This is my adaptation of a tomato-based sauce by Pellegrino Artusi to account for my more modern palate and cooking methods. The original appears in the 1891 “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene” (Kitchen science and the art of eating well).
It’s described as ‘magro’ which means lean/skinny, but I’m making the assumption that ‘lean’ applied to the low number of fairly cheap ingredients, meaning it was more for ‘lean days’ rather than lean as in ‘diet’ or low in fat. His original use of 70g of butter may make you question the number of calories, but that divided between the five servings he suggests really isn’t that bad. It could also mean that it was a thin sauce, but as it’s served with spaghetti (not as a brodo/broth for pasta ripiena/filled pasta) I doubt that’s the case as it needs to have some body to it.
I’ve adapted it to use the more heart-healthy olive oil amongst other tweaks. I have also included the original recipe (translated) as a comparison and which you may want to try as it is a good recipe.
You may think it odd that an older pasta sauce recipe uses butter and not olive oil, but it’s not because olive oil is now everywhere, it’s because of the variety of climate in Italy and many northern regions traditionally using butter. The terrain and climate of the north favours dairy farming and not the growth of olive trees. Artusi himself came from Emilia-Romagna, a region known globally for Parmigiano Reggiano made from cows’ milk – the same milk which is used for the region’s butter. So, Artusi grew up in a region that favoured dairy farming and the production of butter.
Personally, I like both butter and olive oil (and other oils like rapeseed), but I do have a preference for their use in certain situations. Where I can I will go for the heart-healthy olive oil, but sometimes butter is needed, or indeed lard or dripping (though I use these very rarely and normally just in pastry). Olive oils I have begun to choose selectively by their quality and taste: that is, I’m not using extra virgin only because ‘it’s the best so I just buy that’ but I’ll select a light oil for a dessert recipe, a deeply fruity oil when I need the taste to come through, a classic for ‘everyday’ cooking etc. I appreciate this sounds like a lot of money to have a variety, but actually it is cheaper in the long run. Because milder, later pressing oils are significantly less expensive I use those when I can and save the posher, more expensive oils for when the time’s right and a little will do (rather than using up the expensive stuff on frying for example).
Notes on my tweaked version
- Serves 4 with pasta (a more typical serving size than 5)
- Also useful as a sauce for fish or chicken – will serve 6-8 in this case (add in capers for fish and sage or rosemary for chicken)
- Also great as a perfect tomato sauce for pizza
- This is an easy sauce; easy but fairly time consuming. It requires time to bring out the flavours. I’ve changed the tomatoes to pre-packaged passata which has cut the time down dramatically though
- It’s a nice sauce to have simmering away while you prepare something else, perhaps making for tomorrow alongside tonight’s meal (once cool keep it in the fridge)
- Alternatively, you can freeze it – I find freezing sauces easier and more convenient in ice cube trays. Once frozen you can pop out the cubes of sauce into a freezer bag so you can re-use the ice cube tray. It also means you can select the right amount easily and cubes defrost quicker than a large block, or you can just pop one frozen cube in a plain sauce to enrich it
- Omit the anchovies to make it vegetarian/vegan
Note about ribbon pasta suggested in recipe and appropriateness
To be fair, there’s little reason for anyone who is home cooking to worry much about which pasta goes with which sauce unless you’re really interested and a) want to be authentic and b) want to learn about regionality. There is some basic guidance about which shapes work better with what, such as cupped shapes are good for chunky veg or spaghetti gets nicely covered in oily sauces (for example). Aside from that, it’s better to not worry about which pasta and just make the food, rather than worry about it so much it puts you off making the meal. Chill… use what you’ve got (penne, linguine, fettucine nests – though it won’t work with tiny shapes). And, if you do want to know, this may help:
Spaghetti is suggested by Artusi. Of course this is readily available, used throughout the whole of Italy and quick to cook. If you want to choose another ribbon shape or want to make your own instead (wider ribbons are easier to make by hand) I’ve suggested tagliatelle or trofie as close regional alternatives.
As mentioned above, the butter in the recipe (and Artusi’s homeland) suggest the recipe could have come from Emilia-Romagna and at least is a northern Italian dish. Tagliatelle is common to the same region (and also Marche, another northern area), which would link in with this assumption too and make it a reasonable choice.
