Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino is Italy’s common-denominator dish. College kids make it while cramming for exams and late-shift employees whip it up as a midnight snack. Everyone knows how to make it, and everyone loves to eat it.
To prepare it, olive oil is heated in a skillet and is infused with the spicy flavors of hot chili peppers and garlic that is cut translucent-thin and cooked until crunchy. The spaghetti is boiled al dente and thrown into the skillet so that the oil coats it evenly. This astonishingly flavorful dish is the pinnacle of Italian culinary minimalism.
The concept is simple, and stems from the heart of Italian cooking philosophy. Focus on the right combination of flavors from fresh, seasonal ingredients to create a deceptively easy-to-make masterpiece.
“You can make any color in the world with red, yellow and blue,” says Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, one of the world’s most decorated chefs.
“Sophisticated cuisine is based on the same idea—that anything can be created from primary colors,” he says.
The canvas for the masterpiece is the pasta itself. Much the same way that corresponding stemware is used to enhance different wine styles, the choice of pasta—long or short, ribbed or smooth—plays a fundamental role in the delivery of the individual flavors and textures.
Served alongside a leafy salad, some crusty bread and the proper wine, any of these easy-to-prepare dishes will make for a flavorful meal no one would call simple.
Bucatini with Yellow Pepper, Saffron and Pecorino Romano
Suggested by my fruttivendolo (greengrocer) in the Monti district of Rome, I’ve never seen this delicious recipe published in any cookbook or blog. She suggests using saffron threads from Città della Pieve in Umbria, which tend to be longer than others.
4 medium yellow bell peppers
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt, to taste
20 saffron threads, divided
14 ounces bucatini
½ cup grated pecorino Romano
Quarter the yellow peppers, and remove the seeds and stems. Simmer the pepper quarters for approximately 1 hour over low heat in a covered pot with ½ inch of water, 1 tablespoon of olive oil and salt, until tender and the skins peel off easily.
Remove the pepper skins and purée the peppers with a hand blender. Add 10 saffron threads and cook in a small pot set over low heat for 10 more minutes.
Cook the bucatini according to package directions. Once the noodles are al dente, drain them. Add the bucatini to the pepper sauce and mix well. Serve with generous amounts of grated pecorino Romano, and garnish with the remaining saffron threads. Serves 4.
Wine Pairing: The piquant combination of sweet pepper and salty cheese calls for a structured, oak-aged white wine. Monteverro’s opulent Chardonnay from Tuscany would make an excellent pairing, as would Tenuta Rapitalà’s more affordable Grand Cru Chardonnay from Sicily.
Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe, Anchovies and Toasted Bread Crumbs
Cime di rapa (broccoli rabe) is used frequently in the cuisine of southern Italy. This recipe is adopted from Antica Trattoria Lucana in Matera, Basilicata, where bowls of toasted breadcrumbs are passed from table to table like “the poor man’s Parmigiano.”
1–2 pieces dried crusty whole-grain bread, sufficient to make ½ cup toasted breadcrumbs
Salt, to taste
1½ pounds broccoli rabe, cut into 2-inch pieces
14 ounces orecchiette
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for drizzling
2 anchovy fillets
Make the breadcrumbs ahead of time. Use a cheese grater to make crumbs from the bread slices, and place them on a baking sheet. Bake for approximately 20 minutes at 350˚F, until crisp and golden brown. Cool prior to use.
Over high heat, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the broccoli rabe and cook for 3 minutes. Add the orecchiette and cook together so that the pasta becomes infused with the vegetable flavors in the water. When the pasta is al dente, drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet set over medium heat, add the olive oil and anchovies, and sauté for several minutes, until the anchovies break into tiny pieces.
Add the orecchiette and broccoli rabe to the hot oil, and stir for a few minutes to coat and reheat. Serve the orecchiette piping hot, drizzle with olive oil and generously sprinkle the breadcrumbs over each serving. Serves 4.
Wine Pairing: There isn’t much sweetness to this dish because the vegetable greens are slightly bitter and the anchovies are salty. To balance things out, pair with a sun-ripened wine from southern Italy. Conti Zecca’s Nero Rosso del Salento (a blend of Negroamaro and Cabernet Sauvignon) or Tenute Rubino’s Torre Testa (made from the Susumaniello variety), also from Salento, would both work well.
