Recipes / Ma-Ma’s Pasta “Milanese”

Ma-Ma’s Pasta “Milanese”

By Mark Bittman

Published April 1, 2024

It’s hard to argue that there’s anything Milanese about this crazy but delicious recipe from Kerri's maternal grandmother.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
The following may contain affiliate links for which we earn a small commission. Thank you for supporting us in this way!

Kerri’s family were Sicilians who immigrated to New Orleans via Tunisia around the turn of the century. Whether they brought this pasta with them is unknown, but the thick sauce (which is not unlike other Sicilian pasta dishes I (Mark) know) is still popular among the Italian community in Louisiana. The name, however, just doesn’t match the ingredients—especially the cauliflower, sardines, and pecans—which are a better reflection of “Ma-Ma’s” journey than anything you’ll find in Milan.


Make The Recipe!

Ma-Ma’s Pasta “Milanese”

Prevent your screen from going dark

Makes 4 servings 1x

Time About 1 hour, largely unattended

Units Scale


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • Two 3.75-ounce cans sardines, preferably packed in olive oil
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1 cup red wine or water, or more as needed
  • One 28– or 35-ounce can chopped or whole tomatoes; include their juice
  • 1 small cauliflower, cored and roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup raisins or currants
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
  • 8 ounces any pasta, preferably whole wheat (Ma-Ma used regular spaghetti or linguine)


  1. Put the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the onion, bell pepper, and celery and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until everything is soft and the onion becomes translucent, about 5 minutes. (If you’re using whole tomatoes, now is a good time to core them and break them up a bit.) Stir in the garlic, sardines with their oil, and tomato paste and cook until the mixture is fragrant and starting to stick to the bottom of the pan.
  2. Stir in the wine and scrape up any bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes and cauliflower. Sprinkle again with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat so that the mixture bubbles steadily, then partially cover and cook, stirring once in a while, until the cauliflower is extremely soft and disintegrating, 20 to 30 minutes; add more wine or water if the mixture gets too thick. Stir in the raisins and nuts. (The sauce can be made ahead to this point. Cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to a few days or freeze for longer; gently reheat before proceeding.)
  3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Cook the pasta until it’s tender but not mushy (start tasting after 5 minutes), then drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Toss with the sauce, adding enough reserved liquid to keep it moist. Taste and adjust the seasoning and serve.

— Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook