This spicy Calabrian chili pasta is a delicious weeknight meal with notes of sweet fennel, tangy tomato, garlic, onion, and spicy Calabrian chili. The sauce is honestly addicting!
I first developed this pasta recipe in 2020, and it's STILL a huge hit in my household.
Why You'll Love This Pasta
Inspiration: I wanted to create a tomato sauce with a spicy, tangy, sweet, and garlicky flavor combination. And I think I nailed it! Ultimately, this Calabrian chili pasta was loosely inspired by a few different dishes: (1) Alison Roman's caramelized shallot pasta, (2) Biang Biang noodles, and (3) "Szechuan-style" Indian chili paneer.
Here's why you should try this recipe:
- Spicy and Tangy: Fruity, spicy Calabrian chilis, sweet fennel, aromatic garlic, and tangy tomato paste come together to form an incredibly flavorful, addicting sauce similar to a tomato chili jam. The paste clings to the pasta as the soft and sweet aromatics nestle in its nooks and crannies.
- Flexible: This dish is incredibly flexible, so make it your own! I offer guidance on how much chili to use, but I leave the final seasoning up to you according to your taste preferences. And if you feel like the dish needs something, go through the list of flavors and ask yourself, does it need more salt? Then add more parm. Sweetness? Try a bit of honey. Acidity? Add a splash of vinegar.
- Easy: There's relatively little prep and a lot of inactive time, so the sauce cooks itself.
What is Calabrian Chili Paste?
Calabrian chili paste is typically made with Calabrian chili peppers, oil, salt, vinegar, and herbs such as basil. Calabrian peppers originate from, you guessed it, Calabria, Italy. Flavorwise, they have a spicy kick with a bit of fruitiness. In Calabria, these peppers are dried, pickled, and often submerged in olive oil.
If you've ever had 'Nduja, you may recognize the flavor as it's a spicy spreadable sausage made with Calabrian chilies. Since discovering this condiment, I make sure to keep it in my fridge at all times. It's got a lot of heat and a bit of acidity, and it's a perfect addition to pasta sauces and dips.
Let's dive a bit deeper into each of the ingredients in this dish! I'll also cover substitutions, so you can work with what you already have in the pantry.
- Onion: Sauteeing onion brings a nice sweetness and umami to the pasta. Feel free to use whatever combination of onions you have here! I've used sweet onions, white onions, shallots, and red onions successfully(note that 3-4 shallots are equivalent to 1 medium onion).
- Fennel: Fennel adds a nice sweetness; when cooked down, it provides subtle notes of caramelized anise flavor. Don't skip the fennel - it adds complexity to the sauce. Can't find fresh fennel? You can use 1 stalk of celery plus 1 teaspoon fennel seeds.
- Garlic: I go heavy on the garlic here to add some umami and balance the dish's sweetness.
- Calabrian chili paste: Calabrian chili paste adds a fiery layer of flavor to this pasta. I like Tutto Calabria, which you can find online, and Delallo's chili paste (often found at Wegman's in the US). Any Calabrian chili paste will do but keep in mind that they all have slightly different heat levels, so add a bit at a time and adjust as needed! You can also use red pepper flakes if you can't find this condiment.
- Tomato paste: Tomato paste helps bulk up the sauce and provides a bit of acidity.
- Dried pasta: Pair this sauce with a ridged tubular cut like mezzi rigatoni, rigatoni, or casarecce. It's also delicious with mafaldine, bucatini, and fusilli lunghi.
How to Make This Dish
I've created a handy video for you and step-by-step instructions so you can follow along as you try the recipe!
Steps 1-4: Add the oil, onion, fennel, and garlic to a cold pan. Over medium-low heat, saute the aromatics until they're soft, jammy, and translucent, about 15 minutes.
TIP: A cold pan prevents the aromatics from burning too quickly. We want to build flavor through a slower caramelization process!
