Did you know this man could cook? I'm sure most of you remember him as the belligerent ghost who tried to kick Patrick Swayze off the train in Ghost, but Schiavelli was also a gourmand and a writer who chronicled his childhood spent hanging around his Sicilian family in Brooklyn. I used to work at the company that publishes his books and one day I ran into him as he walked down the hallway to his editor's office. He was very tall and elegantly dressed, wearing a fedora. His familiar face caught me off-guard and I did a double-take before rounding the corner to the photocopying machine. I smiled to myself as I heard a familiar refrain echoing in my head, "Get off of my train!"
Schiavelli used to prepare regular dinners at the now-shuttered Alto Palato restaurant in West Hollywood. One of his pasta dishes bore a resemblance to the Sicilian classic, Pasta chi Sard (which, in Sicilian dialect, means Pasta with Sardines), but he cleverly renamed his dish Pasta chi Sardi a Mari (Pasta with Sardines Still in the Sea). I have a feeling this is the kind of dish my father would love, if he'd ever get his act together to actually buy fennel seeds or golden raisins. The LA Times adapted Schiavelli's recipe for the newspaper almost four years ago, and I finally got around to trying it last night for dinner.
This is one of those fantastic meals that looks so entirely unassuming, but manages to combine flavors in such a way that the final product is out of this world. And in just 20 minutes! For those of you who claim to hate anchovies, I swear to you (I really do!) that if you try this recipe, you won't even be able to taste them - they are a back note, a barely-there frisson of marine je-ne-sais-quoi, and completely inoffensive. The mellow garlic, herbal parsley, sweet raisins, and aromatic fennel seeds balance out the anchovies perfectly and the proportion of each ingredient in the recipe could teach recipe testers a thing or two about restraint.
You soak a few raisins in hot water, while carefully warming together oil, garlic, minced anchovies and the fennel seeds. You throw the chopped parsley into the skillet, and then bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta. Schiavelli calls for bucatini, but regular spaghetti can be substituted. While the spaghetti boils, you add the drained raisins to the fennel mixture, then add the cooked pasta and a healthy amount of cooking water. Over high heat, the water reduces, and acts as a thickener and a flavor-booster. Each strand of spaghetti is coated with a lightly flavored, green-flecked sauce, and the toasted pine nuts thrown in at the end add crunch.
If you use jarred anchovies (which are more convenient to keep around than tinned ones) and have fennel seeds and golden raisins lying around your pantry, this is the kind of dish that could become your rainy-day, late-night special. The kind of meal you throw together when there's nothing else in the house and it's too late for elaborate preparations of any kind. It's the best kind of fast food, simple and sophisticated.
Pasta Chi Sardi a Mari
Serves 4 to 6
1/4 cup golden raisins
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
4 anchovy filets, minced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
6 tablespoons minced parsley
1 pound bucatini or spaghetti
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1. Cover the raisins with hot water and let soften 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Warm the olive oil, garlic, anchovies and fennel seeds in a skillet over medium-low heat. After about 5 minutes, the anchovies will begin to melt. Add the parsley and keep the mixture warm, but do not let the garlic scorch.
3. Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water, and add the noodles to the skillet with the sauce. Drain the raisins and add to the skillet. Increase the heat to high and add the reserved pasta water. Cook, stirring the mixture together, until most of the water has evaporated and the sauce clings to the noodles, about 3 minutes. Stir in the pine nuts. Serve immediately.