthquake at the end of the 17th century.  

Civita di Bagnoregio is a unique and beautiful town but unfortunately, it is also a dying town, as it is known today.  It is standing on a tuffaceous hill and there is a continuous erosion caused by the two streams flowing underneath it and the effects of rain and wind.  It is inexorably crumbling away slowly.  Presently, it is in the List of the World's Most Endangered Sites.  Its present population is said to be around 10 - 15.

I was surprised that the town was exploding with tourists, both foreign and locals on Easter Sunday even after a weather forecast of bad weather.  The first time I went there, the place was tranquil and much less touristy.  It still kept its little town charm but everything is more organized with more parking, vans that take you up and down to the start of the bridge and there were more restaurants open.  A nice leisurely walk around the town would take about half an hour or maybe a bit more.  It's also an experience to eat in one of the restaurants housed inside the medieval buildings.  

We, instead, booked a restaurant at the outer town where they served more local and traditional food.  If you happen to be in the area, I recommend this simple restaurant called Ristorante Antica Rota where you can get good food and wine with good prices.  Below are eggs with pepper and ravioli filled with chianina (Florentine beef) and oyster mushrooms served with shaved butter, black truffles and cheese.  The third picture is rabbit stuffed with wild stems of fennel and olives then cooked with wine I think.   The cakes are millefoglie and chocolate cake with prosecco and strawberries. 

If you reached this part, thank you for reading.  We braved the traveling (it's about 150 km. from the north of Rome) and the big walk and we were rewarded with a great weather even if the forecast was the opposite and most important of all, we had a wonderful Easter celebration as a family.  I hope you all enjoyed yours too!

Have a good week everyone!

Spaghetti With Breadcrumbs, Wild Fennel and Anchovies (Pasta Ca Muddica)

Serves 4
  •  400 g. spaghetti
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 100 grams preserved anchovies in oil
  • 200 grams toasted breadcrumbs + some for garnishing
  • 100 g. wild fennel leaves, chopped finely
  • salt 
  • pepper
  1. Bring a big pot of water to a boil for the pasta.
  2. While waiting, toast the breadcrumbs in a small saucepan.
  3. In another saucepan, saut√® the garlic with extra virgin olive oil.  When it colors, remove and discard then put the anchovies in the pan. 
  4. When the anchovies have dissolved, add the toasted breadcrumbs and half of the wild fennel leaves.  Turn off the fire. 
  5. When the pot of water is boiling, add some salt.  Add the spaghetti.  Cook following the number of minutes indicated in the package or until al dente.  Reserve a cup of water used for cooking the pasta.
  6. Turn on the fire of the sauce then add the cooked spaghetti.  Add a little bit of the water used for cooking the pasta.  The pasta shouldn't come out dry.  Season with salt & pepper.  
  7. Serve in the individual pasta bowls.  Sprinkle the remaining wild fennel leaves and toasted breadcrumbs.  Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
  8. Serve hot.