If you’re a fan of Italian food (and who isn’t), we urge you to give this dish a try, even if you think you don’t like sardines. Like so many classic Italian pasta dishes, it has a fabulous combination of flavors and makes a great go-to meal when you want something that’s both satisfying and easy to make.
Pasta With Sardines: A Regional Italian Favorite
This peasant-style pasta dish from Italy varies a bit from region to region, but the basic ingredients are essentially the same for all; a long cut of pasta, extra-virgin olive oil, sautéed onions, toasted breadcrumbs, and sardines and/or anchovies.
For this recipe, we’ve adapted the authentic Sicilian version just a bit to include some minced garlic along with our toasted breadcrumbs.
Other versions (see variation below) include anchovies either in place of or in addition to the sardines, and regional ingredients like wild fennel, saffron, pine nuts, and raisins.
- Sardines: We recommend using boneless, skinless sardines packed in olive oil. When you choose good quality sardines, they have a clean, subtle fish flavor much like albacore tuna (see shopping tips below).
- Homemade breadcrumbs: Coarsely chopped, homemade breadcrumbs are best for this dish because they stay crispy after being tossed with the other ingredients. Panko can be substituted in a pinch.
- Sautéed onion: Sweet onion, chopped and sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil until lightly caramelized adds an overall sweetness to the dish that provides a nice balance for the other ingredients.
- Capers: While not essential, we think capers add a deliciously briny quality to this dish that complements both the sardines and the lemon beautifully, but no worries if you’re not a fan – just leave them out.
- Lemon zest: The flavor of freshly grated lemon zest is the perfect balance for the sweetness of the sautéed onion.
- Parsley: A handful of fresh parsley added toward the end of cooking always adds a bright note that can’t be duplicated with dried herbs.
Recipe Variation With Anchovies:
Anchovies are rich in umami – that coveted fifth taste that makes a wide variety of savory foods so appealing, so even if you’re not a fan of them on pizza or salads, we’d be willing to bet you’d find the subtle, rich flavor they lend to this recipe variation (also Sicilian) to be absolutely delicious. Here’s how to make it:
- Omit the sardines from the ingredient list and replace them with 6 anchovy fillets, lightly rinsed and finely chopped.
- Follow the recipe instructions for making the garlic-toasted breadcrumbs, increasing the quantity of garlic to 4 cloves. Replace the olive oil from the sardines with 2 additional tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil.
- Follow the recipe instructions for sautéeing the onions. Once they’re lightly caramelized, add the anchovies and continue cooking until they break down and blend with the onions.
- Finish the recipe as written, omitting any reference to sardines.
More about sardines:
Skinless, boneless wild sardines packed in olive oil are what we recommend for making pasta with sardines. They are low in calories, high in protein, and have good amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and potassium. And, because they’re so small, sardines are low in mercury too.
We generally buy Wild Planet brand because they’re sustainably caught, come packed in a BPA-free tin, are non-GMO certified, and are reasonably easy to find in your local grocery store.
Since we make this dish often though, we generally buy a twelve-pack on Amazon and keep them on hand for a quick and easy “pantry” dinner.
More Italian seafood and pasta recipes:
Sicilian Pasta with Sardines
- 6 ounces spaghetti or linguine
- 1 tin (4.25 ounce) boneless, skinless sardines in olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3/4 cup homemade breadcrumbs, see recipe notes
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium sweet onion, chopped
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper, optional
- 2 tablespoons capers, drained (optional)
- Lemon wedges for serving
- Put a pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.
- Open the sardines, drain the olive oil into a frying pan, and set the sardines aside.
- Heat the oil over medium heat, add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, 1 minute.
- Add the breadcrumbs (see below), season lightly with salt and pepper and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the crumbs are lightly toasted and crisp, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer the crumbs to a plate and set aside.
- Return the pan to the stove and add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until soft and lightly caramelized, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Add the sardines, break them apart gently and cook just long enough to heat through, 2 minutes.
- Stir in the lemon zest, parsley, crushed red pepper, and capers. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.
- Cook the pasta according to package directions, reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid, then drain and return to the pan.
- Add the sardine mixture along with half of the reserved cooking liquid to the pasta. Toss to combine, adjust the seasoning and add a little more liquid if needed.
- Add the garlic-toasted breadcrumbs, toss again and serve immediately.
- Note: This recipe can easily be doubled.