gli spaghetti alle vongole: spaghetti and clams

by Silvestro on August 4, 2010

Next time you hear one of his solos, sit and really listen. I mean really listen.

I’m not the first to say this, but the solos of Louis Armstrong are famously appreciated for being reduced to their absolute essence. There is no flab, nothing that can be trimmed away without leaving a gaping wound.  His solos are gorgeously spartan, pristine and so sure-footed that generations later, no one has done it better.

I can’t think of another field that hasn’t seen improvements in the last 60 years. Can you?

Spaghetti with clams is like that.

Wait.

Give me a second.

I’ll explain.

The older I get and the more my life becomes more and more immersed in food and wine, the more I appreciate that good food can be about the cook-and often is- but great food is always just about the food.


Take spaghetti and clams. The ingredients are fixed. Live clams. Pasta. Salt for the water. Chilli. Garlic. Olive oil. A little white wine. And parsley.

Not only are there not other ingredients, but even these are fairly minimal.


Bring a pot of water to the boil


Salt the water until it’s as salty as sea water. (That’s not water vapor under the falling spaghetti, but falling spaghetti). Add the pasta to the water and stir.


Chop a good handful of parsley.


Add chopped garlic and just a touch of olive oil to a very hot pan. How hot?


The pan should be hot enough that it catches fire for a second when you add the ingredients. You want the first clam and the last one to open with the shortest amount of time between the two. Douse with a little white wine- for acid to balance the fat of the oil, for a liquid to dilute the salt of clam juice- and to create steam.


As the sauce is light and sparingly applied, the pasta tends get cold quickly. Heat the serving bowl by filling it with your discarded pasta water.


When the clams are open, toss with the just barely drained pasta. Pour in a good hearty glug of raw oil (you added just a touch in the beginning so you can taste the raw oil, which is better in flavour and much better for your health). The remaining drops of water will form an emulsion with the oil, anointing the pasta but not drowning it. If it doesn’t occur to you to mouth the word ‘ethereal’ while eating the dish, you’ve been heavy-handed somewhere along the way.


Pour a high acid white (my robotic choice is always a crisp Verdicchio di Matelica but more for personal history: any dry white will do). Don’t add anything else.

I originally had two sentences about why cheese would be wrong here but I cut them. In the end, if you don’t already know why, I certainly can’t help you.

The more I mature as a cook, the more I stay my hand when it comes to adding more ingredients. The more time I spend in the market finding the best ingredients available, the more I leave them alone in the kitchen.

So the next time you hear his lovely voice building towards a solo, the pocks and scratches, the fever pitch and catcalls of the boys in the rhythm section, the brass keeping time in hard-soled shoes on wooden risers, lean in and really listen.

Listen for the notes that he didn’t play, the virtuoso runs that he didn’t take.

You can’t perfect perfection. The great ones have already beat us to it, both with Louis, and the generations and generations of loving grandmothers that have given us all that we have today.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

marisa bicelli December 19, 2010 at 5:11 am

Gorgeous! thank you for the precious hints!

Reply

Donna March 20, 2011 at 8:12 am

Thank you for the good instruction! This has been my favored dish in all my visits to Italy! I now have a small Italian cafe and I want to make this for my customers! Please visit when you come to Houston, TX!

Reply

Nathalie (@spacedlaw) March 23, 2011 at 5:38 am

Che bontà!
Bellissime foto, poi.

Reply

Christine May 21, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Loved this post! Spaghetti Vongole is one of my fave things in the world. So simple yet so soul satisfying! Beautiful pictorial.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: