Cappellacci dei Briganti

Among the many treasures in the Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini De Vita are Cappellacci dei Briganti, a pasta shape which imitates the hats worn by 19th century guerrilla fighters known as brigands. These self-assigned soldiers formed rebel militias and roamed the hills of Southern Italy at the time of the Risorgimento or the unification of Italy.

Briganti in traditional dress

Briganti in traditional dress

Many briganti had been soldiers in the armies of the Kingdom of Naples while others were merely farmers or peasants. Brigandage was born of the abject poverty that eventually led to Italy's mass migrations. At best, brigands were revolutionaries who fought against brutal economic policies that exacerbated the already intolerable poverty in themezzogiorno. At worst, they were violent murderers who attacked the new bourgeoisie and became founding members of La Mafia

There are several scholarly studies on brigandage including research that looks at the link between brigandage and the American Civil War, but the most romantic tales are found in folk music and in food. Lest you think this corner of history is too esoteric, meet writer, historian and restaurant owner Francis Cratil and Chef Joe Cicala.

Cratil's (originally Cretarola) roots are in the Abruzzo and after several extended stays in the region, he wanted to open a restaurant back home in Philadelphia that celebrated Southern Italy's cooking. In 2007, Cratil and his wife Cathy Lee opened Le Virtù. Once Chef Joe Cicala's reputation began to soar, they started working on a second restaurant where Cicala could also be an owner.

"We were looking for a symbol that would demonstrate strong affection and dedication to the South," Cratil wrote. "I buried myself in studying the brigantaggio (brigandage), which is a strong part of southern lore and identity."

The result was Brigantessa.

Brigantessa Southern Italian restaurant Philadelphia

"Perhaps the most famous Brigantessa was Michelina Di Cesare, from Mignano Monte Lungo (near Caserta).  When I thought of her rather fierce photo dressed in village costume and holding a shotgun and a pistol — I knew it was the perfect image.  And it's important to note that, with the possible exception of the pizzaiolo's art, the dishes and cuisines we would be presenting could all trace their origins to women's kitchens in Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania and Sicilia. And, obviously, a woman in a 19th-century male dominated society taking up arms was a pretty radical and brave act."

Michelina di Cesara.jpg

Chef Joe Cicala presents dishes unlike much of what you will find at Italian restaurants in the United States, including his Cappellacci dei Briganti.

Cratil commented, "They offered a rather singular opportunity to present a dish from one of our regions of focus that actually celebrated the briganti."

In Italy, cappellacci dei briganti originated in Molise (an area once part of Gli Abruzzi) and are typically served with a lamb ragu. According to Zanini De Vita, the precise origin is unknown but this pasta has been found in the province of Campobasso for over a century. Prominent families in the town of Jelsi would have a small tin cone to form the cappellacci. 

Cappellacci dei Briganti

Cappellacci dei Briganti


2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus 1/4 cup extra for dusting your board
3 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lukewarm water


Dust the surface of a wood or marble pasta board and then create a mound of flour with a well in the center. Add the eggs, salt, oil, and water. Start to incorporate the eggs and the flour with a fork, working gently until the dough becomes sticky. Dust your hands with flour and use them to form the dough into a ball until it becomes smooth. If the mixture remains too sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time, up to a 1/4 cup.  Knead the dough for about 10 minutes or until it is smooth and shiny.  Transfer to a bowl, cover with a towel and let it rest for at least 10 minutes. 

Use a rolling pin or your stand mixer pasta attachment to roll the dough out into the thin sheets. Use a round pasta cutter or small jelly jar lid to cut small circles from the sheet. 

Wrap each disk around the tip of your index finger and pinch the dough where it meets. Then fold the other side like the rim of a hat. When finished, let the pasta air dry for at least 2 hours (more if it's humid) and boil in salted water. Add a rich sauce like lamb ragu, a simple marinara or olive oil, pecorino and fava beans.