Twenty years ago, Napoli Restaurant was a classic spaghetti joint on the corner of Spring and Sullivan streets in Soho, NYC. Actually, it was ‘our’ spaghetti joint back in the day when we were living cheap and going out didn’t require a mortgage to buy a bottle of wine.
Spaghetti with clams was a favorite, and the hardest decision was whether to have it with a white or red sauce. The restaurant sold so much of this dish that the place actually smelled like it; in fact the block smelled of spaghetti and clams. I don’t remember any shells, so the clams probably came from a can or the freezer.
Remember...I said this was ‘back in the day’ before we all realized that the only decent clam to be eaten had to be raised in the wild and hunted down by a fisherman named Guy. (And you know the fisherman’s name because now all the clams are tagged with their origins, the date and time of capture, if the clam struggled or gave up willingly and the fisherman’s name, age, and Facebook page.) Yeah, I’m all about truth in labeling, but back in the prior millennium...who knew to even ask where the clams came from!
Flash forward to the new enlightened us who live in Italy and have eaten many clams, preferably picking them up at the port from the fisherman, with a cold bottle of local wine in the shopping bag. Here’s the time warp part: eating linguine alle vongole at the Italian seaside is probably cheaper than those dinners at Napoli. See, life isn’t always cruel.
Things you should know about making linguine alle vongole:
- The type of clams you buy really doesn’t matter. It will affect the cooking time and flavor, but buying fresh clams from a reputable fish monger is what is important. The clams should be tightly closed and smell of the sea. For my taste, smaller clams are better, but not too small or you end up spending all your time picking out itsy bitsy pieces of clam meat from the shells while the pasta gets cold, and some one else just might eat more than their share!
- You can mix different types or sizes of clams, but you’ll need to add them to the pot at different times because over cooked clams taste like...flavorless rubber. Not that I’ve eaten a lot of flavorless rubber, but you get the idea. Clams are cooked when they open, in fact, as soon as they open, so timing matters. (And of course size matters, but that goes without saying.)
- Garlic is friend of linguine alle vongole. Adding cream or cheese to the dish makes Italians gag and is viewed as a crime.
- Use dried pasta, not fresh pasta. Although eaten all over Italy, lunguine alle vongole’s foundation is southern Italian, and they use dried pasta. Fresh pasta usually has eggs in it, and this would also produce the gag reflex in any good southern Italian.
Making the linguine alle vongole:
- Set a big pot of pasta water on to boil.
- Decide if you want red or white sauce. I can’t help you with this decision. Both are good, sometimes you just have to choose.
- Give the clams a rinse and check to be sure all the little guys are still closed tight. Discard any clams that are open and don’t close when touched. You only need to scrub the clams if they are big and the shells feel gritty. Ideally you want to keep as much of the sea water inside the clam as possible.
White Linguine alle Vongole
1/2 kg or 1 lb of small clams
1-2 cloves of garlic
1 anchovy filet
White wine, olive oil, parsley, chili pepper
When the pasta water has come to a boil, salt the water and add your linguine.
In a sauce pan big enough to hold the clams and all of the linguine, add a generous glug of olive oil and warm the oil over medium heat.
Here’s where personal taste kicks in: if you like a mild garlic flavor, just peel and crack the garlic clove before adding it to the pot. If you want a strong garlic flavor, finely chop the garlic. The finer the garlic, the stronger the flavor. Now toss in one or two roughly chopped dried chili peppers or chili pepper flakes, and the anchovy filet.
You do not want to burn the garlic, but you want to flavor the oil, so tip the pan to make a puddle and let the garlic, chili pepper, and anchovy sizzle in the oil.
Pay attention! There is a valuable lesson here.... it means you stand over the pot and keep an eye on the garlic without getting distracted, and it has the extra benefit of you looking like you totally know what you are doing.
Add a small splash of white wine, no more than a half glass. It may look like you are being cheap with the wine, but the truth is the clams release a lot more juice than you think, so go easy on the wine. Now add your clams, cover the pot, and turn up the heat.
By now your pasta should be in the pot about five minutes, or half way to being done.
After one or two minutes, when the clams are starting to open, add a ladle full of the pasta water to the clam pot. Drain the pasta and add to the clam pot. Finish cooking the pasta and clams together. In a perfect world, you want the pasta and the clams to finish cooking at the same time. This comes with practice. There is no way a recipe can tell you this because I don’t know what size clams or linguine you have. Learn to listen to your inner voice, and if you don’t have an inner voice, then cook with a friend and the two of you will figure it out.
Finish with some finely chopped parsley, a good pour of olive oil, and a generous bit of ground black pepper.
Red Sauce for Linguine alle Vongole
Tasty, but not as common as white. In fact, it's probably an American-Italian invention, but who cares because it tastes good. Do everything as above, only substitute tomato sauce for the white wine. Double the amount of sauce, so instead of a half wine glass of sauce, use a full cup of tomato sauce.
A word about eating spaghetti with clams: For god’s sake don’t sit there with a fork and pick out the clams. Pick up the clam shell with your fingers and suck out the clam. Clam shells taste good! OK, if you’ve got a boatload of clams on your plate and you want some in every forkful, then go ahead and fork out the meat and mix it up with your spaghetti but don’t let me catch you eating each and every clam with your fork!
And one final secret: keep mixing the pasta as it sits in the pan or bowl (We like to eat it out of the pan because it keeps the pasta hot longer and I have this really beat up old pot that allows us to pretend we are grizzly fisherman hanging out by sea). The bottom of the pot is the best part as the pasta has soaked up all the juices.
Bon apetito and thanks to Kris Rudolf for asking me for the recipe for her blog Delicious Expeditions! I’ve been making this regularly for years and just hadn’t really thought about the details. Enjoy!