The Best Pasta Topping Besides Cheese? More Pasta, But Fried.
Meat was once scarce in the southern Italian region of Puglia — but that didn’t mean that its classic dishes lacked in heartiness.
Just look at ciceri e tria. In true cucina povera fashion, the Pugliese enriched the flavor and mouthfeel of this brothy pasta dish, consisting of fresh tagliatelle and whole and mashed chickpeas, with what they had on hand: more pasta — this time, deep-fried into crispy, golden-brown ribbons called frizzuli. These fried filaments contrasted with the chewy pasta and smooth chickpea sauce so satisfyingly that the primo piatto is famous to this day.
The frizzuli are just one tasty component of this wholesome dish, which is believed to be Arab in origin. Two clues are the name and the cooking process itself (tria likely derives from itriyah, an Arabic word for pasta, while ciceri means chickpeas in Pugliese dialect). Arabs have long been known to preserve grains by drying them and frying them in animal fat — and they’re the ones who introduced dried semolina pasta to Italy by way of Sicily as early as the 1100s.
The dish is old and its flavor can best be described as ancient. The chickpeas, simmered slowly with rosemary, celery, and other aromatics, taste sun-baked and earthy, while the golden color of the frizzuli evokes the terracotta pots once used to prepare the dish (some nonne still use them today, which you can fall into a rabbit hole watching on YouTube).
Ciceri e tria is traditionally served on March 19 in celebration of Saint Joseph’s Day, when families in the Salento area of Puglia set their tables with food for the hungry. Inexpensive and widely available, the pasta and chickpeas combine to form a complete protein without any animal products — and they keep you full for hours. It’s a dish for the poor that doesn’t leave you wanting, which must be why it can now be found year-round on nearly every menu in the Salentina city of Lecce.
The chewiness of the pasta, made by hand with warm water and durum flour, is delightful. Each soft strand, whose thickness falls somewhere between tagliatelle and pappardelle depending on the cook, is like absorbent silk that swipes up the velvety chickpea sauce. Making the tria is actually one of the less time-consuming steps in this recipe, though even purists say that if you’re in a hurry, you can use storebought (preferably fresh — because you can’t successfully fry uncooked dried tagliatelle).
Each soft strand, whose thickness falls somewhere between tagliatelle and pappardelle depending on the cook, is like absorbent silk that swipes up the velvety chickpea sauce.
Starting with dried chickpeas, however, is non-negotiable. They soak for 12 hours and simmer for at least one, depending on their age. It’s a long wait, but inhaling the aroma of the beans, bubbling gently with the aromatics, is just part of the process.
Some of the ciceri are left whole to tangle with the tria, while others are blended until smooth. The amount of chickpea cooking liquid you add determines the consistency. Some people prefer their ciceri e tria to be saucy but not soupy (like a typical pasta dish), while others want a few inches of broth at the bottom of their plate. A happy medium is a loose puree; the Pugliese call this a “massa,” or thick soup.
The final touch is a handful of frizzuli, fried in garlic-scented oil and sprinkled with salt. You can add black pepper or dried chile flakes for heat, but never cheese. Chew one bite, tasting the fried pasta as it shatters among creamy ciceri and toothsome tria, and you’ll understand why.
Ciceri e Tria
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 12 inactive hours, plus 1–3 active hours
For the chickpeas
- 250 grams (½ pound) dried chickpeas
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and halved
- 1 carrot, cut into large pieces
- 1 rib celery, cut into large pieces
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 sprigs rosemary
- Salt, pepper, olive oil (and optional chile flakes), to taste
For the pasta
- 370 grams (3 cups) durum flour (Some brands might call this semolina, which is fine as long as it is “remacinata,” re-milled or finely ground)
- 185 milliliters (1½ cups) warm water, adjusted as needed
For the fried pasta
- 3 inches of neutral oil (such as sunflower or canola) in your smallest pot
- 1 garlic clove, peeled (optional)
Prepare the chickpeas
- Place chickpeas in a large container and cover them generously with cold water. Let soak at room temperature for 12 hours.
- Place chickpeas, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bay leaves, and rosemary in a large pot. Cover generously with cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Let cook until chickpeas are soft (this could take 1 to 3 hours, depending on how old the beans are).
- Drain the chickpeas when done, saving all of the cooking liquid but discarding the other ingredients.
- Place half of the chickpeas in a large pan (the one you will use later to stir the pasta and sauce together), and place the other half in a blender with salt, pepper, a generous drizzle of olive oil, and red pepper flakes (if using). Add ½ cup of the chickpea cooking liquid and blend, adjusting the amount of liquid, olive oil, and seasonings until desired thickness and flavor is achieved. (The puree should be relatively thin and viscous, but don’t worry; you can always adjust the sauce later.) Add the puree to the pan with the whole chickpeas, and set aside.
Prepare the pasta
- Pile the flour onto a clean work surface and create a well in the center. Use your fingers to mix the dough as you gradually pour the warm water into the well, working more and more flour into the center. The dough will be very shaggy and loose at first, but keep kneading. After a few minutes, the dough will form one cohesive ball. (Add a bit more water if it doesn’t.) After 10 minutes, the dough should be smooth, not sticky, and should spring back if poked with a finger. Cover the dough with plastic wrap, a bowl, or a clean towel, and let rest for 30 minutes.
- Cut the dough into 5 (preferably rectangular) pieces. Pass each piece through a pasta machine until you obtain ⅛-inch-thick sheets. (I stopped at the second-to-thinnest setting of my pasta machine.) Sprinkle the sheets with extra flour, otherwise they will stick during the next step.
- Starting from the narrow side, roll each sheet into a cylinder. Use a knife to cut each cylinder into ¾-inch pieces, unfurling each piece into a long strand of pasta. Arrange these strands into nests on a baking sheet and let rest for 30 minutes.
Prepare the fried pasta
- Heat the oil in a small pot until it reaches about 330℉. To infuse the oil with garlic flavor, you can add a clove of peeled garlic; just be sure to remove it before it burns.
- Meanwhile, take about ¼ of the fresh pasta (after it has rested for 30 minutes) and cut each strand into 2-inch-long pieces.
- Drop the pieces into the oil, one at a time, working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pot. Flip the pieces occasionally so they brown evenly. When the pasta is crispy and golden, drain on a paper towel-lined plate and sprinkle with salt immediately.
- Warm the chickpea mixture in the saucepan, adjusting seasoning and amount of cooking liquid as needed.
- Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until done, about 3 minutes. Add the pasta to the pan with the chickpeas, and stir vigorously until each strand is coated in sauce. Add chickpea cooking liquid and/or pasta water until desired texture is achieved.
- Serve immediately, topping each plate with fried pasta and additional olive oil, black pepper, and red pepper flakes, as desired.