Bucatini alla ninfea is the recipe I chose to share today, two years after I last posted on my beloved, but sadly neglected, Coochinando. Why this recipe? Because this pasta dish offers simple, uncomplicated joy. And it is a recipe that you won’t find anywhere else. It’s that special.
This fabulous pasta dish is made with three main ingredients, one of which is my absolute favourite: tomatoes! But not just any tomatoes… I’m talking about the magical San Marzano. Ever heard of them? If not, this is your chance to discover something truly amazing. San Marzano tomatoes are a typical product of Campania, grown mainly in Naples and Salerno. And they are ideal to make sauces as they have very few seeds, a compact polpa (flesh) and a thin skin, very easy to peel off.
However, the uniqueness of this dish lies in the use of another ingredient, one very rarely used in Neapolitan cooking: butter! “And the third ingredient?” I hear you cry. Onions! Loads of them!
But the tomatoes only play a tiny part in this dish, giving it a hint of acidity to counteract the sweetness of the butter and onions. What you will obtain eventually is an orange coloured sauce (given by the yellow of the butter and onion mixed the few tomatoes.)
This sauce has character and is not for the faint of heart.
So if you love onions, tomatoes rock your world and you’re not afraid of using butter – and plenty of it – then this is a dreamy dish for you. And if you share it with your partner, you won’t need to worry about your breath later in bed! 😉
Origins of Bucatini alla Ninfea
Wondering where the name comes from? From a restaurant called La Ninfea, in Lucrino, not far from Pozzuoli and it it used to be their signature dish.
My mum and dad took me and my brother to “La Ninfea” as a special treat. I have fond memories of playing on the big terrace with my brother, often spending time spotting fishes in the lake while soaking up the sun on those cold winter mornings and waiting for our food to arrive. (A welcome break for my parents!)
We were all so fond of Bucatini alla Ninfea that over the years my mum attempted to reproduce it at home. It was never quite the same as the one we had at the restaurant (it never is) but boy, it was still so very yummy.
A while back the restaurant closed down but the recipe lived on through my mum’s cooking. And now it is my turn to pass it on. If you Google “bucatini alla ninfea”, or even scrape the entire internet, you won’t find it. You could get some results for bucatini with a butter-based tomato sauce, but it is definitely not the same. This is the one and only 😀 A family recipe. Or a family treasure!
And here is my gift to you then: an easy sauce to make that will please everyone. It’s suitable for a lazy weekday evening meal, when you’re exhausted by the madness that lockdown has brought on all of us and you know that only a big bowl of pasta will fix you.
It’s equally perfect for the weekend, to prepare for a friend you have over or just as a main Sunday meal. “No roast?!” I hear you scream… Yes Sir/Madam, you heard/read well. This is an Italian blog after all and pasta will always be the queen of the table. Everything else has to fall in behind.
And because I’ve not been around for a long time and so couldn’t pester you all about the holiness of pasta, let’s just remember that pasta can never, and I shout NEVER, be a side dish. Never can it be served as an accompaniment next to broccoli for a main of chicken. Techincally you can, but perhaps best to avoid it when in the presence of any Italian. Out of kindness.
We know you mean well, but still. What about just going for greens and potatoes?! Leave our holy pasta alone, please. Pretty please. Pretty please with parmesan on top?
Anyway, it may have been two years since I last wrote, but my determination to kill bad habits is still very much alive. And so is my polemic tone!
For those who have followed this blog over the past years and still don’t know why I stopped sharing recipes, below is the reason. Our miracle baby boy, not a baby anymore, more like a very cheeky toddler.
Please meet Emanuele, our gift at the end of two years of hardcore IVF.
Enough chat (says Mariacristina the chatterbox). Ready to cook?
- 400gr bucatini or spaghetti
- 200gr white onions
- 250gr butter, chopped roughly
- 10 San Marzano tomatoes, washed, dried and chopped (if you can’t find these fresh, which are usually only available during the summer season, the ones in a tin will be fine. Just make sure you only use the tomatoes and not the juices)
- Salt, as required
- Bunch of basil leaves
- Salt for boiling water
- 50gr of grated pecorino for “mantecatura” and to sprinkle on individual portions (to taste)
- Basil leaves to decorate
Peel and chop the onions really thinly. To save time, you can chop them roughly and then reduce them to pretty much puree in a mixer.
In a large saucepan, add the butter chopped roughly, the onions and a half a teaspoon of salt. Stir. Set the heat on the lowest setting and let it simmer gently, stirring occasionally.
Semi cover the saucepan with a lid. When the onions and the butter have turned into a very soft sauce, add the chopped San Marzano tomatoes (if these are taken from a tin, it does not matter how roughly chopped they are, they will break further down during the cooking)
Stir well to incorporate the tomatoes to the butter and onion base, add a pinch of salt, a bunch of basil leaves, stir again and with the lid that only half covers the pan, let cook gently on low heat for 20 minutes. Check occasionally, stir and make sure the sauce is not getting stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Your sugo alla ninfea is ready when the sauce is compact and the wonderful smell of it makes you want to dive your face into the saucepan. Taste the sauce and see whether it needs a little extra salt. (Personal taste!)
Let the sauce rest while you start cooking the pasta.
Take 4 big tablespoons of sauce out and leave in a small bowl. Set aside. (this extra sauce will be added right at the end for the plating stage)
Cooking the pasta
In a large saucepan add plenty of boiling water. (Pasta needs plenty of water to cook properly.)
A rough guideline would be to use 1l of water per 100gr of pasta. No need to be super strict though!
Bring to the boil. Add some salt only when you reached a strong boil (how much salt depends on your taste. Start with a little and then taste the pasta while it is cooking. Add more if required).
Add the bucatini to the pan when the water is boiling, stir frequently and cook al dente (drain the pasta two minutes earlier than it is recommended for al dente.)
Because we are going to “mantecare” the pasta with the sauce afterwards, we really need to make sure the pasta is drained when it’s VERY al dente, or else it will get overcooked in the process.
To season the pasta
Before draining the pasta, take a glass of the cooking water from the pan and set aside (it’s the amid that will ensure the sauce and the pasta will mix well with each other)
Drain the pasta in a colander and then move the bucatini back to the pan. Slowly pour the ninfea sauce over, stirring and trying to coat all the bucatini.
For the “mantecatura”
Mantecare is a process that consists mainly in blending effectively the sauce to the pasta and making sure they are well combined. It’s done with the help of the pasta’s cooking water.
Set the heat on medium and gradually pour the cooking water over the bucatini. Stir well. Sprinkle about 30gr of pecorino and keep stirring until the cheese is well incoprorated to the sauce and cooking water has been absorbed. It should not take longer than 90 seconds.
Once your amazing bucatini alla ninfea are in the pasta bowls, add one table spoon of the sauce you set aside over each portion, a basil leaf or two, sprinkle some pecorino over and the magic is there, right in front of you.
Word of caution: this pasta dish is addictive!