Sardine Pasta inspired by Sicilian Pasta con le Sarde is an aromatic, lemony tangle of pasta, fennel, walnuts, and the star of the recipe, sparkling silver sardines! Shall we?
- What is Pasta con le Sarde
- Sicilian-Inspired Sardine Pasta with a California Vibe
- What Ingredients You Need for Sicilian Sardine Pasta
- What Kind of Sardines are Best for Pasta
- Instructions for How to Make Sicilian Sardine Pasta
- Pro Tips and Techniques for Sicilian Sardine Pasta
- What to Serve with Sicilian Sardine Pasta
- FAQs About Sardine Pasta
- Sicilian Sardine Pasta Recipe
- Wine Pairing for Sicilian Sardine Pasta
What is Pasta con le Sarde
The original Pasta con le Sarde is a traditional Italian dish, though reading through the ingredients, you wouldn't think so. Pasta? Of course. Fennel? Naturally. Sardines? Less common, but isn't that the case for tiny silvery fish in every cultural cuisine? The questions and answers are less obvious for the inclusion of raisins and saffron, which aren't normally associated with Italy. However, like many classic Italian and Italian-American dishes that have fun, though somewhat fuzzy histories, Pasta con le Sarde has its own unique origin story. Most likely, the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern fusion dish is a product of Islamic rule in Sicily during the 9th and 10th centuries.
This Sardine Pasta recipe is based on the original Pasta con le Sarde, with some minor modifications, mostly for ingredient availability. We're swapping out pine nuts for walnuts, and omitting the raisins and saffron (expensive!) completely.
Sicilian-Inspired Sardine Pasta with a California Vibe
If there's any place outside Sicily that could produce a Sardine Pasta in the same spirit as the original, it's California, which has both the Mediterranean climate on its coast that's brimming with fresh seafood, and the warm-climate agriculture grown in the central valleys that are similar to the ingredients of Middle Eastern origin in the recipe. This recipe uses these California-grown and sourced ingredients:
- Walnuts, which are my California substitute for pine nuts in the traditional recipe
- Olive Oil, made from olives, which grow almost exclusively in the San Joaquin Valley
- Fennel, a vegetable of Mediterranean origin that grows so well in the California climate, you can find it wild (I have!)
- Garlic, of course!
- Sardines are found off the coast of California, but whole fresh sardines are not as accessible beyond areas where they are caught, so we are using canned.
What Ingredients You Need for Sicilian Sardine Pasta
- ½ cup panko bread crumbs
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds or ½ teaspoon ground fennel seed
- 1 pound spaghetti
- sea salt
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium white or yellow onion
- 1 fennel bulb
- 4 garlic cloves
- 4 anchovy fillets
- 2 cans of sardines
- ½ cup walnuts
What Kind of Sardines are Best for Pasta
High-quality tinned sardines are perfect for this recipe. That means sardines that are packed in metal cans or glass jars.
With Sicily an island in the Mediterranean Sea, traditional recipes for Pasta con le Sarde naturally call for whole fresh sardines. California, too, is bordered by ocean, and has access to fresh sardines, perhaps made famous by the Monterey sardine canneries in the early 20th century and the John Steinbeck novel about them. However, fresh sardines are not always available, even to those of us who live near the ocean.
I've found fresh sardines a few times a year in the Los Angeles area in the following place:
- Quality Seafood, the fresh fish market at the Redondo Beach Pier
- Santa Monica Seafood retail market in Santa Monica or Costa Mesa
- seafood counter in Italian marketplace Eataly in Century City
Best White Wine for Cooking
Any dry white wine that tastes great to you in the glass will taste good in the dish. In keeping with the California and Italian theme, I pick a California Sauvignon Blanc with citrus notes.
For Wine Pairings to drink with the finished dish at the table, see the section below!
Best Olive Oil for Cooking
Olive Oil. Enzo Olive Oil is a family-owned and operated olive oil producer based out of California's San Joaquin Valley.
Additional Ingredients for Sicilian-Style Sardine Pasta
Panko Breadcrumbs are Japanese-style breadcrumbs that are lighter and airier. They create a crisper texture in this recipe. You can find panko breadcrumbs in most regular grocery stores in the same aisle where regular Italian breadcrumbs are. This is a familiar Japanese brand, and this is an organic brand.
Spaghetti. Use whatever long strand pasta is available to you. The only one I would not use is capellini, or Angel Hair pasta, which is too thin and wispy to stand up to the robust flavors and texture of the sardines and sauce.
Salt. I use Kosher salt for cooking.
Garlic. Use any form of garlic, but I like slicing garlic cloves super thin so they "melt" into the sauce. If you use a razor and know that reference, well, we should have dinner some time.
Anchovies. I use this jar of anchovies for everything. If you are sensitive to anchovies, leave the anchovies out of the recipe, but the main ingredient is sardines. So.
Walnuts. I buy raw walnut halves in bulk, and pan-roast and salt them as needed.
