Sicilian-Style Spaghetti with Anchovies and Breadcrumbs (Spaghetti con Acciughe e Mollica)

EuropeItalySicilian-Style Spaghetti with Anchovies and Breadcrumbs (Spaghetti con Acciughe e Mollica)

Have you tried canned seafood yet? It seems to be all the rage lately. I experienced the trend firsthand while visiting Portugal recently. Lisbon and Porto, in particular, have a bunch of whimsical shops and a few cool restaurants dedicated solely to canned seafood, which they call “conservas”. (Read more about Portuguese canned fish here.) It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing – which I am!

Since returning home, I’ve been experimenting with various types of canned seafood and searching for recipes that highlight my favorite varieties such as sardines, anchovies, and tuna. During my research, I stumbled upon a tasty anchovy dish that I’ve actually been making for years but didn’t know where it originated from – spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs, or Spaghetti con acciughe e mollica in Italian. It turns out this combination of pasta and anchovies, enhanced with a touch of lemon, a hint of red pepper, and a few cloves of garlic, all topped with a generous helping of crunchy breadcrumbs, is a classic dish from Southern Italy, particularly Sicily.

The recipe is really easy to make, and comes together in a jiffy – you can have dinner on the table in about 30 minutes from start to finish. It has been a favorite in my house for years on those nights when I don’t have a lot of time, but I want something satisfying and full of flavor. The best part is that most of the ingredients are pantry staples that I usually have on hand, so it’s really easy to throw together. 

If you’re looking for an easy, super flavorful way to use that lone can of anchovies you’ve been storing in your cupboard, definitely give this recipe a go. Don’t be surprised if it quickly becomes a regular menu item in your home, too.

The roots of spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs – Pasta ca’ Muddica Atturrata

Pasta ca’ muddica atturrata means pasta with toasted breadcrumbs, and is the foundation for our Spaghetti con acciughe e mollica recipe. It is a simple, “poor man’s” meal of pasta, topped with breadcrumbs that have been toasted in olive oil. According to my research, in Sicily, toasted breadcrumbs are a traditional, inexpensive substitute for grated cheese. Plus, it’s a good way to use up day-old bread!

BTW – I don’t speak Italian, so I can’t tell you the subtle differences between “mollica” and “muddica”, but my understanding is they mean pretty much the same thing. If you speak Italian, I would love to know your insights! Hop down to the comments below to join the discussion…

As with many classic dishes, there are a lot of variations on the simple original. Like my version, some have anchovy, lemon, garlic, and parsley. Some add cheese, some add tomato and onion… you get the idea! It’s a flexible dish that can be customized to your taste and what you’ve got on hand.

Does Spaghetti con Acciughe e Mollica taste fishy?

Believe it or not, no, this pasta dish – featuring anchovies – doesn’t taste fishy. The anchovies melt into the sauce, creating a wonderful umami flavor. Of course, if you really love the flavor of anchovies, you can add more – which would likely tip the dish from deliciously savory to fabulously fishy!

Sicilian-style spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs

What type of pasta should I use?

Since this dish is so simple, the quality of the ingredients makes a big difference. Try to use good quality, Italian pasta – bronze-cut or bronze-die if you can get it. A long pasta, such as spaghetti or bucatini, is traditional, but feel free to use whatever shape you enjoy.

What type of anchovies should I use?

Again, the quality of the ingredients makes a difference. However, keeping in mind that the anchovies will disappear into the sauce, there is no need to purchase the most expensive anchovies available. Simply look for anchovy filets packed in olive oil – the only ingredients should be anchovies, olive oil, and salt.

Should I rinse the anchovies before I use them?

Nope, there is no need. We want all of that salty, briny umami-ness to add yummy flavor to our pasta dish.

What type of breadcrumbs should I use?

If you’ve got some day or two old bread, homemade breadcrumbs are your best choice. Just cut your bread into pieces, then run the pieces through the food processor until they reach a coarse crumb. Don’t process it to a really fine texture – a rough, uneven crumb is perfect.

If you don’t want to make your breadcrumbs from scratch, panko breadcrumbs are a fine second choice.

Homemade breadcrumbs
Don’t worry about processing your breadcrumbs to a fine, even crumb. The uneven texture of these homemade breadcrumbs adds to the rustic feel of the dish and creates a nice textural contrast.

Notes

  • To save time, prep your veggies while the water comes to a boil.
  • The pasta cooking water is an important ingredient in this recipe, so it’s best to get the correct ratio of salt to water. For every 4 quarts of cooking water, add 1 tablespoon of salt. 
  • Homemade breadcrumbs are best in this recipe. Cut bread that is a day or two old into small chunks, then run through a food processor until it reaches a coarse crumb. It doesn’t need to be perfectly even. It actually enhances the rustic feel of the dish if some of the bread pieces are larger than others. If you would rather not make your own, panko breadcrumbs are a fine substitute. 
  • Don’t bother mincing the parsley super fine. Just like with the breadcrumbs, a few uneven pieces add to the rustic feel.
  • The easiest way to grate lemon zest is with a microplane grater. Simply run the grater all around the outside of the lemon and you’ll end up with a lovely little pile of perfectly grated zest.
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Sicilian-style spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs

Sicilian-Style Spaghetti with Anchovies and Breadcrumbs (Spaghetti con Acciughe e Mollica)


  • Author: Julie A. Cockburn
  • Total Time: 30 minutes
  • Yield: 2 servings 1x

Description

Flavorful and satisfying, this pasta has a hint of umami from anchovies and a bright, citrusy kick from a squeeze of lemon. The toasted breadcrumbs on top are the perfect finishing touch. The best part is that most of the ingredients are pantry staples that you probably already have on hand, so it’s really easy to throw together.


