Postcards from Italy

Five Italian Pantry Recipes for a Kitchen in Lockdown

Now that trips to the grocery store are being kept at a minimum, cooking with what you happen to have on hand to stretch your pantry power is very much in vogue. Luckily for lovers of Italian cuisine, Italy’s home cooks are experts in conjuring delicious meals with bare bones basics, so you can tuck into some of the country’s most classic dishes without the need for exotic (or even fresh) ingredients.

Anchovy Pasta(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Much of Italy’s traditional regional cooking has its roots in “cucina povera”, a type of rustic, rural cuisine based on simple ingredients and strongly tied to the seasons. In the past, during the long months of winter, Italian families relied on salted, canned, and otherwise preserved ingredients to make it through to spring, and still today some of the country’s most beloved crowdpleasers are made with canned tomatoes, salted anchovies, root vegetables, and other pantry staples. Also, many of these recipes are forgiving with proportions and substitutions, knowing that sometimes farm wives in February might have had to scrounge a bit.

If you find yourself standing in front of a bare cupboard and wondering what to make for dinner, here are five dishes that use just a handful of basic ingredients to create a deliciously satisfying meal.

Spaghetti con la Mollica (Pasta ca Muddica)

This classic Sicilian dish is made by tossing al dente spaghetti with breadcrumbs toasted in olive oil, garlic, and anchovies...a surprisingly sublime way to serve pasta that also costs just pennies a portion.

Pasta con la mollica(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

What you’ll need for four portions (see below of substitutions)

  • 1 lb spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 pinch crushed red pepper
  • 4 salted anchovies
  • 4 tablespoons dried bread crumbs

Put a large pan of salted water (Italians say “put enough salt in the water to make it taste like the sea”, so don’t skimp) on to boil for the pasta.

Rinse and debone the anchovies. Heat about half the olive oil in a skillet and add the minced garlic, red pepper, and breadcrumbs, tossing to coat them in the olive oil and toasting the mixture until the crumbs and garlic are a light golden color. Remove the breadcrumbs and set aside in a bowl. In the same skillet, heat the rest of the oil and add the anchovies, cooking until the anchovies break down.

Boil the pasta until al dente (don’t over cook it). Drain and add to the skillet of anchovies, tossing to coat. Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over the pasta, tossing to coat. Serve hot.

Substitutions and other notes:
  • Spaghetti works best, but you can also use bucatini, linguine, or any long dried pasta. Don’t use egg noodles, as they will overcook when tossed with the toasted breadcrumbs.
  • Sure, you want to use the good extra-virgin olive oil always, but if you only have some generic oil sitting in the pantry, it will be fine.
  • Don’t like or have garlic? Skip it.
  • Don’t like or have anchovies? Skip them (but you should use either garlic or anchovies and not cut them both out, otherwise, the breadcrumbs come out bland; if you do skip the anchovies, be sure to add salt to the breadcrumbs)
  • You can also add grated lemon zest, parsley, and salt and pepper the the breadcrumbs.
  • If you are baking your own bread, run the heels of each loaf or any final slices that start going stale through the food processor to make fine crumbs, and store them in a sealed bag in the freezer so you always have breadcrumbs on hand.


Now is the perfect time to perfect your gnocchi game, trying out different recipes to prepare Italy’s iconic potato dumplings and serving them with your choice of sauces.

Gnocchi(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

What you’ll need for four portions (see below of substitutions)

  • 2 lbs potatoes (about 4 medium)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg

Bake or boil the potatoes in their skins until tender. Let them cool enough to handle, then peel and put through a fine ricer. Leave to cool to room temperature in a bowl.

Lightly flour a work surface. In a bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups of the flour with the salt and make a mound in the center of your work surface, forming a well in the middle. Mix the egg with the riced potatoes and then dump the mixture into the center of the flour. Begin gradually mixing the flour into the riced potatoes with your hands, starting to knead it as all the flour is mixed in. If the dough is still too sticky to shape once all the flour incorporated, add a bit more flour until the dough is soft and smooth and just dry enough to work with (it will still be a bit sticky). Try not to over-knead or your gnocchi will be tough. Form the dough into a large ball and cover with a kitchen towel.

Gradually break off balls slightly smaller than your fist, and roll into long ropes. Cut off 3/4-inch pieces to form small gnocchi-sized squares (you can lightly roll them along the tines of a fork to score each one, or leave them smooth) and place in a single layer on a large, floured baking pan. Once you have formed all the gnocchi, lightly dust the tops with more flour and leave to rest.

Heat a large pot of salted water over a high flame. Once the water is boiling, toss in about half the gnocchi and let cook for 2-3 minutes (once the gnocchi begin to float, they are ready). Take them out with a colander or slotted spoon, and toss in the second half of the gnocchi to cook. Drain and serve with the sauce of your choice.

