This spicy Italian sausage pasta recipe comes from Calabria in Southern Italy where the rich, spicy, tomato-based sauce is made with the famously fiery spreadable Calabrian chilli pepper and pork sausage paste called ’nduja. We use a skinless spicy Italian pork sausage and shallots or red onions, but you can use ’nduja and Tropea onions if you can source them.
Discovering the food of a place is one of the things we love most about travel. One of our most memorable culinary adventures was a months-long road trip criss-crossing Calabria, Italy’s southernmost mainland region, researching the first English-language Calabria travel guidebook. It was on that trip that we fell in love with Calabrian food and its spicy specialties, such as the spreadable sausage ’nduja and Calabrian chilli peppers.
Along with Sicilian cuisine, Calabrian cuisine boasts some of Italy’s spiciest food, courtesy of Peperoncino Calabrese or Calabrian chilli. The peperoncini or chilli peppers are used in everything from bomba Calabrese, a spicy chilli relish, and Calabrian soppressata, a spicy salami, to Calabria’s fiery spreadable chilli pepper and pork sausage called ’nduja, which you can read more about in our guide to ’nduja and how to use it.
Traditionally, this classic Calabrian spicy Italian sausage pasta recipe calls for ’nduja, although you’ll also find these tomato-based pastas made with spicy Italian sausages at restaurants in Calabria that don’t feature ’nduja. Instead they are given a good kick of heat from the fresh Calabrian chillies in the sausage meat and a generous sprinkle of peperoncini or dried chilli flakes.
We can source Calabrian soppressata, but can only occasionally get hold of Calabrian ’nduja here in Cambodia. So when we can’t find ’nduja, I make this pasta with chilli flakes ground from local dried red chillies and spicy Italian skinless sausages produced by a European butcher here. Fortunately, it’s easy to buy ’nduja online.
And if you are a fan of ’nduja, see these recipes for the Calabria’s version of the Southern Italian breakfast dish, eggs in purgatory; an easy nduja bruschetta with goat’s cheese and sweet red capsicum, which makes a perfect snack, brunch, lunch or finger food; our take on Australian chef Christine Manfield’s legendary eggplant ‘sandwich’ with ’nduja (instead of basil pesto); and our ’nduja pizza made in a Dutch oven.
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Now let me tell you more about this spicy Italian sausage pasta recipe from Southern Italy.
Spicy Italian Sausage Pasta Recipe from Calabria in Southern Italy
Before I share some tips to making this rigatoni in a piquant tomato-based sauce with spicy Italian sausage, one of our best pasta recipes, I wanted to share a bit more about Calabrian food with you – because it’s Calabria’s specialties that set this spicy Italian sausage pasta recipe apart from other Italian sausage pasta recipes.
We fell head over heels with the food of Calabria – the southernmost mainland region that forms the toe and sole of boot-shaped Italy – on a road trip researching a first edition travel guidebook to Calabria many years ago.
Between eight years’ living in the Middle East and our current 13-year stint in Southeast Asia, we spent seven years living out of our suitcases, bouncing around the world on guidebook writing assignments. A big chunk of that period was spent in Europe, particularly in Italy.
Terence and I had been travelling to Italy for six years before we started writing travel guides to Italy for Lonely Planet, Footprint, Thomas Cook, and so on. But the focus of our work had been on Northern Italy, where we’d spent most of our time, both as travellers and travel writers.
Calabria was new to us. We’d road-tripped around Sicily and holidayed on the Isole Eolie or Aeolian Islands, but back then the furthest south we’d travelled on Italy’s mainland was the Amalfi Coast. I’d done loads of pre-trip research on Calabria’s history, geography and culture, but only a little on Calabrian food. These spice lovers were in for a delicious surprise.
The food of Calabria is some of Italy’s spiciest food, thanks to its climate and a history marked by conquest and settlement by everyone from the Greeks and Romans to the Byzantines and Normans. But it was the Arabs (Saracens) and Spanish (Castilians and Catalans) who really made their mark on Calabrian cuisine, introducing everything from citrus to eggplants (the former) and tomatoes to chilli peppers (the latter).
The Arabs brought their love of spices to Calabria and Sicily, and opened up the ports to trade with the East. That explains how so many exotic spices found their way into the food of southern Italy, and why, still to do this day, the cuisines of Sicily and Calabria features dishes that are spicier than those in northern Italy.
