Pasta con le sarde (Pasta with sardines) – The national dish of Sicily

Pasta con le sardeMy sister Michele visited me this week in L.A. for my official IBM retirement party. We thought hard about what to cook together. We’re focused on Sicily at the moment and discussed that nothing but nothing is more Sicilian than pasta con le sarde. Fennel and sardines are so plentiful in Sicily that this dish jumps right out of nature. And when combined with the sweet and sour flavors imported by the Arabs around 900 A.D., you get that classic Sicilian flavor palette. While this dish is ubiquitous in Sicily, it is not without controversy (as is all Italian food). On the western side of the island near Palermo, it is made as written here. On the eastern portion of the island, near Messina and Taormina, it is made with tomatoes. I’m sure family fights have broken out over this simple difference.

Makes 4 servings.

Ingredients and Directions:

  • 1 pound fresh sardines, cleaned – see note 1
  • Extra virgin oil olive
  • 2 anchovies packed in olive oil, drained
  • 1 medium-to-large head of fennel, thinly sliced
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 cup raisins – plumped by soaking in hot water for 15 minutes
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • Pinch saffron
  • 1 pound bucatini pasta (or spaghetti)
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • Breadcrumbs, toasted – see note 2

Cleaned sardinesNote 1: Sardines — first off, you can use canned sardines if you can’t find fresh ones or don’t want to clean them. This would be the time to buy higher-quality sardines. Use 2 or 3 4-ounce cans instead of 1 pound fresh sardines. Drain the oil and chop as indicated.

If you use fresh sardines, cleaning them is messy but easy. Follow these steps:

  1. Cut off the heads and fins but not the tails
  2. Remove the scales (they rub off with your fingers)
  3. Slit the body down the belly, remove and discard the guts and rinse under cold water
  4. Holding the fish in your hand, belly up, run your finger down the inside of the belly to open like a book
  5. Remove the backbone with your other hand breaking it at the tail
  6. Rinse again

Note 2: Breadcrumbs, toasted – Simply toast breadcrumb in a small skillet pan over medium flame stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Remove to a bowl when browned (important to remove from skillet). Alternatively, add a little olive oil to the pan over medium heat. Add some anchovies and chopped garlic.  Stir until the anchovies dissolve. Add breadcrumbs and still until the breadcrumbs toast and become a dark golden brown.


    1. Reserve 2 whole cleaned sardines (4 filets) for garnish and rough chop the remaining sardines. If using canned sardines, skip the garnish.
    2. In a small non-stick skillet, warm one tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Fry the reserved sardines on both sides until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Separate the two sardines (if using fresh sardines) into 4 fillets for the garnish.
    3. Heat the white wine (in a small bowl in a microwave for 30 seconds works great) and add the pinch of saffron. Leave to steep for 15 minutes.
    4. In a large skillet pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the fennel until golden brown. Remove to a bowl and reserve.
    5. Add 2 more tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and add the anchovies. Stir around with a wooden spoon until the anchovies have dissolved. Add the onions to the pan and saute until translucent.
    6. Add the reserved caramelized fennel. Drain the raisins thoroughly and add as well. Also add the wine with the saffron.

Pasta con le sarde 2

  1. Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon to combine well, and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes.
  2. Cook the pasta to 1 minute less then the package directions.
  3. Drain but reserve some of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the pan with the sardine mixture.
  4. Over medium heat, slowly stir the sardine mixture and pasta with a wooden spoon for 1 minute to let the pasta absorb the sauce’s flavor. Add a little pasta water if the mixture becomes too dry.
  5. Serve the pasta in bowls and top with the breadcrumbs and a reserved sardine fillet (if using fresh sardines). You can also drizzle a little high-quality olive oil over the pasta just before serving.

Join the Conversation

  1. Paul LaBarbera says:

    Nano used to make this with the addition of breadcrumbs on top. He would fry the breadcrumbs, browning them in olive oil and added capers and some fennel leave-the delicate fine stuff from the top. I LOVED this as a child. It is hard to find in restaurants, but I did find a place a few years ago. The chef came out to see who ordered it and sat with us for a few minutes to talk about this tradition that he had kept alive. He said “not too many people order this, but the ones who know it, love it.”

    1. Wow! Thanks for the inspiring story.. I really think the crunch of the breadcrumbs add a lot to this dish. A local restaurant here in LA suggested added anchovies and garlic to them when toasting. Thanks! Joe

    2. My mouth was watering just reading the description! Thanks from the other half of Our Italian Table as well! Michele

    3. Sharon Romano says:

      My dad use to make this a lot. He always got asked for it.
      I’m sad I didn’t copy down the way he made it. He was a great cook. His folks were from Sicily. He would get cans of it and use as a base. He didn’t like fish nor would he eat it. He did like anchovy on pizza. But his pasta con sarde ( he called it pasta tea ona. Not sure of the spelling.) was soooo good.
      Thank u for ur recepe I enjoyed reading it. My son and I got together and made it from the can. Next time we will make yours.

    4. Sharon… Thanks for the comment. Let me know how it comes out!! Joe

  2. I am blessed with a great fish monger down the street. I love grilled sardines, but get frustrated by always having to light the grill (I only use charcoal…no gas grill for me!).

