Mar 192014

Did you know that today is St. Joseph’s Day, or la Festa di San Giuseppe, Fathers Day for the Italians?

St. Joseph the Worker, origin unknown.

St. Joseph the Worker, patron saint of the family. Origin unknown.

Because my paternal grandfather’s name was Giuseppe, Joseph, there was always a celebration with special foods, and a favorite pasta dish of their region, orecchiette with rapini (rapine in Italian). Just as Irish immigrants changed the recipe for their storied St. Patrick’s Day soda bread, so my grandparents, once in America, were forced to adapt the pasta dish using broccoli. Cime di rapa, or rapini (“broccoli rabe” as it has come to be known here) were not grown in the United States until the D’Arrigo Brothers started farming it in California in the early 70s (they are still the major producers today). For that matter, neither were orecchiette, “little pasta ears,” and so they substituted the available rigatoni rigati, which also trapped the luscious sauce in its grooves. Here is the recipe, as re-invented by my grandmother, Domenica.

Macaroni and Broccoli, from Italian Home Cooking (Kyle Books), by Julia della Croce. | Photo: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

Macaroni and Broccoli, from Italian Home Cooking (Kyle Books), by Julia della Croce. | Photo: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

Nothing could be more simple to make, and very few pasta dishes are more packed with flavor using so few ingredients. My sisters and I loved it so much that we fought for any was left at the bottom of the bowl—even after we had had second helpings. My mother eventually learned to make double what she usually made, and the next day for lunch, she warmed up the leftovers in a frying pan until they was hot and crisp—we fought over that, too! Don’t be put off by the anchovies in the sauce–they dissolve completely into the hot olive oil to form the sauce. A word to anchovy haters: This dish will probably convert you. The anchovies disappear into the extra-virgin olive oil “sauce”—you never see them, but only taste their deep flavor. Even avowed anchovy haters for whom I have made this dish have loved it. Think Asian fish sauce—you never see the little fishes, but what would Asian cooking be without it?

Nonna Domenica’s Macaroni with Broccoli Sauce

Serves 4

This rustic dish never ceases to evoke in me a renewed awe for real, exuberant southern Italian food of the sort most Americans rarely experience. Note: Don’t add grated cheese, please. For St. Joseph’s Day, do add a fistful of crispy bread crumbs sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil, to symbolize the sawdust in  his workshop (grazie  for this to my reader, author of novels about Sicily, Anthoy Di Renzo).

1 big head of broccoli
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 pound rigatoni, ziti, penne, or penne rigate
1½ cans anchovy filets preserved in olive oil
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

  1. Wash and trim the broccoli, cutting off any tough or discolored parts. Divide the top part into florets, and slice the stalks into thin, 2-inch pieces.
  2. In an ample pot, bring 7 quarts water to a rapid boil. Stir in the salt, the broccoli, and the pasta all at once. Cook over high heat until the pasta is al dente and the broccoli is soft and creamy. Stir several times as the pasta cooks to prevent it from sticking together and to allow even cooking.
  3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, warm the olive oil and the anchovies together, including the oil from one of the anchovy cans. The anchovies will dissolve completely in the oil, forming the basis of the sauce. Keep it warm.
  4. When the pasta is cooked, drain it, but don’t over-drain—it should still be moist and dripping a little. Toss the pasta and broccoli with the anchovy sauce in the skillet. Serve immediately.

So Buona Festa to my grandfather and my father out there somewhere in inner space, and all the fathers in the universe, especially  the other Giuseppes, Josephs, Josés, Josefs, Yosefs, and Józefs, etc., on the planet.  Buon Appetito ed un abbraccio!

My grandfather, Giuseppe della Croce, Puglia, 1908

My grandfather, Giuseppe della Croce, Puglia, 1908


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  4 Responses to “St. Patrick Had His Day, Today is St. Joseph’s!”

  1. What a wonderful piece, and I love seeing your grandfather! Those old photos are real treasures. I thought I’d share with you that I was just out in my garden, and on the 9th of this month I planted some seeds (Pagano company) for “Broccoletto di Rapa Sessantino Riccio S. Marzano Cima Grossa” and some seeds (Sementi company) for “Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello Liscio”, and all are coming up! This ought to be a green Spring. I think it will stay cool enough long enough for me to get a nice crop. Also coming up are other things includiing the most beautiful variety of radicchio known as Castelfranco. It looks like a variegated head of butter lettuce.

    • You are so blessed with your California sunshine. I can only be jealous because in our shorter and colder seasons on the East Coast, we can’t grow those wonderful Italian vegetables. Un abbraccio!

  2. What a lovely story and recipe. I love broccoli rabe thanks to being first introduced to it by the fabulous Laurie Colwin in “Home Cooking”. I didn’t realize it was so traditional in Italy. Fantastic!

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