Stir in the chili flakes, let those sizzle for a minute, then add the tomato paste and honey. Cook down the paste for a few minutes until it starts caramelizing at the bottom of the pan, and the oil turns bright red.
Steps 5-6: Meanwhile, cook your pasta until just before al dente, according to the package instructions. Save some pasta water to make the sauce nice and glossy!
Transfer the pasta to the pan, along with some of the reserved pasta water. Over low heat, stir everything together until the sauce clings to the noodles.
Step 7: Taste and season everything, then serve immediately.
Other Spicy Pasta Ideas
This pasta sauce is thick and jammy, so you can use it in all kinds of applications! Mix it with softened butter and spread it on toast, or use it in a sandwich as a spread.
You definitely can, and the pasta will still be good. But personally I think the fennel adds a really nice complexity and a bit of sweetness to bring this dish to the next level. If you do omit it, I recommend using 1 ½ onions.
For even more cozy recipes, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter.Happy eating! Love, Karishma
Calabrian Chili Pasta
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- ½ medium fennel bulb, finely diced
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon Calabrian chili paste, or ¾ teaspoon red chili flakes | plus more if desired
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 teaspoon white vinegar
- 8 ounces dried pasta, I like either like a long cut, like bucatini, fusilli longhi, or mafaldine, or a tubular pasta, like mezzi rigatoni, rigatoni, or casarecce
- ¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
- Set a large pot of water to boil.
- Saute the aromatics: In a cold dutch oven or heavy-bottomed skillet, add oil, onion, fennel, and garlic.Set over medium-low heat, and saute the aromatics for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent. Don't go further than golden brown, lowering the heat if necessary.¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, 1 medium onion, ½ medium fennel bulb, 6 garlic cloves
- Add the chili paste: Stir in chili paste (or red pepper flakes), and season the vegetables with salt. Saute for 1-2 minutes on medium-low until the chili begins to smell aromatic.1 tablespoon Calabrian chili paste, Salt
- Finish the sauce: Add tomato paste and honey to the vegetables, and stir to incorporate. Saute for another 4-5 minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the tomato paste starts to caramelize on the pan and the oil turns bright red. Stir in the vinegar, then turn the heat off. Note: At this point, you’ve made the base of your sauce. The sauce will eventually get mixed into your pasta, so it should taste slightly more pungent than you want it to be. It may feel spicier, more acidic, and saltier than desired.¼ cup tomato paste, 1 teaspoon white vinegar, 1 tablespoon honey
- Cook the pasta: Once the water is boiling, salt the water and add your pasta. Cook according to package instructions, until the pasta is just barely al dente. Reserve ¾ cup of pasta water.8 ounces dried pasta
- Finish the dish: To finish the pasta, transfer the pasta to the skillet with a slotted spoon, and stir to combine, loosening the sauce with a bit of pasta water at a time. Set the dutch oven over medium heat, and reduce sauce for 1-2 minutes. Add pasta water to reach desired consistency. The sauce should nicely cling to the pasta but still feel saucy. Season again with salt and add additional chili paste or red pepper if desired.
- Serve: Garnish with cheese and serve immediately.¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Use whatever combination of onions you have here — I’ve used yellow onions, red onions, and shallots
- Calabrian chili paste adds a fiery layer of flavor to this pasta. I like Tutto Calabria, which you can find online, and Delallo's chili paste. Any Calabrian chili paste will do but keep in mind that they all have slightly different heat levels, so start small! You can also use red pepper flakes if you can't find chili paste.
- This dish is about your taste preference. I’ve built the flavor profile such that it has a nice mix of sweet, salty, acidic, and spicy flavors — but ultimately you should season it as you like it. If you like it less spicy, add less chili. If you like it very sweet, add more honey.
- Storage and Reheating: This pasta is best served immediately, but you may make the sauce up to 2 days ahead and store in an airtight container in the fridge. Just before serving, boil the pasta and finish the dish.