Sardinia is a craggy island located just off the knee of Italy’s boot. And, as an island, seafood holds sway, but retreat inland and you’ll find a rich, farm-centered cuisine made up of hard durum wheat, mutton, sheeps’ milk cheese, and wiry-haired porco sardo, a native breed of pig.
Malloreddus alla campidanese―pasta tossed in a rich ragù of tomato, fatty Sardinian pork sausage, and a native sherry-like wine called vernaccia di Oristano―is a taste of this inland cuisine (Campidanese refers to the style of the sauce, and is named after a plain on the island). While every family has their own iteration, the dish generally consists of little ridged pasta nuggets―the malloreddus―that are made from finely-ground semolina flour. Many recipes and restaurants refer to this pasta as Sardinian gnocchi (“gnochetti sardi”), though if you are expecting pillowy, light potato gnocchi, you are in for a surprise; instead, this style of pasta is chewy and toothsome. The ragù that the gnocchi are served in is imbued with saffron, which some postulate arrived on Sardinian shores eons ago, during trade with the Pheonicians; though the saffron crocus is still grown by Sardinian farmers today.
The dish is finished with lashings of fudgy-textured, salty-sweet Pecorino Sardo, which Letitia Clark, author of the Sardinian cookbook Bitter Honey, explained is very different from the mass-produced Pecorino Romano often found in supermarkets in the US (which is often crumbly, dry, and decidedly not fudgy in texture).
When developing this recipe, I wanted to be cognizant of this dish’s terroir, but I also wanted to make it accessible, since most of us won’t be able to get fresh Sardinian pork sausage, and since it can be difficult to find Sardinian wine, Pecorino Sardo, or even Clark’s preferred Sardinian brand of whole canned tomatoes—Antonella (which you can purchase online, though with a hefty shipping fee). While I’ve referenced most of these traditional ingredients in the recipe (save for the sausage), I’ve also provided some informed substitutions that will get you pretty close to the real deal. For example, I had trouble finding a local source for vernaccia di Oristano, so instead, I turned to fino sherry; this is the driest of the sherries and lends the requisite nutty, slightly sweet notes without making the sauce saccharine. But if you can get your hands on some vernaccia di Oristano (you can source it online) all the more power to you.
For the tomatoes, if you want a very authentic sauce, you can go ahead and buy the Alessi brand that Clark uses and recommends. I experimented with a few different brands of whole canned tomatoes I found at my local grocery store before settling on Alessi DOP whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes with basil; they were a nice balance of sweet and tangy, and melted nicely into the sauce; other brands like Muir Glen were watery and left hard chunks of tomato. For best results, spring for any good-quality brand of whole-canned tomatoes: DeLallo, Gustiamo’s, Mutti, and Bianco di Napoli are a few options. And if you can’t find Pecorino Sardo (though you can buy it online and at specialty cheese counters, if you’re willing to search), I found that good-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano, which has a similar sweet-salty taste, works. Orthodox, no, but it’s the closest thing most of us can easily get.
Then there’s the saffron. According to Clark and Sardinian blogger Claudia Tavani, most Sardinians use saffron powder because it’s cheaper. However, even after multiple grocery store visits I couldn’t find saffron powder; I only found threads. While you can buy saffron powder online, the good quality kind is about the same price as whole threads; I would pick whatever is more readily available to you, and in my case it was a tiny capsule of threads that set me back about $10.
The sausage was the trickiest ingredient to figure out. According to Clark, fresh Sardinian pork sausage is dark, almost maroon, with only a few added flavorings: garlic, fennel, black pepper, and sometimes chile. It’s also impossible to find stateside. So, I decided the best route was to make my own stand-in. It’s not as hard as it sounds, especially since you don’t need to stuff the mixture into casings; it just requires seasoning pre-ground pork with salt, pepper, garlic, fennel seeds, and red pepper flakes. If you want an even easier shortcut, you can use good-quality sweet Italian sausage removed from the casings or bought loose. The flavors might be different than the real deal, but you’ll still get a delicious porky ragù to serve with your malloreddus.
The one non-negotiable when making this dish is the finely-ground semolina flour—it’s essential to getting the chewy, toothsome texture of the malloreddus. Coarser semolina will result in a nubbly dough and rough pasta. King Arthur Baking Company sells a finely-ground version that they call “durum flour” (durum wheat is the varietal used to make semolina), which is perfect for this recipe.
Many recipes call for rolling the dough into 1/2-inch-thick ropes, then cutting each rope into 1/2 -inch-thick chunks before shaping. I found the malloreddus this size a bit large and dense, and preferred slightly smaller ones, about 1/4 inch thick in size. This still produced a substantial yet slightly dainty malloreddus that felt more proportionate to the bits of ground meat in the ragù.
To get the shape of the malloreddus right, I used a gnocchi board (which produced perfect results), but I also discovered a fun alternative method if you don’t have (or don’t want to clutter your drawers with) a gnocchi board: a sushi mat. Just unroll the mat, take a nugget of dough and roll it in the direction of the bamboo—you’ll have a beautiful little malloreddus. If you have neither of these items, a fork will work in a pinch.
