There are countless variations on this pasta: some call for a bit of tomato to be added instead of saffron; others suggest warming the pasta in the oven after layering it with the sauce; still others call for a dusting of toasted bread crumbs flavored with anchovies. The recipe below includes saffron, pine nuts, wild fennel, and raisins, and the flavor balance is just slightly sweet. This is a sauce that requires a bit of time and patience, but it is one of the pinnacles of Sicilian cuisine and deserves every bit of its fame.
Ingredient notes: Wild fennel can be very hard to find; in Sicily it grows wild, but you may have to substitute the tops and fronds of fennel bulbs. I like to add a bit of ground fennel seeds along with the fennel fronds to better mimic the wild fennel flavor.
For the sauce:
- ½ cup golden raisins
- 1 and ½ pounds fresh sardines
- 1 and ¼ teaspoons salt
- 10 ounces wild fennel, or tops and feathery fronds from fennel bulbs, minced
- ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 large yellow onion, very thinly sliced
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground or crushed fennel seeds
- 2 salted anchovies, boned, gutted, and rinsed, or 4 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained
- ½ teaspoon saffron pistils
- ½ cup pine nuts
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the pasta:
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1 pound bucatini
Make the sauce: Soak the raisins in cool water to cover for 15 minutes; drain and blot dry.
Rinse the sardines. Remove the heads, open them like a book, and remove the innards and bones. Rinse again and blot dry. If possible, try to keep the two filets attached. Select half of the sardines and set aside; these should be the best-looking ones, as they will be fried whole and placed atop the dish when serving.
Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add the wild fennel and cook 2 minutes, or until soft. Drain, reserving the wild fennel cooking water to cook the pasta later.
In a deep saucepan large enough to accommodate both the sardines and the pasta later, heat ¼ cup of olive oil until shimmering over medium-high heat. Dredge the sardines you set aside in the flour, shaking off the excess, and fry until they are golden on both sides and cooked through, about 3 minutes total. Blot dry on paper towels. Season with ¼ teaspoon of the salt and set aside. Clean the saucepan and dry it.
Place the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the clean saucepan. Add the onion and ground fennel seeds, and sauté over a medium flame until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the less perfect sardines and cook, stirring and breaking them up with a spoon, about 3 minutes. Add the anchovies and cook until they melt into the sauce, about 2 minutes. Stir in the drained and boiled wild fennel, the saffron, drained raisins, and pine nuts, and season with the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt and the pepper. Cover and cook 2 minutes; adjust the seasoning and keep warm on a very low heat.
Make the pasta: Return the wild fennel cooking water to a boil. Add the salt and the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving 2 cups of the cooking water.
Stir the pasta into the sauce and sauté 1 minute to meld the flavors. Adjust the seasoning as needed and dilute if necessary with some of the reserved cooking water. Serve hot, topped with the fried sardines.