Despite what people might think, some of the best things about Tuscany are simple pleasures. From food to art to wine, Italy is often thought to be synonymous with decadence, supreme beauty and complicated feasts that take all day to prepare. However in the region of Tuscany, cucina povera or the peasant kitchen is the traditional, very modest and yet still incredibly delicious type of cooking that characterizes most family meals. Specifically, if you’re visiting the Siena area, there is one type of pasta that fits this description perfectly: the simple and yet oh-so-tasty, pici pasta.
It is thought that pici pasta originated in Etruscan times but exactly how is a hotly debated subject. Generally there are two main legends surrounding this simple dish. One is that it takes its name from the Etruscan foodie, Apicius. The second is that pici is a shortened word stemming from the Italian word, appicciare or “to stick”. Wherever the name comes from, it has been a staple in the kitchens in Siena and the nearby countryside for generations. Even within this small area though, there are variations. In Montalcino, for example, it is known as pinci instead of pici. These minor differences are not just found in the name, but also in how it is prepared.
The traditional and simple peasant recipe uses only water, flour, salt and a bit of oil. Other varieties include egg in the dough and this makes a heartier finished product (as well as a version that some say isn’t pici at all). In either case, the dough is rolled out, and then hand rolled into long strings, much fatter than spaghetti but thinner than penne. The irregularities in the rolling are though to make little nooks and crannies that sauce can cling to, creating the perfect pasta for hearty sauces.
The sauces to coat the pici pasta are an equally important part of the finished dish. Pici isn’t traditionally eaten with just any old sugo. It goes well with very specific sughi types, and from village to village these also vary. Four of the most popular (and conventional) pasta sauces to try are: cacio e pepe, ragù, aglione and pici alle briciole.
Pici pasta recipes – the right sauce for this pasta
Cacio e pepe: This sauce actually has roman origins but it pairs perfectly with the hearty pici pasta. The sauce is simple using only two ingredients: pecorino cheese and pepper, which is added to the hot pasta, made creamy with just a little bit of the starchy cooking water added to the mixture. It is the ideal peasant sauce because pecorino doesn’t spoil easily and pepper is easy to carry. Intended as a filling dish for shepherds out in the field, it is sure to warm you up, as it did them, on a cold night.
Ragù: A ragù is a tomato-based meat sauce, that begins with a soffritto of onion, celery and carrot browned in olive oil (outside of Italy it is sometimes called bolognese sauce). It is flavorful and arguably one of the most popular Italian sauces as it has been recreated the whole world over. Despite what you may have eaten elsewhere in the world, nothing beats ragù made in Italy from a chef who has perfected the recipe over time.
Aglione: This is one of the most traditional sauces for pici in the region around Siena. It is made with lots of garlic, tomato, oil and chili peppers. Slightly salty, a bit sweet from the tomatoes, a tad spicy and with a finishing garlicky punch, it is a wonderful sauce. It works perfectly with pici because the blandness of the pasta allows the flavors of the sauce to shine through.
Pici alle briciole: So simple, so delicious, and a bit unlike the others, this one is a bread based sauce! It is made with thinly sliced day old Tuscan bread, chili pepper, salt, garlic, grated pecorino and a good olive oil. The crumbles cling to the rugged long pasta. When you’re craving carbs after a long day of walking, this is the dish to get. Full of flavor, yet extremely satisfying, it is sure to have you back out wandering the streets in no time.
A trip to Siena or the surrounding countryside just wouldn’t be complete without a plate of pici. Don’t miss this delicious delicacy next time you’re in the region!