Ok, when you grow up in Queens, NY, you hear accents that you may not hear everywhere, which, I guess is true of any regional accents. You know the herb basil, you hear BAY-sil instead of BAH-sil, you get the idea. Well, who knew that the name of one of my favorite Italian dishes would open up a whole world of regional dialect discussion?
The dish in question was always known in our house as Pasta Fazool. Essentially, it’s a nice mix of garbanzo beans (chick peas) or cannelini beans, garlic, and pasta. Being quick, inexpensive, and easy to make, it was a family pleaser that appeared often on Gran Fran’s table.
The first time I realized there was some sort of issue with the name, was in my Italian language class in 11th grade. I was sitting there when Signora asked me what the word “Fagioli” meant. Immediately, I answered “Beans”, having studied the vocabulary list the night earlier. Good work, I was told, and class ended.
That night, we had Pasta Fazool for dinner. I told Gran Fran about Italian class, and she said, “Oh yes, that’s what we’re eating.” Huh? “The word I learned in school was Fagioli,” I said, somewhat bewildered. “Right,” she said, “Fazool.” Okay, now it was becoming an Abbott and Costello routine and I was waiting for my Dad to chime in with “What’s on second!” As the meal progressed and I became more befuddled, Gran Fran finally got to the root of the issue, which was really the root of the dialect, I should say.
Gran Fran’s family emigrated from the region of Campania, from towns near Naples, in Italy in the early 1900’s. They brought along with them a Neapolitan dialect, which was then mixed with Brooklyn English. Hence, words like fagioli became “fazool.” Making the soft “gio” sound into a harder “double z” sound. For some words, they left the end off completely: mozzarella became “mozzarel”; ricotta, “ricot.” Who would have thought that high school Italian would shed light on this, and shatter a family-wide identifier for a much-loved dish?
The years have gone by now, and we all still call it Pasta Fazool, when we’re together, but have given in to calling it Pasta Fagioli if in public, so as to be better understood. I know Gran Fran’s shoulders are raised and she is slightly abashed at my admitting the above, but someone had to tell her.
Pasta Fazool (or Fagioli)
(You can use fresh beans for this recipe, but allow an extra 24 hours for soaking and rinsing. If using canned beans, look for ones with little or lower sodium.)
You will need 1 heavy non-reactive skillet and 1 pasta or stock pot with a lid
• 1 pound pasta (elbows, ditali, or any small pasta)
• 2 carrots diced
• 2 stalks celery diced
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 can beans (cannelini, chick peas, or kidney)
• ½ cup olive oil
• generous sprinkle of dried rosemary
• 1 bay leaf
• salt and freshly ground pepper
• Bring five quarts of well-salted water to a boil in a covered pot.
• Heat olive oil in a wide, shallow non-reactive skillet. When oil is hot, add carrots, garlic, celery, salt pepper, and spices. Sauté over medium heat until all ingredients turn golden.
• Toss the pasta into the rapidly boiling water and stir. Do not cover.
• Drain beans in a colander (use the same one to drain the pasta) and rinse under cold, running water. Shake colander to remove excess water from beans.
• Gently fold beans into carrot/celery sauce. Cook over medium heat until beans are heated through.
• Test pasta for doneness. Add 1/4 cup pasta water to bean mixture. Drain pasta and fold into the bean mixture. Cook about 4 or 5 minutes over medium heat, shaking the pan until all ingredients are distributed. Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as a side.
The Pasta Fazool can be served warm or cold. It’s great with salad, and also with broccoli rabe on the side.