Years ago, while having dinner with my college roommate in New York, I smelled something odd. The smell, originating in the kitchen of Vucciria, had found its way onto Craig's plate and into my nostrils. "What the hell is that?" I asked. "It's bucatini with anchovy and fennel. Have a bite." At twenty-two years old, bucatini was, to me, as foreign as it sounds and anchovy was something to be avoided. Fennel? I doubt I had any real idea what fennel was. But, since Craig thought it was really good and, in the four years we lived together, never lied to me, I dropped and twirled my fork onto his plate and took a bite.
I nearly choked. Not from getting food caught in my windpipe nor because it was so distgusting my throat muscles refused it entry into my esophagus. It was because the moment it hit my mouth, I had a vision of my grandmom beating a baby octopus senseless against to porcelain of her kitchen sink. True, dead animals lack any sense, good or otherwise, but it was my fantasy. The mind plays tricks.
Craig's random menu choice released a lot of memories I never even knew I'd put in lockdown. His main course was the focal point of a very traditional meal I loathed as a small child-- Chrismas Eve dinner. I have now, sadly, managed to effectively wipe much of the meal from my memory. So has the rest of my surviving family. When trying to recreate the pasta dish I offer up today, my father couldn't remember much of what was in it. "I remember it had some crumbly, crunchy stuff on top." "You mean breadcrumbs?"I asked. "I think that's what it was, I never really liked it, so I don't remember. I guess Grandmom was just trying to keep a tradition alive." I don't remember the exact year my Grandmom finally gave up trying to force tradizione down the quarter-Sicilian throats of her grandchildren, but the Christmas Eve we smelled red sauce cooking in the kitchen, there was much inward rejoicing.
What I find amusing, if a bit sad, is that, as a thirty-seven year old man, I now love all the things that old broad made for us. The bucatini dish, the anise cookies, the braised octopus. I remember the terror of seeing her cleaning and beating the octopus in her sink, as previously mentioned. Unfortunately, I had recently seen a horror film one Sunday starring a giant octopus at my father's place, so I was not pleased to see my grandmother playing with monsters. I told her I would have none of it though, unlike in The Bride of the Monster, this octopus lost its wrestling match and ended up an unwelcomed first course. "Michael, you eat this every year and you're gonna eat it tonight. You told me last year you liked it and that's why I'm making it again-- for you." With the little sea creature in a stranglehold, she managed to pin me to the mat without even looking up. Neither of us was much of a match for her.
I am now nostalgic for those dinners I never thought I liked in the first place. But, like the U.S. savings bonds she placed under the Christmas tree every year, I matured and learned to appreciate.
Bucatini with Fennel and Anchovy
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
10 anchovy filets
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 bulb fennel, halved and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1 cup bread crumbs, finely ground and toasted
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, finely grated
1 pound bucatini pasta (use whatever pasta you want, I'm not particular)
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add anchovies, mashing them with a fork into the oil. Add fennel, onion, garlic and pepper flakes. Be careful how you heat this. Do it gently, or these bulbs will burn. Cook until tender, about five minutes.
Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water until al dente. Drain and reserve 1 cup of the pasta water. Add water and pasta to the cooked fennel mixture and toss, coating the bucatini well.
Combine bread crumbs and grated cheese. Transfer pasta to the serving platter of your choice. Sprinkle liberally with breadcrumb mixture, pine nuts and fennel fronds.. Serve immediately
Serves 4 adults or about 15 small children who won't eat it, no matter how much you threaten.