Vermicelli alla Sophia Loren: Rachel Roddy’s recipe for pasta with parsley pesto

The story starts with a pregnant woman stealing parsley from a garden. She gets caught by the owner, a furious ogress, who, as penance, makes the woman promise that one day she will hand over her child. The child is born, and beautiful, and named Petrosinella, the old Italian word for parsley. As she grows, her mother warns her to stay away from the ogress, but one day the ogress sees the child returning from school and grabs what she is owed, hiding Petrosinella in a tower in the woods. Climbing the tower using the girl’s long hair is the only means of entry for the ogress … but also for a prince.

The story of Petrosinella, also known as Prezzemolina (Little Parsley), is by the Neapolitan poet and courtier Giambattista Basile, although it wasn’t published until after his death, in a posthumous collection of fairy tales, Lo Cunto de li Cunti (The Tale of Tales), in 1634. Almost two centuries later, in 1812, the Brothers Grimm would note their admiration for Basile and publish Rapunzel, which is thought to come from Campanula rapunculus, the spinach-like plant the wife craves in the Grimms’ version of the story.

A century and a half later, in the autumn of 1968, Sophia Loren is a few months pregnant and in bed. As a voluntary prisoner on the 18th floor of the InterContinental hotel in Geneva, having been warned by her doctor to do as little as possible to protect her growing baby, she asked herself: “What am I going to do to make the months go by?” The answer was to walk through her childhood memories, and the dishes gathered on trips and meals cooked for friends, which resulted in a cookbook.

Forty-nine years later, and I am in Rome holding Sophia’s beautiful book, which has parsley on the cover (also Sophia, artichokes, courgettes and glowing melons). While lately I feel more like the ogress than Sophia or Petrosinella, they have both been on my mind, because I keep buying bunches of parsley with the intention of making parsley tea, which apparently has 15 benefits. But it’s not as nice as Yorkshire Tea, so I keep finding myself with dying parsley. One answer is Sophia’s parsley sauce, which, she says, is inspired by pesto. Although I wonder if she meant salsa verde, or green sauce, because that is what it is: parsley, capers, garlic, olives and anchovies pounded to a paste, then enough olive oil is added to turn it into a sauce to mix with pasta – strong and scrumptious. This is one of those recipes where specific quantities are risky and questions more useful. How salty are your capers? Do you like anchovies? How big is your hand? I have kept the description vague; read and adapt according to your answers. My addition to Sophia’s recipe is to boil diced potato along with the pasta, so it collapses like an abstemious intention and softens the final dish.

Unfortunately for Petrosinella and the prince, there is a nosy neighbour who tells the ogress about his nightly visits. Fortunately, there are also three beans, one of which turns into a wolf that swallows the ogress whole: bad news for the ogress, joy for the young lovers. There was joy for Sophia in Geneva, too: after six months of rest in that hotel in the sky, Carlo Jr – “the greatest joy of my life” – was born. A few years later, the book was published, its title, In the Kitchen with Love, written in parsley green.

Vermicelli alla Sophia
Prep 5 min
Cook 20 min
Serves 4

1 big handful flat-leaf parsley
1 small garlic clove, peeled
A few capers
A few black olives
2-4 anchovy fillets
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small potato
450g linguine, vermicelli, trenette, spaghetti

Put a large pan of water on to boil. In a mortar or food processor, pound or pulse the parsley and garlic, then add the capers, olives and anchovies and pound/pulse until you have a rough paste. Stir in enough olive oil to make the sauce runny.

Peel the potato and dice small. Add salt to the boiling water, stir, then add the potato and let it boil for a couple of minutes. Now add the pasta and cook until al dente.

Scape the pesto into a bowl and, once the pasta is done, either lift directly into the bowl or drain, saving some of the cooking water, tip into the bowl and toss. If the sauce seems at all stiff, add a little of the reserved cooking water and toss again.