But it was the Spaniards, according to John Dickie in Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, who brought chilli peppers and tomatoes to Italy via Spain from the Americas, during the Columbian Exchange. The first recipe in an Italian cookbook for a pasta sauce made with tomatoes, onions, chilli peppers, herbs and seasoning was published in 1692 in The Modern Steward by Antonio Latini, who called it a “Spanish tomato sauce”.
Our first stop on our drive down from Naples, where we’d picked up a hire car, was a charming little hotel en route in Maratea in Basilicata called La Locanda delle Donne Monache, which I’d wanted to stay at for years. It was just as dreamy as I’d imagined and if we hadn’t have had to start research on the guidebook I could have easily whiled a few days there.
But we were there to work and as we were close to the Calabrian border, it meant we could get in a full day exploring the northwest coast if we left after breakfast. We drove down the west coast of Calabria, calling into seaside villages with modest holiday parks with camping grounds skirting the seaside, making notes on potential points of interest for foreign travellers.
When we arrived at diminutive Diamante, which was already renowned in Calabria for its Peperoncino Festival, the first thing that jumped out at us was the bustling little Saturday morning market that lined a narrow beachside promenade.
I’m sure we caught a whiff of the piquant aromas before we spotted the row of covered stalls with bunches of fire-truck red fresh chillies hanging from their canopies. It was a spice lover’s idea of heaven.
Table after table heaved with bottles, jars and packets of Peperoncino Calabrese or Calabrian chilli. There were bags of dried chillies, packets of chilli flakes, bottles of chilli oil, jars of chilli relish, and chilli spread. There were even red chilli peppers painted on souvenir handmade ceramics.
There were also enormous pieces of Calabria’s spreadable chilli pepper pork sausage ’nduja, which comes from Spilinga, 160 kilometres south, in the hills above Capo Vaticano, but is made with peperoncino Calabrese.
Every alimentari or small goods shop sold peperoncino products – called prodotti tipici or typical specialties in Italy. And every pizzeria, trattoria and ristorante featured menus with dishes that included peperoncino Calabrese, from pizzas to pastas, including a more traditional spicy Italian sausage pasta made with nduja, peperoncino and sweet red onions from Tropea.
As we’d quickly discover, almost every eatery and restaurant in Calabria had some kind of version of this spicy Italian sausage pasta. We can’t always source nduja here, and we have our own local peperoncino or chilli flakes, but you can easily adapt this recipe.
Tips to Making this Spicy Italian Sausage Pasta Recipe
Just a few tips to making this spicy Italian sausage pasta recipe from Calabria, as it’s super easy. Our recipe calls for purple shallots or red onions, but if you can source them, definitely use the wonderful red Tropea onions as they do in Calabria.
Our recipe calls for skinless spicy Italian sausages or sausage meat removed from its casings, but do use Calabrian ’nduja if you can source it. If you don’t have an Italian deli nearby, it’s easy to buy ’nduja online.
Note that ’nduja is very spicy, so you’ll only need a third or up to half the amount suggested. If you’re not familiar with it experiment with a little at a time. You also won’t have to break it down as you would with a sausage, as it will do that itself. You could also try a mix of spicy Italian sausage and ’nduja, which is delicious.
Whenever possible we use peeled San Marzano tomatoes for this and other Italian pasta recipes. The elongated plum tomatoes are full of flavour and natural sweetness and are a perfect match to the deep spice of ‘nduja. You’ll need to crush these in the pan or simply use your favourite brand of canned crushed tomatoes.
In Calabria, large rigatoni is typically used for this pasta, so the sausage sauce fills the tubes, but you could use penne or another tubular pasta. Cook the pasta until a couple of minutes before it reaches al dente, according to the pasta packet instructions, as it will keep cooking after you transfer it to the sausage sauce. If you over-cook the pasta tubes, they will break apart.
Calabrian chefs serve this rich piquant pasta on its own as they don’t think it needs more flavour, but I can’t resist sprinkling on a little Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, and some roughly-chopped flat leaf parsley or celery leaves.
Italians serve pasta as a primi or first course. This recipe could easily feed four if you do the same. If you’re serving it as a main course, it will give you two generous portions in big bowls, with leftovers for lunch the next day.
Spicy Italian Sausage Pasta Recipe
Please do let us know in the comments below if you make this spicy Italian sausage pasta recipe from Calabria in Southern Italy, as we love hearing how our recipes turn out for readers.
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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.