    I made Pasta con la Sarde from your recipe. DELICIOUS and beautiful. Two questions: 1) your recipe never says when to add the sardines. I did it when I added the onions. It worked just fine. 2) I have seen pasta and sardine recipes with a red sauce. Do you have a favorite…or is it not authentic?

    1. Joe Author says:

      Thanks for your comment. I love grilled sardines too! I put them on long metal skewers and suspend them over the fire with two bricks at either end. On this recipe, yes add the sardines with the onions. Thanks for pointing that out and I’ll update the recipe. On the red sauce, sorry but I don’t know of recipe like that. Thanks. Joe

  3. This is going to be the star of Good Friday night dinner with my Sicilian family tonight. Thanks for the inspiring recipe. We celebrate the recipes my mother used during lent when were young. I’ve never tried my hand at this one and I am looking forward to this.

    1. Joe Author says:

      Thanks for your nice comment. Please let me know how this turns out!! Joe

  4. We are so very lucky to have these memories. I wonder if it was the warmth of the kitchen, the smells and tastes or the warmth of the people that seem to come rushing back into so many of us when traditional Italian recipes are presented? Maybe it is all the same thing? The love of parents and grandparents–feeding and nurturing their families? (It’s 1:15 am and I can’t wait to get to the store for ingredients. I think it is time again to make this dish…!)

    1. Grazie for the beautiful comment – very lucky indeed to have these memories of family. Hope you got back to sleep for a bit 🙂 xo Michele

  5. Some food products may have come in 900ad with the arabs such as the fried chickpea “panelle” according to local tradition , but many oriental spices and recipes were probably already known in pre islamic and even pre christian Sicily since the autochtonous siculi, sicani, but also the incoming greeks and phoenicians lived together on the island, Palermo being founded as “Panormos” by ancient phoenicians, the latter using often raisins, pine nuts and saffron in their recipes, whether the dishes were salty or sweet.

  6. Try this for even more flavor. Blanch the fennel in the pasta water before cooking the pasta. Remove the fennel and cut to cooking size. Add some of the saffron to the pasta water while cooking the pasta.

  7. Love seeing this. It’s very close to my families oldest Sicilian recipe called pasta Pasta fonokia made with pasta con sarde sorry for spelling. We know how to say it but maybe not spell it. Ours had a red sauce w the fennel, capers, sardines/anchovies, and came in a mixture bought at local Italian market called pasta con sarde and u mixed it with your homemade red gravy. Then u toast breadcrumbs and sugar in the oven and sprinkle that on top for some sweetness and it’s to die for but haven’t been able to find anything close ever until now. It’s similar and even says con sarde so I was excited. When I was little I was turned onto it because it becomes an acquired taste but I loved the little praying hand things which I called them when I was little haha. Glad people are enjoying A derivative of something my family brought to western pa straight from Sicily.

    1. Thanks for this great comment. I read somewhere that my version is found on the west side of Sicily near Palermo and a red sauce version is found in the east near Messina. Perhaps that’s the difference. Thanks for reading our blog!! Joe

    2. Saturday ,March 19 ,I will be making pasta con sarde from the canned mixture which is chock full of fennel ,sardines raisens and add an extra can of sardines in olive oil.extra raisens and extra pignoli. Cook your own marinara sauce from crushed tomatoes and lots of garlic for 30 minutes add all the rest of ingredients and cook for at least 45 mins. more. Serve over linguini or bucatini aithtaosted breadcrumbsontop.. My entire family loves this so I make at least 3 Cans of tomatoes and 3 cans pasta con sarde. (BUY IN italianmarket). Delicious. Mmmmmm.I like to have left overs. And some friends who love it but don’t know how to make it. They had it askids.

  8. This recipe looks amazing and I’m hoping to add it to my Christmas Eve/Feast of 7 Fishes dinner. Quick question though, are smelt and sardines the same thing? Are they interchangeable?

    1. Sorry for the delay. Unfortunately these fish are not interchangeable. Sardines are very oily and smelts less to. You can buy good quality canned sardines which you can rinse. As for smelts, they are more mellow and are best deep fried. Good luck!! Joe

  9. Thank you!

  10. I’m Sicilian. Mom made this every year to honor my father, Joseph on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. After mom died, I never made it. My Romano husband didn’t like it. Now i am married to a Jewish man who loves it! Yeah!

  11. My mother in law is from Marsala… She makes it best. Traditional is key, not the recipe to try and be a creative cook/ chef. If its not broke, dont fix it

    1. Joe Author says:

      I couldn’t agree more!! Joe

  12. I love this dish also. Had it recently in Amalfi, they also use Colatura di alici to the recipe. It wonderful!! Hard to find in US and expensive but worth it.

  13. Two great islands must think alike because my Portuguese mother made a dish similar to this without pasta. She is from the Madeira Islands and my dad is Sicilian, but this recipe is from her family, I checked! Fennel and sardines are abundant in Madeira, so I see why they would have a recipe combining the two. The differences are it is made without pine nuts/raisins, but with the addition of white wine vinegar, tomatoes, and bay leaves. Thank you for posting this recipe because it sparked long conversations between both sides of my heritage. I’m going to make your version for the Seven Fishes this week!

  14. I had this in Ragusa once and absolutely adored it. Made your recipe last night and it took me right back there. Fantastic recipe! Thanks.

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