Spaghetti alle vongole is my desert island dish, my death row meal, the thing I crave more than any other food INCLUDING PIZZA. Shocking but true. In spite of this fact, it didn’t make it into Food of the Italian Islands (now available for preorder!!!) because I wanted to give attention to a regional variation from Sardegna, fregula con arselle (video reel here). But I did want to share my version with you here just in case fregula isn’t available locally or you aren’t up for making it. Plus, spaghetti is the prefect pasta shape, so here goes.
I make mine in bianco, with extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, and white wine, but if you wish to go the route of the Neapolitan Archipelago, go ahead and toss in no more than 2 halved cherry tomatoes per person (in season, please) to give the sauce a pleasant hint of acid and color. You’ll find spaghetti alle vongole served seaside on all the Italian islands and it’s easy to bring this classic home with some good quality durum wheat spaghetti (I like Benedetto Cavalieri, Setaro, Pastificio dei Campi, and Mancini brands) and some fresh Manila clams or littleneck clams (unless you can get your hands on vongole veraci, the island norm). Cook the clams as an islander would: just barely, so they retain their tenderness and fresh sea flavor without becoming chewy. And if you want to give this dish an extra Sardinian kick, finish it with a dusting of grated bottarga (cured grey mullet roe, available in the U.S. from Gustiamo)—but don’t you dare put cheese on it. Serving clams with formaggio is a mortal sin in Italy. Serves 4 to 6
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, smashed and peeled
1 ½ pounds Manila or littleneck clams, purged and rinsed
½ cup dry white wine
1 pound spaghetti or spaghettoni
Parsley, for garnish
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the garlic and cook until it just starts to take color, about 3 minutes. Add the clams and the wine.
Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, shaking the skillet to coax open the clams. Using tongs, remove theclams just as they open and set aside in a medium bowl. Remove the garlic and ideally spread it on toast or something so you’re not just chucking it out. Discard any clams that don’t open after a few minutes. Reduce the juices in the pan until they have thickened.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Salt the water until it tastes like a seasoned soup. Add the spaghetti and cook until very al dente (you want it to have a lot of bite to it so it doesn’t overcook as you finish it in the clam juices).
Transfer the pasta and ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water to the skillet. Cook until the pasta is al dente, adding pasta cooking water a few tablespoons at a time and stirring the pasta vigorously, which will help the sauce to cling to it. Stir in the reserved clams to warm them.
Plate and serve with parsley sprinkled on top.
Photo credit: Ed Anderson