Pici all’aglione, Tuscany’s rustic pasta al pomodoro

Cooking post-lockdown is still keeping us grounded, but also relaxed and even entertained. I have been turning more than ever to Tuscany’s comforting, frugal cuisine for inspiration – it just feels right. Not because we can’t get ingredients or are rationing but just using what we have on hand or what is abundant (hello tomatoes) at the little bottega in the piazza, skipping that trip to the supermarket in favour of staying home or close as possible to it.

I have been loving making pici since lockdown, a humble and ancient Tuscan pasta of flour and water, hand-rolled into long, fat noodles, so easy that even a two year old can make them.

The therapeutic nature of making dough with your hands, of kneading and rolling is an activity itself that is calming and stress-relieving. This pasta doesn’t take that long to make but I also find it such a pleasure that I like to take my time with this. In my opinion, pici should always be handmade; there is nothing like the charmingly imperfect quality of proper pici, painstakingly rolled one by one. It results in an almost primitive pasta with bite and a good chew that reminds me, nostalgically, of udon noodles. Noodles strong enough that they can support robust sauces like wild boar or hearty duck ragu, the carb-on-carb treat of anchovy and garlic-enhanced breadcrumbs or this classic all’aglione, a rich, rustic tomato sauce.

The sauce

Aglio means garlic, so aglione means literally “big garlic” and you’ll see why, it looks like an enormous bulb that can easily weigh over half a kilogram, the cloves of which are sometimes as large as one regular garlic bulb. But despite its looks, aglione isn’t actually a giant garlic, it’s a variety of allium ampeloprasum, which is a wild leek — surprise!

Aglione‘s main feature is that it is sweeter and milder than regular garlic and doesn’t contain allicin, which is what gives garlic its distinctive odour. In Tuscany it’s only grown by a couple of handfuls of producers today in the Valdichiana, the southern region between Siena and Arezzo, and since it was traditionally a vegetable only used by the farmers who grew it, it’s not all that diffused throughout the region so true aglione is hard to find even in Florence! It’s harvested in the summer so now is the best time to try to find it. It’s also native to many countries including all around the Black Sea, as well as Portugal to Egypt and found all over the world so maybe you have seen it in another context?

But even without true aglione you could replicate this with regular garlic too. I love the way the aglione is prepared in this rich tomato sauce, on a low and very slow simmer in lots of white wine and olive oil that brings out its sweet and mellow flavour before being mashed with a fork and added to the ripe tomatoes. It works wonderfully with regular garlic (perhaps with a bit of leek too?).

The pasta

Pici (or pinchi as they are called in Montalcino) come from the province of Siena and I’ve always loved them for the fact that they are so rustic, that you can instantly recognize handmade pici over machine made ones. I like to use a mix of semola (durum wheat) and regular (00) flour made of grano tenero (soft wheat). But you can use all flour or all semola if you like. As this is a rustic and poor dough, there is traditionally no egg in it, just water and a touch of olive oil.

The olive oil doesn’t go into the dough but onto it — a trick I learned at Villa Pienza (which is bang in the middle of pici territory in the incomparably beautiful Valdorcia). Rub about 1 tablespoon of olive oil into the surface of the rolled out dough — this creates a protective film over the dough which prevents it from drying out too quickly and keeps it soft, even if you keep the dough partially covered. This is important to keep the dough soft and pliable, you don’t want any cracking. If this is a technique you’d like to perfect, I highly recommend visiting cookbook author Rosetta Costantino’s tutorials on IGTV. She has an excellent series on how to hand roll and stretch semola and water pasta dough, each video based on shape. Check out the one on how to make rope shapes such as fedelini (which are the Calabrian cousin of pici) and lorighittas, it is enlightening to just watch how her hands move over the dough to roll them into perfect noodles.

The Recipe

Pici all’aglione

Note: Aglione literally means “big garlic” but actually comes from the wild leek family (allium ampeloprasum, Holmense variety, similar to Elephant Garlic which is the Ampeloprasum variety), with a mellower flavour than regular garlic. It’s a typical product from the Valdichiana area in Tuscany and has only recently been rediscovered and brought back into production (the ones I found are grown by Ortofrutticola Castiglionese). If you don’t have aglione, you can try doing this technique with regular garlic too. For those who like a bit of heat, some chilli is good in this too.

Serves 4

For the pici:

1½ cups/ 200 grams of plain flour
1½ cups/ 200 grams of semola, plus more for dusting
1 cup/ 200 ml water
1 tablespoon olive oil

For the sauce:
4 cloves of aglione
60 ml ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
100 ml white wine
400 gr tinned or fresh tomato pulp
salt and pepper

To make the pici, mix the two flours together on a clean surface, forming a pyramid. Create a well in the centre of the pyramid and pour in the water bit by bit while incorporating the flour by carefully swirling the liquid with your hands. Continue combining the flour and water this way until you have a smooth dough. If you find your dough comes together before you finish incorporating all the flour, stop there; if it is too sticky, dust on some extra flour. You want a ball of dough that springs back when you poke it and no longer sticks to your hands when you roll it. Set the dough aside to rest, covered, for at least 30 minutes (I use this time to start making the sauce).

Separate the dough into two pieces to begin with and on a well-floured surface roll out the first piece until it is about 2-3mm (1/10 inch) thick. Cut long strips and then with the palms of your hands on a board or between your thumb and fingers in the air, roll each flat strip from the center outwards, until you have thick noodle. Dust with plenty of semola and roll around your hand then set aside — I usually place them in a single layer on a wooden board dusted with semola or flour. Continue until you have finished all the dough.

Heat a pot of water to boil the pasta and season with 1 teaspoon of salt for each litre (4 cups) of water.

For the sauce: If you are using fresh tomatoes, you should blanch them in a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds first to peel the skins off, then chop roughly.

Peel the garlic cloves and place them whole (or if extra large, halved) in the pan with the olive oil and white wine. Turn heat on low and gently heat. The aim here is to very gently cook the garlic cloves without them colouring, until they are so soft that you can them crush them easily with a fork – it will take about 30 minutes at least, covered. If you’re using regular garlic then you’ll need less, about 15-20 minutes. The reason to do this and not chop them before is that they will more easily burn in smaller pieces and you want to draw out their sweetness by the slow, low cooking. Add the tomato pulp, season with salt and pepper to taste, and continue cooking a further 20 minutes, uncovered, until the sauce has thickened slightly, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.

Boil the pasta until al dente, about 3 minutes for fresh pici, then drain and toss through the warm sauce until well coated and serve immediately.

A tip for preparing for this recipe: I would not recommend trying to make this pasta too far in advance as the pici could start sticking — or drying out too much which can affect the texture. If you would like to prepare a part of this recipe ahead of time, make the sauce. It will keep well in an airtight container such as a jar for a few days in the fridge. But otherwise, start first by making the dough. Then, while it is resting for 30 minutes, start the sauce. Go back to the dough once it is rested and by the time you have made the pasta and are ready to boil it, the sauce will be ready, and still warm.


  1. Val says:

    I’ve just started experimenting with semolina so look forward to trying this. And my favorite kind of Italian pottery (the splatterware) always makes me happy!

Leave A Comment