Ingredients

Units Scale
  • 2 ounces (4 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2.5 ounces (about 3/4 cups coarsely ground) breadcrumbs (either homemade or panko. See notes)
  • 1 tablespoon salt – kosher or sea salt are both good options (see notes)
  • 8 ounces long pasta noodles, such as spaghetti or bucatini
  • 4 anchovy filets
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced very thin
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • A pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, plus more for garnish
  • A squeeze of lemon juice
  • 1 ounce of parsley, minced (about 1/2 cup minced parsley) (see notes)


Instructions

  1. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over medium heat.
  2. While the water comes to a boil, heat 1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) of the olive oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Once the oil is shimmering, add the breadcrumbs and stir to make sure they are evenly coated in oil. Cook, stirring frequently, until the crumbs are golden brown and crispy. Keep a close eye on them! They can quickly go from golden brown to black and burned. If you are using homemade breadcrumbs, especially watch the smaller crumbs as they will tend to burn fastest. When the breadcrumbs are toasted, transfer to a bowl and set aside. Allow the skillet to cool slightly and wipe away any remaining breadcrumbs.
  3. When the water comes to a boil, add 1 tablespoon salt, along with the pasta, and cook, stirring often, until very al dente – about 3 minutes less than the package instructions. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.
  4. Meanwhile, place the wiped-out skillet over medium-low heat. Add the remaining 1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) of olive oil along with the anchovies, sliced garlic, most of the lemon zest (reserve a bit for garnish), and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring frequently to break up the anchovies, until the garlic is soft, but not browned. If the garlic starts to brown, remove from the heat.
  5. Carefully add 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water to the anchovy and garlic sauce. Be aware that it may sputter. Place over medium heat.
  6. Add the very al dente pasta to the sauce, along with a squeeze of lemon juice and most of the parsley (reserve a bit for garnish). Cook, tossing or stirring with tongs, until most of the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is cooked to your liking – just a couple of minutes. Add additional pasta cooking water if everything gets too dry before the pasta is finished, or the pasta starts to stick to the bottom.
  7. Give the pasta a taste and add additional salt, lemon juice, or crushed red pepper flakes if you like. Transfer to a serving dish and top generously with toasted breadcrumbs, reserving some of the breadcrumbs for passing at the table. Garnish with the reserved lemon zest and parsley, and another pinch of crushed red pepper flakes. 
  8. Enjoy this dish immediately while the breadcrumbs are still crispy. Yumm!

Notes

  • To save time, prep your veggies while the water comes to a boil.
  • The pasta cooking water is an important ingredient in this recipe, so it’s best to get the correct ratio of salt to water. For every 4 quarts of cooking water, add 1 tablespoon of salt. 
  • Homemade breadcrumbs are best in this recipe. Cut bread that is a day or two old into small chunks, then run through a food processor until it reaches a coarse crumb. It doesn’t need to be perfectly even. It actually enhances the rustic feel of the dish if some of the bread pieces are larger than others. If you would rather not make your own, panko breadcrumbs are a fine substitute. 
  • Don’t bother mincing the parsley super fine. Just like with the breadcrumbs, a few uneven pieces add to the rustic feel.
  • The easiest way to grate lemon zest is with a microplane grater. Simply run the grater all around the outside of the lemon and you’ll end up with a lovely little pile of perfectly grated zest.
  • If you enjoy these quick-cooking pasta dishes that are loaded with flavor, you’ll love this recipe for Pasta Puttanesca – a bold and savory Italian pasta dish that comes together in a jiffy using mostly pantry items.
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 15 minutes
  • Category: Entree
  • Cuisine: Italian

Keywords: pasta, anchovies, breadcrumbs, lemon

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Sicilian-style spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs
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Comments

2 responses to “Sicilian-Style Spaghetti with Anchovies and Breadcrumbs (Spaghetti con Acciughe e Mollica)”

  1. Ron Martin Avatar
    Ron Martin

    I am responding to your question to Italian speakers about the difference between mollica and muddica. I speak Italian and can tell you that mollica is Italian for crumb. (I am of Sicilian heritage but my mother never taught me Sicilian dialect.)

    I believe that muddica means the same but is in Sicilian dialect.

    FYI. When Italy was unified in 1861, all the regions, towns, etc each had their own and very distinct dialects. Upon unification, the dialect of Florence (Firenze) was chosen as the national language.

    1. Julie A. Cockburn Avatar

      Thank you so much, Ron! This is super helpful information and I love the extra history tidbit. <3

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