The earliest pasta dishes weren’t the perfectly sauced plates that are common today. Rather, they were humble, brothy soups made by resourceful home cooks who combined water and noodle scraps with dried legumes, stale bread, bits of meat, and whatever else was on hand. According to Danielle Callegari, a historian of Italian food at Dartmouth College, a family would make a batch and keep the pot warm on the stove, enhancing it with more odds and ends as the days passed. It was “a dish of convenience, unquestionably,” Callegari said.
Pasta e fagioli and pasta e ceci are two examples of these soups, but I homed in on pasta e piselli, a less familiar style that trades the beans and chickpeas for peas. Like these other pasta and legume soups, the dish has evolved over the years to be a more carefully constructed preparation, made with specific ingredients instead of leftovers. It can take different forms—some versions have lost the liquid almost entirely, others have come to include tomatoes—but most modern versions feature sweet peas and small pasta, such as ditalini or tubetti, that won’t overshadow the diminutive legumes. My favorite rendition is a little more substantial than the earliest soupy iterations, featuring a rich, savory broth bulked up with plenty of tender pasta and sweet peas.
It came as no surprise to me that the broth is a make-or-break component—too subtle and the dish will be bland, too robust and the delicate sweetness of the peas will be lost. After a couple rounds of testing, I decided to build the broth on a base of onion and pancetta. Briefly sautéing these ingredients created a flavorful foundation, but when I added 5 cups of water, I found that the resulting broth tasted flat. The fix, fortunately, was simple: I replaced half the water with chicken broth. The chicken broth boosted the sweet, mellow taste of the onion as well as the porkiness of the pancetta but was still subtle enough to let the peas shine.
Next I worked on how much pasta to stir in to give the dish the right amount of bulk. I landed on 11/2 cups of ditalini, which in 8 to 10 minutes of cooking released starches that lent ample body to the broth, developing the dish’s rich, silky texture. Meanwhile, the savory broth also flavored the pasta.
Once the pasta was al dente, it was time to add the peas. Because the season for fresh peas is fleeting—and they lose sweetness from the moment they’re harvested—using frozen peas was a much better bet. I chose petite peas, which we’ve found taste even sweeter than larger peas. Peas of any kind can overcook in a flash, becoming starchy and mushy. To make sure that they retained their firmness and vibrant color, I stirred them frozen into the hot broth and immediately took the pot off the heat. The peas heated through right away, with nary a chance of turning Army green or overcooking.
I now had a solid rendition of pasta e piselli, but I wanted to add a little more depth and brightness. First, I swapped out the more milky and savory Parmesan that usually finishes the soup for Pecorino Romano. Made with sheep’s milk, Pecorino brings a sharpness to the broth that enhances the sweetness of the peas. Then, I minced fresh parsley and mint and stirred in the herbs off the heat, giving my soup a boost of freshness. At the table, more Pecorino Romano and a drizzle of olive oil punched up the flavors even more.
Simple but satisfying and quick to throw together, pasta e piselli might just be the gold standard of one-pot cooking.