Test Kitchen Director Belle English was lucky enough to spend four days in Sardinia (in local parlance, Sardegna) recently. She ate a ton of the island’s famously delicious seafood, including calamari and uni. “There was uni on everything, especially on the coast,” she remembers. The meal that stuck with her the most, though, was an incredible plate of handmade pasta in the hilly town of Usini.
She was there to learn from two nonnas, who were making Andarinos and Ciccioneddus noodles when she arrived. Belle sat down to start rolling and pinching pasta, watching the women as they deftly demonstrated their craft. “I’d thought: ‘I am a chef and I’m dexterous. I can do this!’ But I tried and failed,” she laughs. “It’s amazing how technical it is to make that pasta shape, but these two nonnas were experts.”
Belle rolled her pasta on a glass board similar to a gnocchi board. After hours of rolling and working, she sat down to lunch with her teachers to enjoy their efforts. “I don’t speak Italian and they don’t speak English, so we communicated through cooking.” Though lunch brimmed with regional specialties, it was a simple dish that Belle appreciated the most.
“We had the pasta with an amazing tomato sauce,” she remembers. “Old-school Italian—just garlic and onions cooked in the tomatoes, of course San Marzano tomatoes. The nonnas made a pesto to put on top, what I like to call a ‘pesto floater.’ They plucked basil from the ground just outside the kitchen door, then combined it with pinenuts, walnuts, or almonds depending on what they had.”
And the results were incredible. “I’ve had lots of pasta,” says Belle, the daughter of two chefs and a chef in her own right. “And this one was the most memorable.”
Belle’s takeaway? “Even the simplest dishes with fresh, local ingredients that are so good like they are in Italy—when you’re getting ingredients from the region they’re grown in—it just tastes so much better.” One of the best parts of her culinary adventure, she says, “I became a better cook even though I really didn’t cook anything, just by eating and listening to the chefs.”
When she got home, Belle got right to work recreating the nonnas’ classic sauce. “I paired it with our Strozzapreti, a similar shape to their Sardinian pastas, which holds sauce really well because it folds inwards.”
You can enjoy the results of Belle’s “studies” right here! She loves to top her pasta as did the nonnas—with Pecorino Sardo, a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese that is mild and nutty. If you can’t find it, no problem: Pecorino Romano will do just fine.
Strozzapreti Pomodoro with Fresh Pesto and Pecorino Sardo
For the pomodoro sauce:
- 2 cans (each 28 oz./875 g) whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes with juices
- 12 Tbs. (1 ½ sticks) (6 oz./185 g) unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and halved lengthwise with the stem intact
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 1 Parmesan rind about 3 inches (7.5 cm) long
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
For the pesto:
- ½ cup (2 oz./60 g) packed grated Parmesan cheese
- ¼ cup cup (1 ¼ oz./35 g) toasted pine nuts, walnuts or almonds
- 3 cups (3 oz./90 g) fresh basil leaves
- 1 cup (8 fl. oz./240 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- Kosher salt
- 1 lb. (500 g) strozzapreti
- ¾ cup (3 oz./90 g) grated Parmesan cheese
- Grated pecorino sardo cheese for serving
- Fresh basil leaves for garnish
- To make the pomodoro sauce, in a large, deep sauté pan or a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the tomatoes and juices, butter, onion, garlic, Parmesan rind and 2 tsp. salt. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally and crushing the tomatoes as they cook down, until the tomatoes are mostly crushed and the sauce is reduced slightly, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Remove the pan from the heat and discard the onion and Parmesan rind.
- Let the sauce cool slightly, then transfer to a blender and blend until smooth, about 1 minute. The sauce can be made up to 4 days in advance; let cool completely, then cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
- Return the sauce to the pan and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set the pan over low heat to keep warm.
- To make the pesto, in a food processor, combine the Parmesan and pine nuts and process until ground. Add the basil and pulse until finely chopped. With the processor running, pour in 3/4 cup (6 fl. oz./180 ml) of the olive oil and process until blended, then stir in the remaining 1/4 cup (2 fl. oz./60 ml) oil. The pesto will be slightly loose and oily. Season to taste with salt and pepper. The pesto can be made up to 4 days in advance; cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Bring to room temperature before serving.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions until al dente. Using a spider or a fine-mesh strainer, transfer the pasta directly from the cooking water to the pan with the pomodoro sauce, sprinkle with the Parmesan and toss to coat. For a thinner sauce, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup (2 to 4 fl. oz./60 to 125 ml) of the pasta cooking water and cook until silky and emulsified.
- Transfer the pasta and sauce to a serving platter or plate and drizzle with the pesto. Sprinkle with pecorino sardo, garnish with basil leaves and serve immediately.