This is an earthy pasta dish, full of flavor and complexity, yet you taste each ingredient as if it were flying solo. It is a dish that has its roots in southern Italy. Enjoy with a wine from that same region and you'll discover a rustic harmony with gentle undertones—in other words, you'll taste the spirit of Puglia with every bite and sip.
Wine recommendations: With this dish, there is no wine that I like better then a Primitivo from Puglia, the heel of Italy. This red, which is the ancestor of American Zinfandel, is full-bodied and spicy; the spiciness tames the sulfur undertones of the cauliflower and the body stands up to the bacon and the hot, red pepper flakes. I suggest robust reds from the south such as Librandi-Gravello (Val Di Neto), Palari's Faro Palari, Cantine del Notaio's Aglianico del Vulture and Tenuta di Donnafugata's Milleunanotte.
Â¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
Three Â¼-inch slices pancetta (about 8 ounces), cut into 1 x Â¼ x Â¼-inch sticks (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 pound dried orecchiette, cavatelli, cavatappi or shells
2 medium onions, diced Â½ inch thick (about 2 cups)
Â½ head cauliflower, stalks removed, florets cut into Â½-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
Crushed red pepper
1Â½ cups hot chicken stock or canned reduced-sodium chicken broth
Â¼ cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
Â¼ cup fine dry bread crumbs, or as needed
Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pancetta has rendered some of its fat and is lightly browned but still soft in the center, about 4 minutes. Don't overcook the pancetta.
Stir the orecchiette into the boiling water. Return to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until done, about 10 minutes.
Stir the onion into the skillet and cook until barely wilted, about 2 minutes. Stir in the cauliflower and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower begins to brown, about 4 minutes. Season lightly with salt and a little crushed red pepper.
Pour the chicken stock into the skillet, bring to a boil and lower the heat so the sauce is at a lively simmer. Cook until the vegetables are tender and the liquid is reduced by about one-half, about 5 minutes.
If the skillet is large enough to accommodate the sauce and pasta, fish the pasta out of the boiling water with a large wire skimmer and drop it directly into the sauce in the skillet. If not, drain the pasta, return it to the pot and pour in the sauce. Bring the sauce and pasta to a boil, tossing and stirring to coat the pasta. Check the seasoning, adding salt if necessary. Stir the bread crumbs, parsley and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil into the pot. Cook, stirring and tossing the pasta until the sauce is lightly thickened. Serve at once.