Pizzoccheri is both the name of this dish and the buckwheat noodles that make it so unusual and interesting. I've only ever seen buckwheat noodles before as Japanese soba noodles. These come from Valtellina in northern Italy. This casserole seems to be the only thing that gets done with them.
There are quite a few versions of this recipe on the web. I picked one that made a reasonably small amount for my first try, but beyond that convenience and some small variation in the ratios, they're all pretty much the same.
I could have substituted in soba and saved myself a bit of trouble, but I decided to make the pizzoccheri noodles from scratch. I need the practice.
1 cup buckwheat flour
3/4 cup semolina flour
2 large eggs [some recipes just use water]
a pinch of salt,
mixed them all together in the usual way, kneaded for a good ten minutes to compensate for the lack of gluten in the buckwheat, let it rest and then clogged up my pasta machine with the soft, sticky, friable, unworkable dough. That clearly wasn't going to work so I rolled it out by hand as best I could and then cut out broad, short noodles.
I let them dry a little as I brought a pot of water up to a boil.
Meanwhile, I fried 2 ounces of chopped pancetta in a small pan. This is an unusual addition to a simple peasant dish, but since I'm not actually a peasant I figured I could splurge a little. Once they were crisp, I fished them out and set them aside. Then I added a modest 3 Tablespoons of butter to the pan [I saw recipes that used a whole stick], melted that down, added a smashed clove of garlic and 4 julienned sage leaves and simmered on low for a couple minutes to infuse the flavors. No browning.
By this time, the water had come to a boil so I added the noodles. Because they were so thick, they took a good 15 minutes to cook through. I fished them out and kept them warm. Then I added six ounces of shredded cabbage [some recipes use chard] and a large potato, thinly sliced and boiled them for ten minutes until they were tender. A lot of recipes start with the vegetables, cook a little while and then add the noodles to the pot, but I had no idea how long my noodles were going to take so this way seemed best.
And finally, I shredded 4 ounces of fontina cheese and 2 ounces of Parmesan. Again, many recipes use a lot more.
Once everything was cooked, I got out a big bowl, put some noodles in the bottom, added a layer of vegetables then a layer of cheese and repeated until I had three full layers. The pancetta goes on top and then the sage butter. A few recipes added a couple cups of bread crumbs before the butter and then baked the whole thing like a lasagna, but I kept it simple; the hot ingredients were plenty to melt the fontina to bring the dish together.
And the result is...not all I had hoped, honestly. Thinner noodles would have helped; Right now there's not much textural contrast between the noodles and the potatoes. And both are on the bland side. Pair those with boiled cabbage and mild cheese and you've got a big hearty bowl of kind of boring. It's not really bad, it just clearly could be better. Double the sage, quadruple the garlic, add some hot pepper flakes, sauté the cabbage to condense the flavor (instead of boiling it away. There's a lot of flavor in the boiling water that should be in the dish.), crisp up the potatoes, switch out the fontina for something with a bit more punch and then I think you've got something. Or maybe just more salt in the pasta water and heap up the cheese and butter. I think I was too conservative and missed the point of the dish.
I've been doing a bit more reading and thinking about buckwheat pancakes I've had. People are saying, and I'm thinking, that buckwheat by itself doesn't taste so good. The flavor you're looking for is the combination of buckwheat and butter. I've got a couple servings of leftovers and I'm adding a sizable chunk of butter to both before they go into the freezer. Also, a sprinkling of pine nuts for a bit of texture. I think that should do the trick.