Umbria is the only province in Italy that doesn’t touch the sea. That’s one reason they call it the Green Heart of Italy. However, it’s not more than an hour and a half from both the Adriatic to the east and the Mediterranean to the west and we have a fabulous fresh fish store in our village that draws from both.
I was there today, browsing, and saw a big mesh bag filled with vongole veraci – they’re the wonderful, tiny, briny clams that work so well in spaghetti vongole – pasta with clam sauce.
I love making this dish in Italy — because of the superior ingredients, of course. My version is a bit ornate and not really classic. I’ve been checking different recipes – from Venice, from Liguria, from Naples — and they’re mostly quite simple – garlic, oil, clams, and maybe a little parsley.
My more complex version is inspired by a story in Heat, the wonderful book by Bill Buford. The story is about his kitchen apprenticeship in Mario Batali’s restaurant, Babbo. He learns Mario’s secret of a great tasting spaghetti vongole – and it’s a secret that transfers to some other pasta dishes, as well. So now I’ll tell you (and show you) and it won’t be a secret anymore.
………………………………………………………SPAGHETTI VONGOLE ………………………………………………………(For four as a main course)
- 2-3 slices of bacon (or pancetta or — preferably — guanciale) – diced
- Olive oil – 3 tbsps
- 5 cloves garlic, chopped
- Half an onion, sliced thinly (should be twice the volume of the garlic)
- Dried hot pepper flakes – to taste
- Butter – 3-5 tbsps
- White wine – one and a half cups
- Clams – I use New Zealand cockles when I’m in the States — figure 10 to 15 per person they should be small; they should be soaked for a while in cold water and scrubbed.
- 1 pound–spaghetti
- Cherry tomatoes – 15-20 – trim the hard ends off and flash them in hot olive oil – set aside
1. In a pan that can eventually hold the whole dish, crisp the diced
bacon in the oil; then add the onion until translucent; then add the garlic
until just golden; add hot pepper; add the wine and butter and bubble
it through until you have an emulsion – still liquid but thick – like pea
2. Put a large pot of water to boil; salt generously and add the spaghetti.
3. Add the clams to the hot emulsion (still on the fire). As each clam
opens, use tongs to drain its liquid into the emulsion and put the open
clam in a waiting bowl (they open at different times and you don’t want
to overcook them).
When the pasta is half-done (seven minutes), drain it and throw it in
the hot emulsion with a ladleful of the pasta water and keep stirring or
tossing it in the sauce until it’s al dente – 2 to 3 minutes. Keep tasting.
When it’s perfect, divide it into four bowls, top each with clams and
some cherry tomatoes. No parsley. Maybe more pepperoncini.
The secret? The half-done pasta continues to absorb liquid – but
instead of salted water, it now absorbs the bacon, onion, garlic, wine and
clam juice into its very being — into each individual, delectable strand.
That’s where the taste is – in the spaghetti itself. The clams are just
around to sex the whole thing up.