The Pillowy Pasta You Can Make From Stale Bread

Italy is known for its rich culinary traditions, including its famously diverse arrays of pastas in countless different shapes and sizes, and these days it's possible to taste many of these beyond the country's borders. There is one humble dish, however, that is not so well known outside its place of origin in northern Italy: passatelli. Unlike most pastas, which are usually made with flour and water or eggs, the recipe for passatelli calls for eggs, cheese, and breadcrumbs. This last ingredient makes the dough light and soft — similar to gnocchi — yet slightly rough, and lends to the pasta's rustic appearance, which is characterized by uneven, stubby cylindrical strands.

It is uncertain how long the inhabitants of Emilia-Romagna have been preparing passatelli, but this particular pasta was already a household tradition by the time it was referenced in Pellegrino Artusi's classic cookbook "La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene," which was published in 1891. Back then and still today passatelli presents an affordable way to make a meal out of just a few ingredients and give new life to bread that is past its prime.

How to make and serve passatelli

Passatelli can be made with store-bought breadcrumbs, but any Italian will tell you the best thing to do is save the heels of your bread loaves or any other slices that go stale, store these in the freezer until you have enough, then blitz them in a food processor to make your own at home to save money and avoid food waste. 

Either way, you'll need about 100 grams of breadcrumbs for four servings of passatelli. Combine this with an equal volume of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and three eggs. Some passatelli recipes recommend seasoning your dough with nutmeg or lemon zest. Mix everything together by hand to form a wet, delicate dough. Rest the dough for about twenty minutes before pressing it through a ricer or food mill to extrude strands that are a few inches long and slightly narrower than the width of a pencil.

Another thing that makes passatelli special is that this pasta is cooked in broth, not water. Typically, Italians use chicken broth, but you can opt for mushroom broth instead for a vegetarian alternative. Heat the broth until it boils, cook the passatelli for just a few minutes until they rise to the surface of the liquid, and serve immediately with the broth.

Pasta with breadcrumbs, inside and out

Infinitely creative in the kitchen and endlessly resourceful with leftovers, Italians have devised many ways to use breadcrumbs and do not limit themselves to sprinkling them into pasta dough. While the residents of Emilia-Romagna make passatelli, the citizens of southern Italian regions such as Basilicata, Calabria, Puglia, and Sicily like to use breadcrumbs as a pasta topping.

Called "pasta mollicata" in Italian or "pasta ca' muddica" in some dialects, southern Italians like to serve their spaghetti simply with a few anchovies mixed in and breadcrumbs tossed on top. The trick is to toast the breadcrumbs in a pan on the stovetop along with olive oil and garlic to get them perfectly crisper and full of flavor. If you are not in the mood for pasta, but you have some stale bread to use up, you can still take inspiration from the Italians and try baked vegetables with breadcrumbs for an easy and delicious side dish.