Pasta con le sarde, or pasta with sardines, is a traditional Sicilian dish that's loaded with incredible flavor and texture thanks to its diverse set of ingredients. Fennel bulbs and fronds, sardines, golden raisins, pignoli, and toasted breadcrumbs marry beautifully in this very special pasta!
Pasta con le sarde, also known as Pasta di San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph's Day pasta is a true homage to all the flavors of Sicily.
The unique blend of flavors makes this dish quite remarkable and while it's traditionally served on March 19, St. Joseph's Day, it can certainly be enjoyed year-round.
Our step-by-step instructions take the guesswork out of this beloved dish and we hope you love it as much as we do!
How to make it
Each number corresponds to the numbered written steps below.
- Heat a large pan to medium-low heat and saute 1 cup of plain breadcrumbs in 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil until golden, about 5-7 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and set the toasted breadcrumbs aside.
- Add 1 pinch of saffron threads to a ½ cup of dry white wine and set aside. Dice one medium-sized onion and slice 5 cloves of garlic. Add ⅓ of a cup of golden raisins to a bowl of warm water to soften.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Slice a large fennel bulb in half, reserving about ½ cup or less of the fronds. Note: The fennel bulbs I had were small so I used two of them (pictured below). Boil the fennel bulbs for about 10 minutes or until tender, then remove with a slotted spoon. Save the pasta water to boil your pasta later in the recipe.
- Once the fennel is cool enough to handle, dice it into small pieces.
- Heat a large pan to medium and sautee the onions in a ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil for about 5 minutes or until soft and translucent. Add 5 oil-packed anchovy fillets and the sliced garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Mash the anchovy fillets with the back of a wooden spoon to break them up.
- Add the chopped fennel and cook for another 2-3 minutes.
- Add 1 pound of bucatini or spaghetti to the boiling fennel water and cook the pasta until 1 minute less than al dente. Add the saffron wine mixture to the pan and allow it to cook for 2-3 minutes over medium heat until the liquid is reduced by half.
- Drain the raisins from the water and add them along with ⅓ cup of pine nuts, the fennel fronds, and 3 4-ounce cans of sardines to the pan. Reduce the heat to low and gently break up the sardines with a spoon, but don't mash them. You'll want to leave some texture here.
- Once the pasta is 1 minute away from al dente, add it to the pan along with 1 cup of reserved pasta water. Toss or mix the pasta just until it reaches al dente.
- Remove the pan from the heat and taste test adjusting any salt and pepper as needed. If the pasta is too dry, add a touch more of the reserved pasta water 1-2 tablespoons at a time, mixing until it reaches the desired consistency. Add half the toasted breadcrumbs and toss the pasta. Serve in bowls with a drizzle of extra virgin olive and more of the remaining breadcrumbs. Enjoy!
Top tips for perfect pasta con sarde
- Sardines. This dish is traditionally made with fresh sardines, however, those can be hard to come by. We used oil-packed canned sardines for our recipe and they are a great option. If you want a real shortcut, you can purchase the Cuoco brand "seasoning for macaroni with sardines" which is imported from Palermo and made with fennel, sardines, onions, and raisins. You'd just need to add your own fennel fronds, pignoli, and breadcrumbs.
- Sodium. Since canned anchovies and sardines are quite salty we recommend going easy on the salt. Be sure to taste test before adding any additional salt.
- Fennel. The larger the fennel bulb, the more likely the outer part will be tough. If you find that's the case, you can remove part of the outer peel using a vegetable peeler. You can even cut part of the core out, though all of the fennel is completely edible. The ones I used above were much smaller and pretty tender so didn't require any peeling. Be sure to reserve the fennel fronds as they're an important part of the dish adding flavor, texture, and color.
- The wine. There are plenty of versions of pasta con le sarde without wine, so if you don't want to use it you can definitely omit it. If omitting, just mix the saffron with hot water in step 2. If you are using wine, go with a dry white wine like a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio.
- Save your pasta water! As with most of our pasta recipes, we strongly recommend saving your pasta water. In the case of pasta con le sarde, you're saving the fennel water for the pasta so it will have tremendous flavor and is an important component of the dish, especially if it dries out at all before serving.
More wonderful pastas you'll love
If you love pasta con le sarde, we think you'll also love these seafood pastas.
- Lemon garlic shrimp pasta - garlicky shrimp is tossed with pasta, fresh parsley, and lemon.
- Linguine alle vongole - linguine with clams, white wine, and fresh parsley.
- Linguine with canned clams - budget-friendly pantry version of linguine with white clam sauce.
- Pasta al tonno - canned yellowfin tuna with pasta, capers, garlic, oil, and parsley.
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For the breadcrumbs
- 1 cup plain breadcrumbs
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
For the pasta
- 1 pinch saffron
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 pound bucatini or spaghetti
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large fennel bulb cut in half, save a ½ cup or less of the fronds
- 1 medium onion diced
- 5 cloves garlic sliced
- 5 oil-packed anchovy fillets
- 3 4-ounce cans of oil-packed sardines
- ⅓ cup golden raisins soaked in water then drained
- ⅓ cup pine nuts
- 2 cups reserved pasta water will most likely not need it all
- salt and pepper to taste
For the breadcrumbs
- Heat a large pan to medium-low heat and saute the breadcrumbs in the olive oil until golden (about 5 minutes). Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
For the pasta
- Place the saffron in the wine and set aside.
- Begin by bringing a large pot of salted water to boil. Boil the fennel for about 10 minutes or until tender then remove with a slotted spoon. Save the water because that will be used to cook the pasta. Once the fennel is cool enough to handle, dice it into small pieces.
- Heat a large pan to medium and saute the onions in extra virgin olive oil until translucent (about 5 minutes). Add the anchovies and garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Mash the anchovies with a wooden spoon to break them up.
- Add the fennel and cook for another 2 minutes.
- At this time cook the pasta until 1 minute less than al dente.
- Add the wine and saffron mixture and cook for 2-3 minutes over medium heat to reduce the liquid by about half.
- Add the raisins, pine nuts, and fronds along with the sardines. Turn the heat down to low and gently break the sardines apart but don’t mash them. Leave some texture.
- Add the pasta to the pan along with 1 cup of pasta water. Toss or mix quickly and cook the pasta until it reaches just al dente.
- Remove the pan from the heat and taste test. Adjust salt and pepper as required. If the pasta is too dry add a bit more of the reserved pasta water, 1-2 tablespoons at a time, and mix again. Add half of the breadcrumbs and toss the pasta. Serve in bowls with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Offer with the remaining breadcrumbs at the table. Enjoy!
- Traditionally, this dish is served with fresh sardines, but canned oil-packed sardines are a great option.
- Anchovies and canned sardines are very salty. Go easy with extra salt.
- Supermarkets often sell large fennel bulbs that might need to be shaved a bit with a peeler to remove the hard outer edges. Smaller and more tender fennel (like the ones used in the post body above) can be used as is.
- Always reserve pasta water. If the pasta dries out before serving, just add a few ounces of the pasta water to bring the consistency right back to perfect.
- Leftovers can be saved for up to 3 days and can be reheated in the microwave.