All other fresh herbs and produce like onions and fennel from either the Santa Monica Farmers' Market on Wednesday, or Whole Foods Market when I can't find what I need at the farmers' market.
Instructions for How to Make Sicilian Sardine Pasta
1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in large sauté pan over medium heat. Add panko breadcrumbs and crushed fennel seeds. Toss until everything is combined, coated with olive oil, and breadcrumbs are deep golden brown. Set aside breadcrumbs.
2. Cook pasta in a very large pot of generously salted water according to package directions. Before draining pasta, reserve 1 cup of cooking water.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in same sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions, fresh fennel, garlic and sauté until translucent and garlic is fragrant, about five minutes. Do not let the garlic get dark.
4. Add anchovies and stir until they dissolve into the onion, fennel and garlic mixture. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the wine is reduced by half, about 3 minutes.
5. Add the sardines and walnuts to the sauté pan. Stir, using wooden spoon to gently break up the sardines.
6. Add the cooked pasta and 2 tablespoons of pasta cooking water to the pan and toss to coat the pasta with the sardines. Add more water 1 tablespoon at a time to emulsify the sauce if needed.
7. Once the pasta is completely coated with the sauce, add lemon zest and half the breadcrumbs and toss again until evenly distributed.
8. Transfer pasta to serving platter or individual dishes. Garnish with chopped fennel fronds and reserved breadcrumbs.
Pro-tip: Use a white wine for the recipe that you can also sip while cooking, and pair with the final dish. Wine suggestions below!
Substitutions and Variations
This sardine pasta version is already a bit of a departure from the more traditional "Pasta con la Sarde" renditions made with pine nuts and saffron, so can vary it "backwards" by going back to those original ingredients! Here are some suggested substitutions:
- Other Shapes of Pasta Instead of Spaghetti. Yes! Use any substantial long strand pasta like spaghetti or linguine. Most recipes for Pasta con le Sarde call for bucatini, a spaghetti-like pasta that has a hole down the middle like a long skinny tube. If you can find bucatini, use it. The only pasta I would caution against is capellini or angel hair pasta, which is a little too wispy for the strong ingredients in this recipe.
- Fresh Sardines vs Canned. To make this recipe with fresh sardines buy 2 whole sardines per serving, then prep (remove scales, head, tail, fins, etc), and add to sauté pan immediately after deglazing with wine, along with the wine and let simmer in the wine until just cooked through. Fresh sardines are small so they will cook very quickly, in about 5 minutes. Proceed with the recipe from Step 6 as published.
- Other tinned fish. Use this recipe as a template, and once you have mastered it, swap out various ingredients for equivalents, in this case, in this case a good oil-packed tuna would be great.
- Other nuts. The classic recipe uses pine nuts aka "pignoli" in Italian, so if those are accessible to you, use the same amount. Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan over medium heat for about three minutes until light golden brown spots appear. You can also substitute chopped pistachios, which have a soft texture, and go well with the flavor of the raisins. This recipe for Sicilian-style cauliflower has pistachios rather than pine nuts.
- Make it Spicy. If you haven't already added crushed red pepper, Calabrian chilis, or some other form of heat to the dish because that's what you do instinctively, then try it! Add a tablespoon of chilis to the sauté pan in the initial step with the other aromatics.
Pro Tips and Techniques for Sicilian Sardine Pasta
- On serving sizes: Allotting 4-6 oz of fish for a single serving when a piece of fish is the main dish is a good estimate. Because this recipe is hearty with pasta, estimate 3 ounces of sardines per serving, or about one can of sardines. Sardine tins range in size from 3 ounces to 4.5 ounces.
- Advance Cooking. You can make the Sardine sauce in advance. It will keep in the refrigerator in a sealed container for one day. However, the recipe comes together fairly quickly, so there's no need to do anything too far in advance.
- Parmesan. No. Do not put cheese of any kind on this pasta. I will disown you. Cheese and fish do not belong together. Not only is the main ingredient sardines, there are anchovies in the sauce. No parmesan.
Tools and Equipment
As I always say, you don't need any special equipment to make Sardine Pasta. However, that doesn't mean there are a couple of gadgets and tools that might make Sicilian Sardine Pasta a little easier to get from pantry to plate.
- Wine Glasses. These are the most versatile every day wine glasses for light white wines
- Wine key. I have some version of this double-hinge wine key in every room of the house except the bathrooms, but don't underestimate me; I will put a wine key in the bathrooms if I have to
- Butter Warmer. Tiny 2-cup capacity sauce pot to heat wine and plump raisins
- Large Sauté Pan for the vegetables and the final pasta
- Large Pot to boil the pasta
- Colander to drain the pasta
- Large Cutting Board. A large size cutting board is stable, sturdy, and has enough surface area to prep multiple vegetables
- all-purpose 7-inch chef's knife (expensive but worth it!)
- oval platter with high sides to serve finished pasta
- brass servers for pasta
Advance Prep, Leftovers and Storage
No Need to Advance Prep. This recipe comes together so quickly, there really is no advance prep to this recipe, other than perhaps chopping/slicing the garlic, onions and fennel.
