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Jul 5, 2011
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Wine With . . . Pasta with Sardines

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

Even people who think they don’t like sardines usually ask for seconds once they taste this surprisingly light and delicately flavored pasta, which works equally well as an appetizer or a main course.  Pasta con le sarde is a dish native to Sicily--one of the ornaments of Palermo’s cooking,” says Marcella Hazan--but with a few tweaks to the authenticity of the original, any one of us can use the savory concoction to ornament our own summer suppers.

While fresh sardines are readily available in Sicily, the canned version is almost as ubiquitous even there.  In fact, canned sardines are so tasty, inexpensive, and easy to use that we make sure to always have a couple of cans on hand in the pantry for last minute cooking occasions.   In Italy, wild fennel is a traditional ingredient when pasta and sardines get together, but since the flavor of the cultivated variety is so different we leave it out altogether, although a few regular fennel fronds tossed into the mix will certainly add an additional level of complexity.  Saffron and tomato paste also can be traditional ingredients, and a few dried currants are likewise authentic additions.  Sicilians favor tubular pasta such as perciatelli or bucatini in this recipe, but if you can’t find them feel free to use spaghetti or linguine.

Pasta with Sardines

Serves 4


1/ 2 cup minced onion

1/3 cup olive oil

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted

2 tablespoons capers

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 cans sardines, preferably packed in olive oil

1 pound perciatelli or other pasta

1/ 4 cup finely minced fresh parsley

1/ 2 cup coarse breadcrumbs, lightly toasted in oven or toaster-oven

Add salt to a large pot of water and bring it to the boil.  In a large skillet, cook the onion in the olive oil over medium-low heat until it is soft (do not brown).  Stir in the pepper flakes, pine nuts, capers and lemon zest. Add the sardines to the onion mixture, breaking them up a little with a spoon as you stir them in.  Simmer for 2-3 minutes, or until heated through.  Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions.  Reserve about 1/3 cup of the cooking liquid, then drain the pasta.  Add the pasta to the sardine mixture along with the parsley and half the breadcrumbs. Mix together, add the reserved cooking water if the mixture seems dry, and top with the remaining breadcrumbs.  Pass extra olive oil at the table.

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This dish may sound as though it will be full-flavored, but it’s in fact very delicate and fresh-tasting, the sardines contributing a subtle rather than a dominant flavor.  As a result, we found that the wines that work best with it need to be equally fresh and light, with bright, usually citrus fruit flavors that echo elements in the dish itself. 



Approx. Price



Banfi, Toscana (Italy) Pinot Grigio “Le Rime” 2010

(Imported by Banfi Vintners)






Though this wine tastes fairly one-dimensional on its own, it displays unexpected nuances when paired with this pasta dish, and always tastes fresh and vibrant.



Deusa Nai, Rias Baixas (Spain) Albariño 2010

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)






A superior match, this Albariño and the lemon and sardine infused pasta seem made for each other.  The food and the wine echo and accent elements in each other, providing an example of the sort of synergy that only the best pairings exhibit.




Joseph Faiveley, Burgundy (France)  Mâcon-Villages 2008

(Imported by Wilson Daniels)







The richest tasting wine we’re recommending, this Mâcon’s fresh apple and lemon flavors and subtle streak of chalky minerality keep it focused and fresh-tasting—just what this pasta dish needs in a wine partner.




Fred Loimer, Niederösterreich (Austria) Grüner Veltliner “Lois” 2010

(Imported by Winebow)






With Grüner Veltliner’s characteristic note of (white) pepper, this otherwise bright wine adds a note of depth to the pairing.  Some examples of the varietal would be too rich for this dish.  This one, however, is quite light and refreshing.




Mohua, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2010

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)







Marked by vivid citrus flavors, with a hint of fresh herbs in the bouquet, this vibrant Sauvignon Blanc gives the pasta a lift, making what already is a delicate dish seem even lighter and fresher.