When the weekend rolls around and I take my one or two days off from cooking, Italian food is usually the cuisine of choice for dining out. This week, one of these days off came a little early because I didn’t have time to go the grocery store after work. We visited our neighborhood Italian place and of course, I had their Linguine con Vongole. I’ve been eating this dish for over 10 years and have always been reasonably satisfied with it. That night, however, I just decided that it wasn’t good enough anymore. This restaurant uses a little cream in their sauce and I don’t think it belongs there. Yes, I know I’ve said before that I like rich sauces; I just feel like a simple dish like this can hold its own without any help from cream.
After years of eating this dish, I know what I like: a bold clam flavor punctuated by a hint of garlic in the oil, a bit of tang from fresh lemon juice and a slight kick from hot red pepper flakes. Sadly, a lot of places don’t get it quite right for me. Most either skimp on clams or overcook them, add cream as I just mentioned, or overcook the pasta so that what you get is a mushy mess. I might sound like a tough customer but I’m actually not. After many years of ordering this dish, I’ve disliked only one to the point of actually not eating it. That’s saying a lot for me since contrary to my tone here, I tend to be quite forgiving. I’m of the mind that a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice will make almost anything palatable, so typically, waiters are none the wiser about my dissatisfaction.
On a more positive note, I have tasted quite a few versions done right. On the northeastern tip of Sicily is a hilltop town, Taormina, that boasts a few restaurants that know how to prepare this dish. The best Spaghetti con Vongole I’ve had, however, came from a tiny restaurant in Rome. When I was there last September, I kept returning to this restaurant near the Spanish Steps because they hit the bulls eye with this dish. Their version had a bold clam flavor and a hint of garlic which all came together in a simple olive oil/wine base. It was perfect.
I’m making my version tonight and I’ll be submitting it to Presto Pasta Nights. I’ve been a regular follower of this weekly event that Ruth Daniels of Once Upon a Feast started quite a while ago. I’m quite excited to now be able to participate, yay! Katie of Thyme for Cooking is hosting this week’s event and I can’t wait to see the roundup tomorrow.
One last note, don’t let me intimidate you about trying this dish–it’s truly simple. I’m an authority on these things only in my own mind. I’m not even Italian. You know your taste buds so adjust my recipe accordingly. The only thing I would highly recommend is to use the best ingredients you can for this short list and let them do the talking. Enjoy.
Spaghetti con Vongole (Clams)
- 2 lbs fresh Manila clams (Let them sit in cold salted water for 30 minutes to an hour before using)
- 1 jar (about 6 oz) baby clams, drained but save the clam juice (my local provider didn’t have enough fresh clams left so I’m supplementing with a jar of imported Italian clams)
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
- 1/4 – 1/2 cup olive oil plus more for drizzling
- 3 – 4 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
- 1/2 – 3/4 cup white wine
- Juice of one lemon
- 1 pound of spaghetti or linguine
Prepare pasta according to directions.
In a large pan that will accommodate the cooked pasta, heat olive oil on medium heat. Add the butter at the same time if you’re using it. I find that it gives the sauce more body but it’s not necessary. When the oil is warmed up, add the red pepper flakes. If they sizzle too much in the oil, turn the heat down before you add the sliced garlic. If it’s okay, add the garlic and cook for a minute, being careful not to let them brown. Add the reserved clam juice and the wine and bring to a boil. After a about 2- 3 minutes, the alcohol should have evaporated and the liquid reduced a bit. Add half of the chopped parsley and the juice of half a lemon and season to taste. I tend to use a whole lemon but this is my preference. Add the rest if your taste buds are like mine.
Add the fresh clams, cover the pan and simmer on medium for about 3 – 4 minutes or until the clams open up. It shouldn’t take much longer than this for all of them to do so. Get rid of the stubborn ones that remain closed. At this point you can either remove the cooked clams and set them aside but I think this is too much work so I leave them in the pan. Add the jar of baby clams and let them warm up in the sauce for a bit. I actually like to use a combination of canned/jarred clams with fresh ones because the juice they come in lends a stronger clam flavor to the final dish. Add the pasta and toss with the sauce. It may look a bit thin but the pasta just needs to sit in the sauce for a bit and absorb some of the liquid. A minute or two should do it. I like to drizzle a little extra olive oil on my pasta after I plate it because I think that olive oil and clams go really well together. Garnish with a lemon wedge and chopped parsley.