Spaghetti with Clams in Their Shells (Spaghetti alle Vongole Veraci)
In Rome, most “vongole veraci,” characterized by variegated shells about 1 1/2 inches wide and by two little “horns” (siphons), are actually farmed Japanese littleneck clams rather than the prized, and increasingly rare, native species. They are most commonly used in spaghetti alle vongole, part of the pantheon of Roman pastas—carbonara, cacio e pepe and gricia are others—whose sauces are created directly on the cooked pasta. That means the dish is easy to put together but hard to fake: timing, temperature, an experienced hand and, especially, undivided attention make all the difference.
- 2 lb. littleneck or Manila clams in the shell, scrubbed
- Salt, to taste, plus 1 Tbs.
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 small dried red chili
- 1 lb. spaghetti
- 2 Tbs. minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
In a large bowl or the sink, soak the clams in salted water to cover for about 30 minutes. (Use this time to assemble what you will need for the recipe.) Discard any clams that rise to the surface, then drain, rinse well and place in a large fry pan.
Bring a large pot three-fourths full of water (at least 4 quarts) to a rapid boil over high heat.
In a second large, deep fry pan over medium heat, warm the 1/4 cup olive oil. Add the garlic and chili and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and, using a slotted spoon, remove and discard the garlic and chili. Set the pan with the oil aside.
When the pasta water is boiling, put the pan holding the clams over high heat and cover it. Add the 1 Tbs. salt and the pasta to the water and stir for the first minute of cooking and occasionally thereafter.
After the pasta has cooked for 2 minutes, uncover the clams, reduce the heat to medium-high and don’t take your eyes off them. Cook the clams just until they open, only about 2 minutes. As they open, use tongs to transfer them in their shells to the pan holding the olive oil. Be careful not to bring any water with them, and discard any clams that did not open. When all the clams are in the second pan, strain the liquid in the first pan through a fine-mesh sieve lined with 2 or 3 layers of cheesecloth, holding the sieve over the second pan, which should still be off the heat.
When the pasta is 2 to 3 minutes from being al dente, scoop out about 1 cup of the pasta water and set it aside. Drain the pasta but not too dry.
Return the pan holding the clams to low heat, add the pasta and toss well with the clams. Add 2 Tbs. or more of the pasta water and continue tossing until the pasta is al dente and a small amount of creamy sauce has formed, about 2 minutes. Mix in the parsley and a swirl of olive oil.
Divide the pasta among warmed bowls. The sauce tends to sink to the bottom, so don’t serve the first bowl. After filling the second and third bowls, return the first serving back to the pan and mix it with the last, which will have more sauce. Serve immediately. Set out extra plates in which diners can dispose of the shells. Serves 4 to 6.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World Series, Rome, by Maureen B. Fant (Oxmoor House, 2005).