Ever the diplomats, we (probably to the aggravation of native Sicilians) chose the middle ground, and elected to use anchovies and bucatini, leave out the tomato paste, cook all the sardines in the sauce, and add both breadcrumbs and broken almonds, but we chose not to bake it. It was wonderful: crunchy, salty and sweet, and with a profound maritime flavor overlaid perfectly by the fennel.
Those of you with an aversion to small, oily fish should probably avoid this dish completely for substitutions of whiter, milder species cannot be recommended, unless even greater Sicilian wrath is desired. And, if encouragement to try something different is needed, look no further than the twin factors of wholesomeness and economy. Sardines and pasta are still very affordable, and, for us, halfway through a month-long meatless regimen ahead of a warm weather vacation, it checked all the taste and healthful boxes.
It also checked the seasonal box, for, strictly speaking, this dish should only be eaten between March and September when wild fennel can be found extending its spidery fronds all over the island’s uplands. For those of us without wild ingredients to hand, or such a favorable climate, cultivated fennel plus a scant 1/4 teaspoon of ground fennel seeds (or a smaller quantity of fennel pollen), provide a similar perfume.
Please note that one should always use the freshest possible sardines, and not just for this recipe. The oilier the fish, the shorter the shelf life – hence why anchovies are so often salted and in oil – and the general rule of thumb is 8-12 hours out of water is about as long as it takes for sardines to go from glorious to gory mess. You can certainly freeze them, too, but like most fish, especially small ones, the defrosting process has to be slow and delicate to prevent them from getting mushy.