Substitutions and other notes:
  • Yukon Gold potatoes are best, but russet potatoes also work.
  • All-purpose white flour is fine, but if you don’t have enough, you can add a bit of cake flour.
  • Gnocchi do well with a variety of sauces, from classic tomato to rich béchamel based sauces. If you don’t have much on hand, toss your gnocchi in a simple browned butter and sage dressing. (No fresh sage? Rubbed sage works fine in a pinch, but go with light hand as it’s much more potent than fresh.)

Pollo alla Cacciatora

If you’ve unearthed a package of chicken parts from the back of the freezer, chicken cacciatore is a great way to make any old bird tender and flavorful.

Pollo alla Cacciatora(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

What you’ll need for four portions (see below of substitutions)

  • 1 whole chicken cut into parts, or four thighs and drumsticks
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (more if needed )
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 small red or yellow bell peppers, diced
  • 1/2 cup pitted black olives
  • fresh or dried thyme
  • fresh or dried oregano
  • 3/4 cup red wine
  • 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 7 oz Roma tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Season the chicken with salt and pepper, and heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet. Sauté the onion until transparent, then add the garlic and sauté one additional minute. Add the peppers and herbs (to taste); sauté for 5 minutes until peppers begin to soften.

Pollo alla Cacciatora(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Move vegetables to the side and add the chicken pieces to the skillet, searing on both sides until golden (stir the vegetables around in the pan so they don't stick while the chicken sears). Add the wine and simmer until reduced (about 5 minutes).
Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, Roma tomatoes, and red pepper flakes. Stir and cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to low and simmer for 30-40 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Add the olives and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Substitutions and other notes:
  • If you have fresh mushrooms, you can also add a handful of them sliced. If you don’t have bell peppers or olives on hand, you can simply simmer the chicken in a tangy tomato sauce.
  • White wine or red wine both work for this recipe.
  • If you are missing some canned tomatoes, make up the difference with tomato purée.

Pasta e Fagioli

One of the most traditional Italian dishes, this cross between pasta and soup is the epitome of comfort food and a great way to use up dried or canned beans you’ve had on the shelf and random leftover pasta shapes.

Pasta Fagioli variant with mussels(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

What you’ll need for four portions (see below of substitutions)

  • 3 15 oz cans beans, or 4 to 5 cups cooked beans
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 slices pancetta or bacon, diced
  • 2 tsp fresh rosemary, or 1 tsp dried
  • 6 cups broth
  • 1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
  • 1 3/4 cups pasta
  • 1 tsp salt
  • crushed red pepper flakes
  • parmesan cheese

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil and sauté the onion and pancetta together until the onion is golden, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and rosemary and saute a few additional minutes. Add broth, beans, crushed tomatoes, salt, and red pepper flakes and bring to simmer. Simmer for about 15 minutes, then use a slotted spoon to remove about 2 cups of the beans. Set aside and puree the remaining soup with an immersion blender directly in the pot until smooth.

Add the reserved beans and the pasta, boiling until the pasta is al dente (be sure to stir occasionally to prevent the pasta from sticking to the bottom of the pot).

Once the pasta is cooked, remove from heat and adjust the salt. Serve topped parmesan cheese.

Substitutions and other notes:
  • Cannellini beans are best, but you can also use borlotti beans.
  • If you have an odd carrot and rib of celery, you can finely chop them and sauté with the onion and pancetta.
  • For a vegetarian version, skip the pancetta or bacon and use vegetable broth.
  • Beef, chicken, or vegetable broth work.
  • Any type of short pasta works, from small shells to elbow macaroni. You can use up the dregs of a number of different pasta shapes, adding them in order of their cooking time.

Olive Oil Cake

Want something sweet but have a mixed bag of flours, no butter, and a random orange or lemon? This simple traditional cake from Liguria can take whatever your pantry throws at it.

What you’ll need for one 9-inch cake (see below of substitutions)

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 1/3 cups olive oil
  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • Flavoring

Heat the oven to 350° F. Oil, butter, or spray a 9-inch springform cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Whisk the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and baking powder together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the olive oil, milk, eggs, and flavoring. Add the dry ingredients to the olive oil mixture and whisk until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour or until the top is golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 30 minutes and serve once completely cool.

Substitutions and other notes:
  • If you don’t have 2 cup of all-purpose flour, you can make up the difference with up to 1/2 cup of almond meal, corn meal, whole wheat flour, or cake flour.
  • To flavor your cake, try one of the following combinations: 1 1/2 tablespoons grated orange zest + 1/4 cup fresh orange juice OR 1 1/2 tablespoons grated lemon zest + 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice OR 2 teaspoon vanilla extract + 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary OR 1/2 teaspoon almond extract + 1/4 cup amaretto liqueur)

Related posts:
L'Amatriciana and La Gricia: Pasta's First Cousins
In Season: 5 Italian Spring Foods To Welcome the Season
Italian winter soup

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