Rigatoni with Tomato, Pancetta and Chèvre
Andrea Coli is a graphic designer and chef who travels frequently between Milan and the south of France. The aesthetic of this dish inspired him, as did the idea of sharing ingredients from both countries. The sauce is cooked in the oven instead of on the stovetop.
4 vine-ripened tomatoes (campari or similar variety)
Olive oil, for drizzling
Salt, to taste
½ cup cubed pancetta or guanciale (approximately 1⁄3-inch cubes)
½ log chèvre with a bloomy rind (approximately 5 ounces)
14 ounces rigatoni
Preheat an oven to 350˚F. Cut the tomatoes length-wise and arrange them in an oven pan with the cut side facing up. Drizzle them with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Distribute the pancetta throughout the pan.
Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft. Cut the chèvre into ½-inch rounds and place one piece on top of each tomato. Increase the heat to 375˚F, or broil, for approximately 10 minutes, or until the pancetta is crispy and the melted cheese is golden brown.
Cook the rigatoni according to package directions. Drain the pasta, and place it in a large serving bowl. Mix in a few drops of olive oil so the pasta doesn’t stick together.
With a wooden spoon, place the halved tomatoes with the melted cheese and pancetta on top of the pasta and drizzle with olive oil. Mix the pasta (the cooked tomatoes will dissolve, forming the “sauce”) tableside, and serve individual portions. Serves 4.
Wine Pairing: Because of the creamy chèvre and savory pancetta, Coli suggests a bold red wine with enough acidity to cut though the fattiness of the dish. An excellent choice would be Elvio Cogno’s Vigna del Mandorlo Dolcetto d’Alba. Or reach a little further south for Valiano’s Poggio Teo Chianti Classico.
Puzzling Out Pasta
Bucatini: Thick, spaghetti-like pasta with a tiny hole running through the center, each strand soaks up the hearty tastes of smoked bacon or pecorino cheese. Spaghetti are smaller and linguine are flattened. Tonarelli are long pasta with a squared shape.
Fettuccine: The broad surfaces of these ribbon noodles coat easily with viscous sauces or olive oil, while the pasta’s thinness helps balance delicate flavors like mushrooms. Pappardelle are cut thicker and tagliatelle are thinner.
Manicotti: These sleeve-like rolls are often stuffed with ricotta. There are also giant conchiglioni (seashells) that are treated similarly.
Rigatoni: Grooves on the sides of this tube-shaped pasta grip sauces thick with tomato pulp, cream or ground meat, while the hollow interior holds more sauce. Penne and gomito (elbow-shaped) are sold smooth or ridged.
Trofie: A specialty of Liguria, these are twisted pasta curls used with pesto sauce that slides tightly within the crevices. Curly (busiate) and corkscrew shapes (fusilli) do well with fragrant sauces.
Orecchiette: The pasta’s doughy consistency and higher carbohydrate content is associated with cucina povera (country cuisine). Strascinati are in the orecchiette (“little ears”) family, only the “lobe” is pulled longer. No eggs are used in the dough.
More Simple Pastas and the Wines to Pair Them With
From light-bodied whites to structured reds, there’s an easy pasta recipe for every occasion.
<<< Alla checca is mezze maniche with mozzarella di bufala, raw cherry tomatoes, fresh basil leaves and olive oil.
Spaghetti con ricci di mare is raw sea urchin mixed with spaghetti.
Vignarola is fusilli with fresh peas, asparagus and artichokes.
Linguine served with nero di seppia (squid ink) or shaved bottarga (dried tuna roe).
Vongole veraci is linguine with steamed baby clams, olive oil and black pepper. >>>
<<< Fettuccine topped with porcini, chopped parsley and black pepper.
Tonarelli with creamed artichoke hearts, saffron and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Ricotta-stuffed pasta, like ravioli, with brown butter and fresh sage.
Tagliatelle with butter and truffles.
Alla gricia is rigatoni with fried guanciale, pecorino Romano and black pepper, a Roman favorite.
Alla carbonara is similar to alla gricia, but incorporates raw egg yolk to make the consistency more viscous. >>>