As I shaped the malloreddus, I placed them on a sheet pan coated lightly in semolina flour and tossed them with a little more semolina flour before covering them with plastic wrap. You can also freeze them by placing them on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and covering it with plastic wrap, if you’re not using them right away.
The last step—but one that Clark says is integral to a cohesive final dish (we’ve said it too)—is to simmer the cooked pasta briefly in the sauce, which helps it cling better.
I won’t lie, this isn’t the type of pasta dish you throw together on a Tuesday night; it’s actually the definition of “homemade,” if there ever was one. But, the result—little chewy pasta nuggets swaddled in a fragrant, earthy, and porky ragù—is worth the time and effort. Serve it to those you really love (acquaintances, maybe not), or tuck into a bowl yourself, a glass of Barolo within arms reach, and luxuriate in the fruit of your labor.
For the Sausage (optional; see note): In a large bowl, combine ground pork, red pepper flakes, fennel seeds, salt, pepper, and garlic and, using your hands or a sturdy spatula, mix until thoroughly combined, sticky, and cohesive, about 1 minute. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
For the Malloreddus: In a large bowl, whisk together semolina flour and a pinch of saffron powder (if using) until well combined. Using your hands, make a small well in the center of the flour, then pour 5 fluid ounces water into the well. Using your fingertips, gradually stir the flour into the water until it holds together in a single mass. Then, knead dough in the bowl until a cohesive ball forms, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer dough ball to a work surface lightly dusted with semolina flour. Knead until dough is smooth and no dry flour remains, about 5 minutes. Shape dough into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Alternatively, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine semolina flour, a pinch of saffron powder (if using), and 5 fluid ounces water and mix on low speed until flour is fully moistened, about 2 minutes. Scrape down bowl, then continue kneading on low speed until a smooth ball forms and no dry flour remains, about 3 minutes. Using your hands, shape the dough into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.
Lightly dust a rimmed baking sheet with semolina flour and set aside. On a clean work surface lightly dusted with semolina flour, roll dough into a roughly 12-inch long cylinder. Using a bench scraper, divide the cylinder into 8 equal portions and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Working with one portion at a time, roll into a long rope, about 1/4 inch thick. Using a bench scraper, cut rope into roughly 1/4-inch segments. Repeat with remaining portions, covering with plastic wrap as you go.
Use a gnocchi board, sushi mat, or fork to shape the gnocchi. To do so, hold one piece of dough with the cut-side facing you, then use your thumb to pull the dough along the ridges of the board, sushi mat, or fork (ridges should be vertical to the dough). The shaped dough will have a little indentation from your thumb and should resemble a tiny tube. Transfer malloreddus to prepared baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and repeat with remaining dough, lightly dusting with additional flour as you go.
For the Sausage Ragù: In a large Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add prepared sausage, using a wooden spoon to spread in an even layer across bottom of pot, and cook for 1 minute. Stir to break up sausage into 1/2-inch pieces.
Reduce heat to medium-low, add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and nearly translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, crushed red pepper, black pepper, bay leaf, and saffron and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Pour in vernaccia di Oristano or sherry, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any brown bits on the bottom of the pot, and cook until raw alcohol smell has mostly cooked off, about 1 minute.
Add canned tomatoes and their liquid, salt, and 1/2 cup water, then crush the whole tomatoes roughly with a spoon. Return to a simmer, reduce heat to low, partially cover pot, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Remove lid, increase heat to medium, and cook, stirring frequently, until sauce is thick and slightly darker in color, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
To Assemble and Serve: Meanwhile, bring a large pot of very well-salted water to a boil. Add malloreddus to boiling water and cook, stirring frequently, until they float to the surface, about 2 minutes. Using a spider skimmer or slotted spoon, scoop malloreddus and add directly to sausage ragù, along with 1/4 cup (60ml) pasta cooking water.
Increase heat to medium and cook, stirring gently, until malloreddus are coated in the slightly thickened sauce, about 1 minute. Stir in Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve immediately, passing more grated cheese at the table.
Stand mixer, Dutch oven, bench scraper, gnocchi board or sushi mat (optional)
If you don’t want to make the sausage, you can buy 1 1/2 pounds (680g) fresh sweet Italian sausage (about 6 sausage links), removed from the casing.
If you choose to make the sausage, I recommend asking your butcher for ground pork that’s a mix of dark and light meat.
For finely-ground semolina flour, I like King Arthur’s finely-ground durum flour (durum wheat is the varietal used to make semolina).
Make-Ahead and Storage
To freeze uncooked shaped malloreddus, place pasta on a half sheet pan lined with parchment paper and freeze until firm, then transfer to a zipper-lock bag or an airtight container and store in the freezer for up to 1 month.
The sausage ragù can be made in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 6 months. We don’t recommend cooking the pasta and coating it in the ragù if you’re planning on storing it for a later time; the malloreddus will get soft and mushy.