Why It Works
- Letting the pasta dough rest allows the flour to hydrate better, making it smoother. It also lets the gluten bonds relax, making the dough easier to roll into its signature shape.
- Making your own sausage with ground pork allows you to hone the flavor to align the ragù more closely to the real thing.
- Finely-ground semolina flour ensures smooth, shapeable malloreddus.
Sardinia is a craggy island located just off the knee of Italy’s boot. And, as an island, seafood holds sway, but retreat inland and you’ll find a rich, farm-centered cuisine made up of hard durum wheat, mutton, sheep’s milk cheese, and wiry-haired porco sardo, a native breed of pig.
Malloreddus alla campidanese―pasta tossed in a rich ragù of tomato, fatty Sardinian pork sausage, and a native sherry-like wine called vernaccia di Oristano―is a taste of this inland cuisine (Campidanese refers to the style of the sauce, and is named after a plain on the island). While every family has their own iteration, the dish generally consists of little ridged pasta nuggets―the malloreddus―that are made from finely-ground semolina flour. Many recipes and restaurants refer to this pasta as Sardinian gnocchi (“gnochetti sardi”), although if you are expecting pillowy, light potato gnocchi, you are in for a surprise; instead, this style of pasta is chewy and toothsome. The ragù that the gnocchi are served in is imbued with saffron, which some postulate arrived on Sardinian shores eons ago, during trade with the Pheonicians; although the saffron crocus is still grown by Sardinian farmers today.
The dish is finished with lashings of fudgy-textured, salty-sweet Pecorino Sardo, which Letitia Clark, author of the Sardinian cookbook Bitter Honeyexplained is very different from the mass-produced Pecorino Romano often found in supermarkets in the US (which is often crumbly, dry, and decidedly not fudgy in texture).
When developing this recipe, I wanted to be cognizant of this dish’s terroir, but I also wanted to make it accessible, since most of us won’t be able to get fresh Sardinian pork sausage, and since it can be difficult to find Sardinian wine , Pecorino Sardo, or even Clark’s preferred Sardinian brand of whole canned tomatoes—Antonella (which you can purchase online, though with a hefty shipping fee). While I’ve referenced most of these traditional ingredients in the recipe (save for the sausage), I’ve also provided some informed substitutions that will get you pretty close to the real deal. For example, I had trouble finding a local source for vernaccia di Oristano, so instead, I turned to fino sherry; this is the driest of the sherries and lends the requisite nutty, slightly sweet notes without making the sauce saccharine. But if you can get your hands on some vernaccia di Oristano (you can source it online) all the more power to you.
For the tomatoes, if you want a very authentic sauce, you can go ahead and buy the Alessi brand that Clark uses and recommends. I experimented with a few different brands of whole canned tomatoes I found at my local grocery store before settling on Alessi DOP whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes with basil; they were a nice balance of sweet and tangy, and melted nicely into the sauce; other brands like Muir Glen were watery and left hard chunks of tomato. For best results, go for any good-quality brand of whole-canned tomatoes: DeLallo, Gustiamo’s, Mutti, and Bianco di Napoli are a few options. And if you can’t find Pecorino Sardo (although you can buy it online and at specialty cheese counters, if you’re willing to search), I found that good-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano, which has a similar sweet-salty taste, works. Orthodox, no, but it’s the closest thing most of us can easily get.
Then there’s the saffron. According to Clark and Sardinian blogger Claudia Tavani, most Sardinians use saffron powder because it’s cheaper. However, even after multiple grocery store visits I couldn’t find saffron powder; I only found threads. While you can buy saffron powder online, the good quality kind is about the same price as whole threads; I would pick whatever is more readily available to you, and in my case it was a tiny capsule of threads that set me back about $10.
The sausage was the trickiest ingredient to figure out. According to Clark, fresh Sardinian pork sausage is dark, almost maroon, with only a few added flavorings: garlic, fennel, black pepper, and sometimes chile. It’s also impossible to find stateside. So, I decided the best route was to make my own stand-in. It’s not as hard as it sounds, especially since you don’t need to stuff the mixture into casings; it just requires seasoning pre-ground pork with salt, pepper, garlic, fennel seeds, and red pepper flakes. If you want an even easier shortcut, you can use good-quality sweet Italian sausage removed from the casings or bought loose. The flavors might be different than the real deal, but you’ll still get a delicious porky ragù to serve with your malloreddus.
The one non-negotiable when making this dish is the finely-ground semolina flour—it’s essential to getting the chewy, toothsome texture of the malloreddus. Coarse semolina will result in a nubbly dough and rough pasta. King Arthur Baking Company sells a finely-ground version that they call “durum flour” (durum wheat is the varietal used to make semolina), which is perfect for this recipe.
Many recipes call for rolling the dough into 1/2-inch-thick ropes, then cutting each rope into 1/2-inch-thick chunks before shaping. I found the malloreddus this size a bit large and dense, and preferred slightly smaller ones, about 1/4 inch thick in size. This still produced a substantial yet slightly dainty malloreddus that felt more proportionate to the bits of ground meat in the ragù.
To get the shape of the malloreddus right, I used a gnocchi board (which produced perfect results), but I also discovered a fun alternative method if you don’t have (or don’t want to clutter your drawers with) a gnocchi board : a sushi dish. Just unroll the mat, take a nugget of dough and roll it in the direction of the bamboo—you’ll have a beautiful little malloreddus. If you have neither of these items, a fork will work in a pinch.
As I shaped the malloreddus, I placed them on a sheet pan coated lightly in semolina flour and tossed them with a little more semolina flour before covering them with plastic wrap. You can also freeze them by placing them on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and covering it with plastic wrap, if you’re not using them right away.
The last step—but one that Clark says is integral to a cohesive final dish (we’ve said it too)—is to simmer the cooked pasta briefly in the sauce, which helps it cling better.
I won’t lie, this isn’t the type of pasta dish you throw together on a Tuesday night; it’s actually the definition of “homemade,” if there ever was one. But, the result—little chewy pasta nuggets swaddled in a fragrant, earthy, and porky ragù—is worth the time and effort. Serve it to those you really love (acquaintances, maybe not), or tuck into a bowl yourself, a glass of Barolo within arms reach, and luxuriate in the fruit of your labor.