Carlo Mastroberardino, of Avellino's Mastroberardino Wines, says that when he was a boy, his mother made this dish so often he can barely look at lentils anymore. Despite his personal protest, it is one of the most beloved and typical dishes of Campania, where, based in Atripalda (province of Avellino), the Mastroberardino family has been making wine since the 1500s.
Carlo, who in his early thirties gained control of the company with his father, Antonio, says his mother, an elementary school teacher, always made it on Fridays when he and his brother were growing up, using a pasta mischiata (or pasta mista) of the different shapes of macaroni left in the boxes and bags in her pantry. Capellini, also known as capelli d'angelo (angel's hair), broken into 2- or 3- or 4-inch lengths, is another possibility and one many people prefer, if only because the very thin pasta cooks so quickly. Be warned: This is not soup. It should be very thick and it is eaten with a fork.
5 cups water
3/4 cup lentils
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped canned plum tomatoes, with some juice
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/2 pound vermicelli or capellini, or small tubular pasta, or pasta mista
2 rounded tablespoons finely cut or snipped parsley
Optional: Extra-virgin olive oil and hot red pepper flakes or hot pepper oil for garnish
1. In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a rolling boil, add the lentils, and cook, covered over medium-high heat, until nearly but not entirely tender, about 20 minutes.
2. Add the garlic, the olive oil, the tomatoes, the salt, and the pepper. Reduce the heat, cover, and continue to simmer briskly for another 10 minutes, stirring a few times, or until the lentils are fully tender.
3. If using capellini, break it into 2- to 4-inch pieces and add them to the lentils. Cook, covered, at a steady simmer, stirring several times and scraping the bottom of the pot when you do. Cook until the pasta is just done, stirring more frequently as it gets closer to that point. If using a small tubular pasta or pasta mista, cook the pasta at least halfway in plenty of salted boiling water. Drain the pasta, add it to the lentils, and simmer to finish cooking the pasta.
4. When either pasta is cooked to taste, remove the pot from the heat, stir in the parsley, cover the pot, and let stand about 5 minutes before serving.
5. Serve hot, passing hot pepper oil or the best-quality extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling on top.
Variation: For Lenticchie e scarola, lentils with escarole, leave out the pasta and in its place add a 1/2 - to 1-pound head of escarole, chopped or shredded. This will have a soupier consistency.
From Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania by Arthur Schwartz. Copyright 1998 HaperCollins Publishers.
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