Meet Pasta Fazool, the Italian-American Version of Tomato Soup

Pasta fazool offers the best qualities of tomato soup and classic pasta with marinara sauce.

Pasta Fazool (Pasta e Fagioli)
Photo by Chef John.

When I take the time to comb through my own food-related memories, one person plays a more prominent role than any other: my beloved maternal grandmother, Irene (or "Nani", as I call her).

Nani comes from an Italian-American family with roots on the Amalfi Coast in Southern Italy, and every childhood visit to her house felt fragranced by garlic, oregano, and bubbling tomato sauce.

Before I headed off to college (armed with very little culinary knowledge beyond making a passable grilled cheese and getting the perfect toast level on Pop-Tarts), Nani taught me to cook some of her signature dishes, including marinara sauce, meatballs, lasagna, and the hearty, comforting, and vibrant tomato-based soup that she called "pasta fazool."

In the years since, I've shared giant pots of pasta fazool with friends and loved ones, several of whom have told me that this meal is "like tomato soup, but way better."

If you're curious to learn exactly what makes pasta fazool so special (and why it deserves a place in your winter dinner line-up), read on.

What Is Pasta Fazool?

Pasta fazool, at its essence, is an Americanization of a classic Italian soup known as pasta e fagioli. "'Pasta e fagioli' translates to 'pasta and beans,'" says executive chef Stephen Ennamorati of Pazza on Porter in Boston, Mass.

While I'm writing the American version as "pasta fazool" in this piece, that has more to do with the dish's pronunciation than with any official change in the spelling of "pasta e fagioli."

Ennamorati explains this semantic quirk like so: "The term 'fazool' is an Italian-American dialect version of 'fagioli', much in the same way as some Italian-American families call mozzarella 'mootzarel' or capicola 'gabagool.'"

Pasta Fazool vs Pasta e Fagioli

While Italian pasta e fagioli and Italian-American pasta fazool are technically the same dish, certain stylistic traits can distinguish them from one another. As this soup's name suggests, the two primary ingredients in both versions are pasta (usually ditalini, a small tube-shaped pasta) and beans (either cannellini beans, Great Northern beans, or Borlotti beans).

But according to chef, TV host, and cookbook author Capri Cafaro, one major distinction between Italian pasta e fagioli and its American cousin is "the consistency. Pasta e fagioli is a bit more like a soup broth and may have more vegetables, the addition of sausage, or a wider variety of beans included."

When it comes to pasta fazool, Cafaro tells us that her Italian-American grandmother (like my Nani) made it with "tomato sauce, cannellini beans/white beans, and ditalini pasta. It is important to note that there are regional and family variations on these types of recipes. We are of Neapolitan descent, and this is a common dish for Italian-Americans from that region, but everyone has their own twist."

To sum it up, pasta e fagioli feels more like a vegetable and bean soup, whereas the Italian American pasta fazool created by southern Italian immigrants features a "broth" that's more like a marinara sauce (made with crushed tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, onion, and seasonings), along with ample helpings of white beans and pasta.

What's the Best Way to Serve Pasta Fazool?

Cafaro's belief that "everyone has their own twist" on pasta fazool is absolutely correct. My Nani tended to make her pasta fazool on the thicker side, so it felt more like a scoopable pasta dish than like a soup, but if you prefer a brothier variation, then it's easy to add water, chicken or veggie stock, or wine to the soup to thin it out.

I learned to make pasta fazool as a vegetarian-friendly dish, but I now like to start by cooking pancetta in olive oil along with onion and garlic to give the soup a porky backbone. If you'd like to add substance while keeping the dish meat-free, try including hearty vegetables like escarole, Tuscan kale, carrots, and celery.

And however you choose to zhuzh up your pasta fazool, don't forget to top your bowl with a dusting of grated Parmesan and to keep a hunk of crusty bread ready for dipping.

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