pasta piselli

Every family has its own version of comfort food. For us — an Italian American clan that immigrated 100 years ago from Naples and Sicily — vegetable pasta dishes have supplied not only nourishment for each generation, but a sense of well being. The continuity of eating something your great-grandparents, grandparents and parents ate is both reassuring and calming. The premise for these dishes all starts with the same idea: take whatever vegetables are in season and fresh, sauté with olive oil, garlic or onions, and maybe throw in some tomatoes for good measure. Mix with pasta and you have a meal.

Pasta Piselli is one of those dishes. A dish made with peas, tomatoes, herbs and onions, it is simple and forthright. There is nothing showy about this dish. Yet the mix of fresh spring onions and just-shelled English peas makes it not only the perfect family meal, but also elegant enough to serve to guests.

Now I need to confess that my use of fresh peas is unique in my family. Somewhere along the way — I’m guessing during the Depression — canned peas were employed as the main ingredient. My grandmother made the dish with canned peas, as did my mother. Yet although I adored this dish as a child, I have always made it a little differently, using fresh or frozen peas instead. This is probably because I really don’t like canned vegetables. Plus fresh peas are only available for a short while in the spring, which means I need to take advantage of their wonderful verdant sweet flavor while they last. Prepared with small spring onions, and, if you’re lucky, some nice early tomatoes, and you have a dish that celebrates the end of winter.

I made this pasta dish earlier this week after finding some crispy English peas and spring onions at the market. I wasn’t lucky enough to stumble upon heirloom tomatoes, so used my standard can of San Marzano plums that I rely on so much throughout the year. And, because the day was rainy and cold, I added in some pasta water to make the dish soupy. If it had been warm out, I most likely would have left it out. But that’s the great thing about a dish like this; its innate simplicity allows you to easily transform it for whatever mood you’re in. Like all good simple foods, it is malleable, which, I suspect, is why it’s been around for so long.

Fresh English Peas

Recipe: Pasta Piselli

Summary: Pasta Piselli is one of those dishes. A dish made with peas, tomatoes, herbs and onions, it is simple and forthright. There is nothing showy about this dish. Yet the mix of fresh spring onions and just-shelled English peas makes it not only the perfect family meal, but also elegant enough to serve to guests.

By Denise Santoro Lincoln

Prep time: 10 min
Cook time: 20 min
Total time: 30 min
Yield: 4 servings


  • 1/2 lb pasta (tubetti is traditional, but any smallish pasta is fine. I use whatever my kids pick out.)
  • 1/4 cup chopped pancetta or salt pork (optional)
  • 1/4 cup spring onions finely chopped (a regular onion can be used)
  • 2 garlic cloves smashed and roughly chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh English peas (one large bag of pea pods should give you enough; also you can use frozen but fresh are worth it if they’re available)
  • 2 cups chopped tomatoes or 8 oz whole plum tomatoes (half a 15 oz can)
  • 1 cup pasta water (optional)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil (or 1 Tbsp dried basil)
  • 1 Tbsp fresh oregano (or 1 tsp dried oregano)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • A dash of crushed red pepper (optional)
  • Grated Parmesan cheese (as much as desired)


  1. Shell your peas while you heat a large pot of water.
  2. shelled peas

  3. Place your tomatoes in a blender and pulse about three or four times (don’t over blend). Meanwhile chop up your pancetta, onions and garlic.
  4. Heat a separate medium sauce pan on medium heat and then add in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add in your pancetta and sauté for 3-4 minutes or until the meat starts to look golden brown around the edges.
  5. cooking your pancetta

  6. Add in your onions and continue to cook for another 3-4 minutes.
  7. sauteeing the spring onion with the pancetta

  8. Mix in the peas, stirring to make sure they are evenly distributed throughout, and then add in the tomatoes, oregano, basil and some salt to taste.
  9. Mixing in the peas

  10. Your water should come to a boil right about now. When it does, add in a tablespoon of salt and then pour in your pasta and cook until al dente.
  11. Simmer your sauce for 10 minutes, adding in about a ladle of pasta water if desired. Add salt and pepper as needed.
  12. simmering the sauce

  13. Drain the pasta and mix into the sauce. Serve with Parmesan cheese.

Culinary Tradition: Italian

Pasta Piselli: Fresh English Peas, Spring Onions, Pancetta and Pasta 19 May,2011Denise Santoro Lincoln

  • Lovely post. I agree that pasta is the best mood food in the world. I especially love peas as well.

  • your pasta Picelli receipe does not say when to add the garlic or crushed red pepper.

  • Hi Bob — Sorry about that. You add the garlic and crushed red pepper with the onions.

  • Lesxavier

    We’ve been here in Bella Napoli for 5 years and this is a recipe that is totally authentic.  Loved the recipe – thanks so much!


Denise Santoro Lincoln

I am a writer, editor, mother of twins, and enthusiastic home cook. I was raised by an Italian-American mother who, in the 1970s, grew her own basil (because she couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores), zucchini (for those delicious flowers), and tomatoes (because the ones in the store tasted like “a potato”). My mom taught us to love all kinds of food and revere high-quality ingredients. I am now trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps and am on a mission to help my daughters become adventurous eaters who have a healthy respect for seasonal food raised locally. My daughters and I grow vegetables and go to the farmers’ market. We also love to shop at Piedmont Grocery and Trader Joe’s. When I’m not hanging out with my daughters or cooking, I like to contribute to cookbooks (including Williams-Sonoma’s Food Made Fast and Foods of the World series), work as an editor, and write about food for Bay Area Bites and Denise’s Kitchen. My food inspirations are M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters — three fabulous women who encompass everything I love about food.

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