11/19/2014 09:59 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Cooking Off the Cuff: In Venice, Salsa Doesn't Mean What You May Think

Edward Schneider

I've got a little to-cook list of things that Jackie and I ate on our recent trip to Italy and London, such as the eggplant/aubergine "meatballs" we had in Rome. Probably because it contained few ingredients, all of which we had in the house, one dish floated right to the top for our first evening back home: bigoli in salsa, one of the most characteristically Venetian of pastas.

Bigoli look like thick, ropy spaghetti. Traditionally, they are made fresh using flour, water and (unusually for pasta) a little salt, and they're formed by extruding them through a device called a torchio: a metal cylinder with a crank-driven piston that forces the dough through a pierced die at the end. The flour can be whole wheat, white or, most commonly, a mixture of the two, which is what yields a good chewy texture with a nice wheaty flavor. Nowadays, they can be purchased fresh or dried, at least in Venice.

In the version I made pretty much as soon as we got back from vacation, I used about one third whole wheat flour and two thirds white flour. Lacking a torchio, I made the mistake of rolling the dough too thin on a pasta machine, and thereby lost the chewy texture, though the flavor was just right. Next time, I'll roll it by hand, thicker, and cut it into ropier noodles. (Or I'll try to find some ready-made.) In any event, this dish will also be delicious with a large-gauge long pasta such as bucatini, and that is probably the most sensible way to go.

In this Venetian context, "salsa" means only one thing, and it is barely a sauce at all. While some restaurant cooks use things like white wine and parsley, the best, most traditional version contains only lots of onions, lots of salted anchovies (or, even more traditional, salted sardines) and olive oil, plus salt and water as needed. For two generous main-course portions, I used 3/4 pound (340 g) onions, sliced and very slowly cooked in 1/4 cup (60 ml) of good olive oil with a tiny bit of salt. This must take place over the lowest possible heat, and the onions must get very tender without taking on any color at all: add spoonsful of water from time to time if you think there's any danger of browning. For me, this took a good 45 minutes, mostly unattended. When they were done, I set them aside until dinner time.

While the onions were cooking, I drained some good-quality olive-oil-packed anchovies from a jar (canned are fine - and even more traditional would be the larger salt-packed anchovies, boned and soaked). I rough-chopped enough to yield a good 1/4 cup in volume. A few minutes before we ate I reheated the onions and added the anchovies, breaking them up with a spatula; they almost deliquesced in the oil and onion mixture.

I boiled the pasta, drained it (saving some of the salted water) and tossed it with the salsa in the pan, adding as much pasta water as I needed to get a good consistency.

This is one of those dishes that, on the one hand, tastes precisely of its ingredients: onions, anchovies, wheat and olive oil. On the other, because of the unusually large quantity of those first, key ingredients and the way they marry into a near-emulsion, it is a heady new thing if you haven't eaten it before; even if you know the dish, these flavors are always pure pleasure.

Venetian Salsa - Not Like Any Salsa You Might Be Thinking Of