Leftovers in Fridge. Store leftover Sicilian Sardine Pasta in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for one day. If you store the sardine sauce separate from cooked pasta, you can store for three days.
Freezing. These ingredients do not stand up well to freezing, so make as much as you can eat in two sittings.
What to Serve with Sicilian Sardine Pasta
A generous bowl of Sicilian Sardine Pasta is an entire meal imho, but if you like to have something fresh and green alongside, try these recipes for salads and vegetable side dishes:
- Sicilian-style Cauliflower Steaks with a similar flavor profile of Golden Raisins and Pistachios
- Tri-Colore Salad with Anchovy Vinaigrette, staying right in the ocean theme
- Charred Broccoli, or steamed if you want to keep all your cooking on the stovetop
- Crispy Shaved Brussels Sprouts with Pomegranate and Walnuts
Sicilian Sardine Pasta is also a perfect two-fish dish to add to a traditional Italian-American Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner menu during the Holidays.
Health Benefits and Dietary Considerations of Sicilian Sardine Pasta
The big health bangs in this Sardine Pasta recipe come from the sardines and anchovies for protein and omega-3s and the walnuts for plant-based protein, fiber, and heart-healthy plant-based fats. If you use a whole grain pasta, you will also get an additional bump of fiber.
Just as a general note on health benefits, using canned fish as a protein source, especially smaller species like anchovies and sardines, over other sources of animal protein contributes to the health of our planet.
FAQs About Sardine Pasta
A: Traditionally, Pasta con le Sarde is made with fresh sardines. Though fresh sardines are technically available year-round off the coast of California, they are not always easily accessible. Canned sardines are a solid substitute, though they make break up a little more in the pan when cooking and tossing with pasta.
A: Yes, you can make certain parts of the pasta in advance and assemble just before serving. Make the breadcrumbs and the sardine sauce in advance and store in the refrigerator up to a day in advance. Before serving, cook the pasta, then toss with gently-reheated sauce and breadcrumbs. It won't be an exact equivalent, but close enough!
More Mediterranean Fish and Seafood Recipes
- Salmon Piccata
- Salmon Puttanesca
- Salmon with Olive Salsa Verde
- Baked Salmon with Citrus
- Classic Cioppino, Italian American seafood stew
Sicilian Sardine Pasta Recipe
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup panko bread crumbs
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed or ½ teaspoon ground fennel seed
- 1 pound spaghetti
- sea salt
- 1 medium white or yellow onion paper thin slices lengthwise
- 1 fennel bulb white bulb thinly sliced cross-wise, green fronds chopped
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 4 anchovy fillets
- 2 3-4 ounce cans canned sardines
- ½ cup walnuts lightly chopped
- zest from half a lemon
- optional: squeeze of fresh lemon juice at serving
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in large sauté pan over medium heat. Add panko breadcrumbs and crushed fennel seeds. Toss until everything is combined, coated with olive oil, and breadcrumbs are deep golden brown. Set aside breadcrumbs.
- Cook pasta in a very large pot of generously salted water according to package directions. Before draining pasta, reserve 1 cup of cooking water.
- Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in same sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions, fennel, garlic and sauté until translucent and garlic is fragrant, about five minutes. Do not let the garlic get dark.
- Add anchovies and stir until they dissolve into the onion, fennel and garlic mixture.
- Add the sardines and walnuts to the sauté pan. Stir, using wooden spoon to gently break up the sardines. Add the cooked pasta and 2 tablespoons of pasta cooking water to the pan and toss to coat the pasta with the sardines. Add more water 1 tablespoon at a time to emulsify the sauce if needed.
- Once the pasta is completely coated with the sauce, add lemon zest and half the breadcrumbs and toss again until evenly distributed.
- Transfer pasta to serving platter or individual dishes. Garnish with chopped fennel fronds and reserved breadcrumbs.
Wine Pairing for Sicilian Sardine Pasta
You have a couple of directions you can follow for wine pairing with Sicilian Sardine Pasta. You can take the lead of the sardines and anchovies with their savory ocean umami, or go down the path of one of the other highly distinctive flavors in the pasta like naturally sweet raisins, crunchy walnuts, or bright, herbal fennel.
Fish almost always calls for a high-acid white wine, but sardines are oily and rich so it can handle a light- to medium-bodied red. My favorite Italian red grape, Sangiovese, which is used in familiar Chianti and Rosso di Montalcino, is a great example of a medium-bodied red wine that works well with food. And certain, lighter, fruitier wines made from sangiovese are perfect with spicy saucy tomato-based dishes like a Puttanesca. I love this Rosso di Montalcino, shockingly affordable.
For something a little more fun, this wine is made from California-grown sangiovese, and fermented as whole clusters in a process called carbonic maceration so the wine has a slight natural fizz.
For more tips on pairing wine with food, check out this post about wines from Paso Robles, California, this post about wines from Santa Barbara, California, and this post about specifically pairing fish with wines from Monterey, California.