Thursday, October 13, 2011

Leftover bread, pasta and beans

Diversity is undoubtedly one of the joys of Italian food culture. Every region, every province and every town has its own particular twist on the national preoccupation – which is food. At provincial level there’s always a dish that has the last word, the one that speaks for the people. In my home province of Piacenza, that dish is pisareï e fasò. There is no adequate translation but to give a rough idea that’s pasta, or little gnocchi, made with breadcrumbs and served in a sauce of beans.

Pisareï e fasò is to the gastronomy of Piacenza what ragù alla bolognese is to the gastronomy of Bologna or risotto alla milanese to Milan. It’s a defining dish, a local heritage, one that is admired and protected just as one admires and protects a masterpiece.

Like all good Italian signature dishes, pisareï brings together all the characteristics of the local gastronomy. It’s a dish that was created by farmers and in which is reflected both the times and the territory. Small gnocchi-like pasta (gnocchetti) made with a mix of flour and breadcrumbs made from leftover bread – a clear indication that it originated as a dish of the poor – dressed in a robust sauce of borlotti beans and tomatoes, flavored with lardo or cotenna, again a clear sign that the dish has its roots in cucina povera.

Also like all good Italian dishes, it is served with a generous helping of legend! Local folklore has it that many years back, when a young man brought home his bride-to-be, his mother would only approve the union if the prospective bride’s right thumb had evidence of calluses. This, it was claimed, was considered irrefutable evidence of the bride’s ability to make pisareï and, by default, of her suitability as a housewife.

Today, nothing much has changed (although young women, I suspect, are no longer subjected to hand inspections when they meet-the-parents). Every restaurant in the province still makes pisareï e fasò and, truth be told, it is the dish, above all others, by which every restaurant is judged. And whether it’s a Michelin starred restaurant in the heart of the city or a local trattoria in the depths of the countryside, they are all gauged by the same preconceived notion of quality. 

Pisareï e fasò is also still made in homes throughout the province with every family adding their personal touch. A little more breadcrumb than flour in the mix for a more rustic version; using water as opposed to broth to soak the breadcrumbs to help balance the richness of the sauce; mashing some of the borlotti beans to thicken the sauce, the tricks and variations are endless. Yet, differences aside, there remains a consensus as to what makes a good plate of pisareï. It is not something that can easily be verbalized. It’s instinctive – you simply know it when you taste it.  

Pisareï e Fasò


For the pisareï
300g flour
100g finely grated breadcrumbs
Chicken or vegetable broth

For the sauce
1 small onion
40g lardo
250g borlotti beans
375ml chunky tomato sauce
1 garlic clove
Handful of parsley
Olive oil

To make the sauce
Place the lardo, parsley and garlic clove on a chopping board.  With a sharp knife, chop all the ingredients well.  It should almost form a smooth paste.   Place the lardo in a heavy-based deep-sided frying pan and add a few tablespoons of oil.  Heat gently and then add the finely chopped onion.  Cook the onion until soft and then add the borlotti beans and tomato sauce.  Season with salt and pepper and simmer gently for 30 minutes.  Take the pan off the heat and using a masher, roughly mash some of the beans until you achieve a thicker consistency in the sauce. Give everything a good stir and the sauce is now ready. 

To make the pisareï
Place the breadcrumbs in a bowl and pour over enough hot broth so that the breadcrumbs are soaked but not swimming in liquid.  You will need to do this by eye as different breadcrumbs will soak up different amounts of liquid.  Next place the flour on a board and add the breadcrumbs.  Knead everything together well.  When a smooth dough is formed, tear off walnut sized lumps from the dough and roll into 30cm lengths.  Cut each length into 1/2 cm pieces and with the side of your thumb make an indentation. 

To cook the pisareï, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and then add the pisareï.  When they float to the surface scoop them out with a slotted spoon and add them to the pan with the sauce. Mix together gently until the pisareï are evenly coated in the sauce.

Serve with plenty of freshly grated parmesan cheese.


  1. Thanks for a well presented recipe. My nonni are from the Piacentino, and this is my idea of ancestor worship. Better pisarei than cavallo.

  2. Cheers Mike. It is a great dish, one of many from the area. I'll be posting more over the coming weeks, so stay tuned.