Spaghetti alle vongole – a recipe by Rowley Leigh

“Vongole” is enough. Walk into any restaurant on or near the Italian coast and the staff will know what you want. You’ll want the most basic of constructions, spaghetti alle vongole. Although we like to remember that Italian cuisine is intensely regional, spaghetti with clams can be found everywhere from Venice to the Adriatic coast, around the heel and all the way to Rome and beyond, with little variation.

Back in Puglia a few weeks ago, it took me two days to get my vongole, at Rosa’s. The eponymous owner is no mug. There she is, welcoming returning customers, weaving around tables in her designer chef’s jacket and gold-buckled Dolce & Gabbana shoes. But haute couture stops there. There’s nothing clever about eating a menu set in stone.

You start with the antipasti: stuffed mussels, mussel tiella, rice and potatoes cooked in small earthenware pots, octopus in various forms, small marinated anchovies and pieces of swordfish carpaccio. Then comes the crudo: everything raw, including red prawns from Sicily or Sardinia, langoustines, mussels, clams and, somewhat incongruously, oysters. Then comes the pasta which is usually the vongole. Those who yearn for lobster are discouraged for economic reasons. And then, if you have space, there’s an impeccable fritto misto or grilled fish, usually sea bass, sea bream or red mullet. Everything is as it should be, correct and sober.

Unfortunately, there is a little too much restraint. It takes us about a minute to suck the small amount onto our plates. Even in Italy they feel the pinch. The plague drove prices up and portions down. With portion sizes in restaurants seeming to get smaller and smaller, I’m glad I’m not as greedy as I used to be. Yet another great reason to cook at home.


Vongole Spaghetti

For six people

The safe way to cook this dish would be to cook the clams ahead of time, removing them from their shells and tossing them with the spaghetti and jus (filtered if desired); however, cooking them as below, in real time, is faster and more fun.

  1. Dissolve 100 g of salt in 200 ml of boiling water. Add 800 ml of cold water and soak the clams in this brine for a few hours. This will purge them of sand if they have any. Rinse clams in plenty of cold running water, discarding any that don’t close after a tap.

  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the spaghetti. It will take two minutes less than the recommended time on the package. Heat a large, wide skillet with half the olive oil and add the garlic. After 30 seconds, add the drained clams and white wine and cover. The clams will open after a few minutes. Add the chilli and parsley and remove from the heat.

  3. As soon as the spaghetti is ready but still very al dente, return the clams to the heat and lift the spaghetti with tongs directly into the clams. Mix everything together and let the spaghetti continue to cook for a few minutes, soaking up the clam juices.

Wine

In Puglia, the battle to find pleasant, fresh and temperate wines continues. Native varietals such as Falanghina can be interesting, and there are countless blends of the most ubiquitous varietals – Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – but they rarely inspire enthusiasm. A Verdicchio from higher up the Marche coast is more likely to have the spiciness and freshness required by seafood pasta.

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