Penne with Pumpkin and Bacon at Academia Barilla

Penne with Butternut Squash, Bacon and Balsamic Vinegar at Academia Barilla

A few years ago, I visited the Academia Barilla in Parma, Italy.  Once an industrial zone that included a Barilla pasta factory, the outdated facilities on the edge of Parma were converted about 5 years ago into a beautiful complex housing the Academia Barilla culinary school, two concert halls, a culinary library, a hotel and restaurant.

After a tour, I had the chance to work with Chef Nicola Bindini in one of the Academia’s enormous professional kitchens.  Some are used for pastry making, there is one with a pizza oven, and others are used for cooking demonstrations.  Classes are open to aspiring chefs, avid home cooks, and experienced chefs who want to improve their technique and learn more about Italian ingredients.  It is definitely worth a visit if you plan to be in the area.  You can find out about what’s going on there by checking their website at

The chef showed me how to made an artichoke and prawn salad topped with shavings of Barilla’s Pecorino Grand Cru, lamb chops with pesto, a molded chocolate and zabaione dessert and my favorite, pennette with pumpkin, smoked pancetta, Parmigiano Reggiano and balsamic vinegar.

DSC01613 I thought of that pasta the other day when I was trying to decide what to do with the large butternut squash that was sitting on my kitchen counter.  At Barilla, Chef Nicola had used a large winter squash called Zucca Mantovana.  It was round and pumpkin shaped with rough tan skin, orange flesh, and a flavor similar to that of butternut squash, so the one I had was a perfect substitute.  Since I didn’t have smoked pancetta which can be hard to find in this country, I used some thick-sliced bacon.  I always have Parmigiano in the refrigerator and a small bottle of aged balsamico on hand, so the rest was easy.

The warm colors of the squash and pasta and the contrasting flavors of the salty cheese and bacon with the sweet, creamy squash made it a perfect pasta for a fall day.

Penne with Butternut Squash, Bacon, and Balsamic Vinegar

Serves 4

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling

2 ounces smoked pancetta or thick sliced bacon, finely chopped

1 small red onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1-1/4 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice

Salt and freshly ground pepper

8 ounces penne

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano

1 teaspoon aged balsamic vinegar

In a large skillet, cook the pancetta in the olive oil over medium heat until the pancetta is lightly golden, about 5 minutes.  Add the onion and rosemary and cook 5 minutes more until the onion is tender.  Stir in the garlic.  Add the squash and salt and pepper to taste and stir well.  Cover the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, 15 to 20 minutes until the squash is tender and starting to brown.  If it begins to stick, add a tablespoon or two of water.  With the back of a spoon, mash some of the squash until creamy.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add the pasta and salt to taste.  Cook until slightly underdone.  Scoop out about 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and set aside.  Drain the pasta and add it to the squash.  Add some of the cooking water and stir well.  Cook 1 minute until the pasta is tender.  Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese.  Add a little extra virgin olive oil and mix well.  Drizzle with the vinegar and serve hot.

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    • Michele Scicolone