Recipe: Cavatelli with Sicilian Tuna, Capers, and Celery Leaves
Here’s a pantry pasta of the highest order, using two of Sicily’s best products, tuna preserved in olive oil and salt-packed capers from the white hot island of Pantelleria. This particular pasta gave me the chance to use up the last of the big pear-shaped Calabrian tomatoes La Marchesa Calamari grew this summer in her compact manure-laced beds (tomato beds, that is) in Delaware County, New York—not exactly a Southern Italian clime, but she’s just some kind of tomato wizard, able to get the taste of the Mediterranean in what you’d think would be a very hard environment.
Both the Sicilian islands of Lipari and Pantelleria grow excellent capers, which most of you Italian cooks out there know to be the buds from a Mediterranean shrub that when left to blossom produces pretty little white flowers with violet stamens. Not many of those buds are left to flower. The capers I used for this I got from Gustiamo, the great Italian food importer I’ve talked about many times. They are preserved in Sicilian sea salt and packed with care by Gianni Busetta. They are amazingly floral, with a nuanced tang.
When I’m using Sicilian oil-packed tuna for a pasta dish, I don’t go for an absolute top-of-the-line product; even though I add it at the last minute, it warms through, and that takes the edge off its delicate charm. The exquisite Tre Torri bluefin tuna I sometimes purchase from Gustiamo (do all the best things come from Gustiamo?) is nicest used as part of a very simple antipasto, maybe with just some olives and slices of raw fennel. Usually when I add canned tuna to pasta I take it down a notch or two. Flott is a reliable Sicilian brand that has very good flavor but that I feel I can toss with a warm sauce without committing a huge crime (well, maybe a misdemeanor, but what can you do?).
For me the mingling of the floral capers with the slight bitterness of the celery leaves really seals this dish. If you can still find sedano, the Italian celery grown for its intense leaves, use that (I still see it at the Union Square market in Manhattan). Otherwise regular celery leaves will be fine.
And just to get you in that dreamy but rugged Sicilian frame of mind, here’s the Sicilian folk song “Vitti Na Crozza,” sung soulfully by Roberto Alagna.
Cavatelli with Sicilian Tuna, Capers, and Celery Leaves
(Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a first course)
Extra-virgin olive oil
A small piece of fatty prosciutto end, chopped (about ½ cup)
2 small, tender inner celery stalks, cut into small dice, plus a handful of celery leaves, stemmed but left whole (you’ll want about ½ cup)
1 small onion, preferably a fresh summer type
About a dozen fennel seeds
A tiny splash of Pastis, such as Pernod or Ricard
4 large end-of-summer tomatoes, peeled and diced, or 1 35-ounce can of plum tomatoes, well chopped, with the juice
A pinch of Aleppo pepper or another medium hot, dried chili
1 pound cavatelli pasta
1 can oil-packed Italian tuna, drained
A big palmful of salt-packed Sicilian capers, soaked for about 10 minutes, rinsed, and dried
A handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water over high heat, and bring it to a boil.
In a large skillet heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the prosciutto, the celery, the onion, and the fennel seeds, and sauté until everything is soft and fragrant. Add the pastis, and let it boil away. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and Aleppo pepper, and cook, uncovered, at a lively bubble for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Add a generous amount of salt to the boiling water, and then drop in the cavatelli, giving it a stir to make sure it’s not sticking.
When the cavatelli is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a large serving bowl. Drizzle on a generous amount of fresh olive oil, and add the celery leaves. Give it a quick toss. Add the tuna, caper, and pine nuts to the sauce, leaving the tuna in chunks. Gently toss again. Serve hot.