Other ribbon pasta can be substituted, such as fettucine which is practically the same and you’d only know the difference if they were side-by-side or you were so familiar with either (or both of them) you’d ‘just know‘. Tagliatelle is typically a smidge wider and less likely to be found dried: northern region pasta is usually made fresh and eaten as the climate isn’t as amenable to drying, so any dried tagliatelle is a factory ‘construct’ and should properly be labeled fettucine. Fettucine is the Roman/central Italian version which also may be made and eaten fresh, but is much more likely to be the ribbon pasta found in dried nests.
Trofie are the little elongated and tapered short strand pasta shapes that are made by hand and then ridged, either with a knife or scraper or with the side of the palm to create sauce-trapping ridges. Trofie originate from Liguria, another northern Italian region. So, not Emilia-Romagna itself but the two regions share a long border, therefore trofie are a reasonably appropriate substitute if you want to make a hand-made artisan shape for this sauce.
NB although I’ve given appropriate region-based ideas for pasta shapes I have to tell you I’ve served this lovely sauce with all sorts of shapes (I really like it with orecchiette) and have included it in lasagne and on pizzas. It’s a great way to make up a tomato-glut from your garden in late summer instead of straight tomato passata or sauce. Just use enough tomatoes to equal 1 kg of passata.
Ingredients for my tweaked version of salsa magro
- Dried spaghetti or fresh pasta (suggest a ribbon or strand shape such as tagliatelle† or trofie – see above) – 400g
- Passata – 2 X 500g bottles
- Chestnut or button mushrooms – 80g
- Olive oil, extra virgin or gusto fruttato – 140ml
- Olive oil, mild and light – 2 tablespoons
- Pine nuts – 60g
- Anchovies 4 to 6, depending on how much you like anchovies
- Two shallots, finely diced or one small red onion
- Red wine vinegar – 1 1/2 tablespoons
- Corn flour – 1 teaspoon
- Salt and pepper
- Pinch of sugar
- Parmesan rind, chopped
- Fresh basil and thyme
- First toast the pine nuts in a dry pan over a low heat until they start to go a golden brown (careful they don’t burn as they change colour quickly)
- Crush the pine nuts with a pinch of salt and the teaspoon of cornflour in a pestle and mortar or use a blender
- Gently fry the chopped shallots in the mild and light olive over a medium heat until they are just about to start going translucent – this will be about 10 minutes. Agitate or stir occasionally
- Dice up the anchovies and add them to the shallots and keep frying until the anchovies start to melt. Again, you’ll need to stir or agitate from time to time
- Now add in the tomatoes, the parmesan rind, the mushrooms, the fruity olive oil and season with salt and pepper and the large pinch of sugar
- Let simmer until the juice starts to dry off, stirring occasionally, and then add 120 ml of just boiled water
- Leave to simmer for 30 minutes, checking on it regularly to ensure it’s not catching on the bottom. If it’s drying out too quickly add a little more water
- You should know when it’s done when all the tomatoes have fully dissolved and the sauce is as thick as (lumpy) custard
- Add in the chopped herbs and taste, adjusting the seasoning to your taste
- Can be served immediately with pasta or gnocchi or it’s also nice to use as a sauce over chicken or fish (add a few capers or cornichons with the anchovies) or even for a vegetable bake or lasagna. Store in the fridge if not using immediately or freeze (see notes above)
Pellegrino Artusi’s original recipe – serves 5 (apologies for my translation – I’m a rusty reader but enough for most recipes, I can listen a little into conversations, but I’m appalling at speaking Italian myself)
- Spaghetti – 500g
- Mushrooms – 100g
- Butter 70g
- Pine nuts – 60g
- Anchovies – 6
- Tomatoes – 6 or 7 (large plum tomatoes)
- Onion, finely diced – a 1/4 of a large onion
- Plain flour – 1 teaspoon
Place half of the butter in a saucepan and sauté the pine nuts. Remove the nuts [once lightly browned with a slotted spoon to reserve the butter], dry and crush them with a pestle and mortar with the teaspoon of flour. Finely chop the onion and place this in the saucepan, when this is frying rapidly, add the chopped tomatoes, season with pepper and a little salt. When the tomatoes are cooked through, pass them through a mouli or sieve. Put this sauce back on the heat with the mushrooms and a little water, plus the rest of the butter. Boil for 30 minutes, adding water to keep the sauce liquid. Finally, melt the anchovies in the sauce [at a simmer]. Cook the spaghetti and dress with the sauce. Add parmesan if you want it richer.