Few things feel more festive to me (as to most Venetians) than bìgoli in salsa. As strange as this might sound, this poor, anchovy- and onion-based pasta dish is hands down the most popular Venetian Christmas Eve’s first course. A big classic in the cuisine of Veneto, bìgoli in salsa used to be enjoyed on giornidi magro (fasting days) such as Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Christmas Eve. Nowadays, you can find all year round in traditional osterie and local restaurants all over the region. However, it remains very much linked to fasting days in the local tradition.
Context. Bìgoli is a type of thick, fresh spaghetti that is originally from Veneto. Their origin seems to date back to the 1600s, when the whole region was under the domain of la Serenissima. A pasta maker from Padova designed and patented a machinery (called bigolaro) apt to make different shapes of pasta. Among them, thick bìgoli gained people’s preference, and fast became the signature pasta shape of the Venetian republic.
The original recipe for bìgoli simply called for wheat flour and water. The dough was then kneaded, rested, and finally hand-pressed through the bigolaro. The signature bronze die imparted a rustic, rough texture to the extruded strings of dough, which measured about 25 cm in length. Variations on this basic theme included the use of different types of flour – wholemeal wheat and/or buckwheat – to produce bìgolimori (dark). In recent times, eggs began to be added to the mix, their protein content ensuring softer, durable results. Also, many pastifici (particularly in the town of Bassano del Grappa) started the production of dry bìgoli, either white or wholemeal, using durum wheat flour.
In my family, we start with dry bìgoli, then season them with this unctuous sauce (the salsa) made with salt-packed sardines (or anchovies), softened white onions, and (lots of) oil. it’d be difficult to establish an original recipe for bìgoli in salsa: every family has its own. Here, I’m sharing a slightly mellowed version, with anchovies rather than salted sardines. But if you want to go full blast, by all means, do. Use sardines. Personally, I love both takes in equal measure.
Bigoli in Salsa
For this recipe, choose bìgoli or just the thickest spaghetti you can find (spaghetti alla chitarra work wonders), even better if made with wholegrain flours.If using fresh pasta, adjust the cooking time accordingly.
400 g dry bìgoli (or other thick spaghetti)*
350 g white onions, thinly sliced
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
10 oil-packed anchovies, drained
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Begin by bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil.
In a large skillet set over a medium-low heat, fry the onions gently in olive oil until very soft and creamy, about 15 minutes. Add a little pf the pasta water (about 60 ml/1/4 cup) to help with the softening. Next, add the anchovies and dissolve them within the onion sauce, then remove from the heat and set aside.
When the pasta water has reached a rolling boil, lower the bìgoli. Cook until al dente, drain, and transfer to the skillet with the anchovy and onion sauce. Set the skillet over a medium heat and toss the pasta with the sauce for a couple of minutes, until you see the sauce clinging to the pasta. Season with black pepper, toss once more, then serve right away.