This recipe for spaghetti with clams or spaghetti alle vongole is a very appropriate first post as it not only brings back wonderful memories of my first weeks in Rome, but it is, hands down, my absolute favorite plate of pasta. It is nothing fussy and it is a gloriously simple and incredibly tasty dish. I would eat it every day if I could…and, for a while, I think I did…and, no, I am not joking! Just ask my husband!
On one of our very first dates, my now husband took me to one of his favorite restaurants, Il Miraggio, in Trastavere, one of Rome’s hip and vibrant neighborhoods located on the west bank of Tiber. When he said that he would order for us, my immediate thought was, oh, how romantic then my next thought was, I really hope he orders something that I like (yes, stomach wins out every time!)…no liver please! He ordered spaghetti with clams for us. I must say that I was a little dubious because I was convinced that I did not like it since my previous experience with the dish involved chopped pieces of clams floating in an oily cream sauce…bleh. I was silently thinking, well, at least he ordered some bruschetta and wine to start with because that way I wouldn’t go hungry and I could probably drink enough wine to “like” the spaghetti.
However, I was about to have a Eureka moment. When our plates arrived, I was delighted to see strands of glistening spaghetti studded with tiny clams in their shells. With my first forkful of perfectly al dente pasta and the sweet, little succulent clams enveloped in garlicky, briny goodness with just a hint of heat hitting the back of my tongue, I was in heaven. I was sold! Ever since that epiphany of a day, I went on a 3-year pilgrimage, of sorts, to try to find a more perfect plate of spaghetti with clams or at least that was my excuse to just eat more of it. If it was on the menu, I would order it. In fact, it became a bit of a running joke with my husband until he gently prodded me to expand my repertoire.
A little history about the dish. It is a classic Neopolitan dish. Even though it is served year round, it is also a favorite dish to serve at the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, “Cena della vigilia di Natale.” While it has only two main ingredients, clams and pasta, there are some people who add tomatoes. People have pretty strong opinions as to which way they like it best…red or white… with or without tomatoes. My preference is the white (bianco) version as I think it highlights the flavor of the clams. But either way, it is enjoyable!
Here is my version of spaghetti alle vongole or spaghetti with clams. I think it comes pretty close to what I eat at Il Miraggio…and if you are ever in Rome, I would suggest a visit to Il Miraggio in Trastevere and the wonderfully charming owner Franco. I will be posting, soon, a review of Il Miraggio Restaurant so be sure to check it out in in My Favorite Places to Eat Section.
- 1 kilo (about 2½ lbs) small clams - either the small vongole or verace clams or if you are in the U.S., you can use the small manilla clams
- 5 to 6 large garlic cloves,sliced in half or thirds
- ¼ t red pepper chili flakes (optional)
- 1 T olive oil
- 2 T unsalted butter, chopped into small pieces
- salt and pepper, to taste
- For the clams, you want to buy them no earlier then the day before. When you bring them home if they are in a plastic bag make sure you take them out of the bag and put them in a bowl in the fridge since they are still alive and need to breathe. It took me a few tries to figure out how to best get the grit and sand out of the clams. The sure proof way is to soak the clams in a large bowl of water for a few hours (three to four is optimal) with a couple tablespoons of fine table salt without changing the water. After the soaking, pull the clams out with you hands making sure the grit stays at the bottom of the bowl and then give them a final rinse in a colander.
- Put on a large pot of water and bring to a boil for the spaghetti. Once the pasta water has come to a boil, add a good amount of salt and add the pasta and cook to al dente. My usual rule of thumb is to cook the pasta just shy of what the box directions say (about 1 minute). Make sure you reserve about a half a cup of the pasta cooking liquid.
- While the pasta is cooking, in a large pot or pan (I like to use a dutch oven, but you can certainly use a large, high sided pan), heat the olive oil and garlic cloves together for a couple of minutes. Next add the clams, the red pepper flakes, and salt (you do not need much as the clams and their juice are already salty). Cover and allow the clams to open up. You can stir occaisionally. It should only take a few minutes.
- Once the clams have opened up, add the chopped pieces of butter butter and half of the chopped parsley. The butter, I have come to find out, is a very important component as it emulsifies the briny liquid and helps coat the strands of pasta with the sauce. If the clams did not release a lot of liquid, I would add a little of the pasta water. Start with a ¼ cup up to about ½ cup.
- Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it immediately to the clams. Toss the pasta until it is well coated with the sauce. Garnish each plate with a little more chopped parsley and serve immediately.
When cooking pasta, the best advice I can give to make sure it is al dente is to cook the pasta about one minute less than it says on the package as it will continue to cook when you add it to the pan with the sauce and clams.