Would you take on Sophia Loren?

…On the proper recipe for Pasta Fagioli no less? Well, Deana Martin did exactly that!

While interviewing Ms Martin for the Holiday Chat with Deana Martin article, we had a sidebar discussion about learning to cook her dad’s favorite dish — Grandma Angela’s Pasta Fagioli — and a little “cultural exchange” she had with Sophia Loren.

Standing toe-to-toe…

…Deana and Italian cultural icon Sophia (“everything you see I owe to spaghetti”) Loren jousted over the proper ingredients for the classic Italian dish. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that exchange!

Well, the next best thing is Deana’s side of the story below. Check it out … as well as Angela’s recipe and my review of the dish below.

The Pasta Fagioli story…

Steve: So I have a little a food blog — DiningwithTheRatPack.com — nestled into my regular music vocal standards website. I noticed in your book [Memories Are Made of This] that your dad had a favorite recipe from his mom?

Deana: Yes, pasta fagioli. I’m the only one that she taught how to make it, so it was my special bond with my dad. It is wonderful. Have you made it yet?

Steve: No, I haven’t. I just started your book late in the week, but I did see the recipe and it looks pretty straightforward; I’m going to give it a go right after Thanksgiving.

Deana: Do, and make sure you get nice fresh Romano cheese and definitely make it with the tubettini pasta … I think it’s probably the best because it has to be about the same size as the cannellini beans. It’s yummy. Don’t put in too much cinnamon, that’s our secret spice.

Steve: I was really surprised by that! I have a friend of about 40 years that told me cinnamon was his mother’s secret ingredient for her spaghetti sauce, which everybody loved when we were growing up. I was going, “You have to be kidding me, cinnamon, that’s crazy”. Then then I saw your recipe and I thought, “Ok, I’m in!”

Deana: Yeah, it’s quite something. When I made it for my dad the first time, I’ll never ever forget that. His eyes lit up. He said, “Is this what I think it is?” It’s a great story in the book [Memories are Made of This]. I made it for him for years … for years and years. In fact, now I think I’m going to make that next week when I get back! It’s so good.

Deana: I have to tell you a funny little aside. I was talking with Sophia Loren, she’s a wonderful cook, and we were talking about pasta fagioli. I said, “What color beans do you use?” She said, “Red.” I said, “No, you can’t use red beans!” She said, “Yes, you have to use red.” I said, “No, you have to use the white cannellini beans. You can’t use red beans.” She said, “Then, I put in garlic.” I said, “You can’t put garlic in the thing!”

We had this huge fight and my husband is sitting there looking on and he said, “This is Sophia Loren and my wife, and they’re arguing about red beans and garlic or white beans and no garlic.” And then the last straw is when I said, “You do not put tomatoes in it?” She says, “Yes, I put tomatoes in it,” … it was one of the funniest arguments! It wasn’t really an argument; but it was an exchange and my husband was looking back and forth between me and Sophia … He said, “I think I’m in heaven … but maybe not!”

Angela Crocetti and her famous son!

Steve: It’s heaven now, but at the time…

Deana: Exactly. It was all in fun though … Finally, I said, “This is my dad’s favorite recipe, so that’s the way I’m going to make it.”

Steve: That’s the way it is with food, and the way it can be with music sometimes too. The renditions that you heard when you’re growing up, and the food that you ate at home is the way it is … the way it should be!

Deana: Oh, yes, because in my mind there’s a right way and then there’s a wrong way. It was funny … But I’m sure that I would love Sophia Loren’s pasta fagioli too.

I know I’d give Sophia’s pasta fagioli a try!

But that said, I’ve made Grandma Angela’s version a couple of times now; once per the recipe … and risking the ire of the clearly protective Ms. Martin,  once with a couple of tweaks! (see recipe notes)

I find the elegant simplicity of the dish enchanting. There are very few ingredients, and on the surface it looks almost too simple. But these few ingredients are somehow marshaled by the wild use of Angela’s secret ingredient — cinnamon — to render a wonderfully creamy, Italian comfort food classic.

Speaking of the creamy texture of this soup, Angela doesn’t blend a portion of the beans to get the creaminess. The unusually long low simmer breaks down just the right amount of beans to get most of the way to that perfect unctuous consistency; and then her expedient of cooking of the pasta right in the soup brings the pasta starch into play and gets you the rest of the way.

I usually cook pasta separately for use in a soup or stew to AVOID the over starching of the final dish. In this case it works great — achieving the creamy texture I suspect Angela was after. (If your persuasion falls more on the soupy side, just add some water to suit your needs after the pasta has cooked).

Grandma Angela's Pasta Fagioli
Dean Martin's favorite dish
  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 15 oz cans of canalini beans
  • 1 medium onion (diced)
  • ¼ teaspoon (scant) ground cinnamon (Angela's secret ingredient)
  • 6 cups water
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 cup of tubettini or ditalini (or small elbow pasta)
  • Parmigiano (or Romano) cheese
  1. In a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil and saute the onion until translucent; add the beans (with the juices from the can), the water, cinnamon* and salt and pepper, stir and bring to a boil on med-high heat. Let it boil (moderate - NOT a rolling boil) for 15 minutes.
  2. Drop the heat, cover and let simmer (very low bubble) for 90 minutes.
  3. Add pasta and continue simmering for 15 minutes until the pasta is done and the starch from the pasta has done it's thing. You may or may not want to add some water depending on your soupiness preference. Stir in a TB or two of Parmigiano and adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Serve in bowls and dust with a bit more Parmigiano cheese. Add some hot crusty bread and a bottle of red wine.
* I eventually found it easier to get the cinnamon integrated into the liquid by stirring it into the sautéed onions for just a few seconds BEFORE adding the beans and water. Adding the fine power after the water had me chasing it all over the surface with a whisk to get it into the liquid … over 90 minutes of cooking I'm guessing it wouldn't be an issue either way.

SCOX - bracing for a possible scolding from Deana, I exercised a couple of "options" on Angela's dish the second time through: I added some pancetta (~ 4-5 thin slices, chopped; added just before the onions) ... it was very nice and brought some rich unctuousness without fundamentally changing the flavor profile. I also added just a few red pepper flakes into the onion sauté and threw a ~4" reggiano rind into the pot during the long slow simmer … the end result for this batch was fantastic. I liked the depth/resonance of the added pancetta and reggiano rind, and the hint of edge (it was NOT hot) from the red pepper.

More aggressive "Sophia class" options? … any combo of garlic, more red pepper flakes, dried oregano, fresh rosemary, can of raster tomatoes … try any or all and make this dish your own; but make it the authentic "Dean & Deana way" first!


  • Jane Marie Ritter Watkins

    thank you for sharing this recipe

    • vs_guy

      You bet Jane Marie; I hope you enjoy it!

      • Jane Marie Ritter Watkins

        If you have a great meatball recipe and would like to share with me,  I would enjoy making it.
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