Spaghetti con le Vongole is a Neapolitan culinary tradition that is served year round and is one of the most important plates of Cena della Vigilia di Natale, the traditional Neapolitan Christmas Eve dinner. Also known as Spaghetti alle Vongole or Vermicelli con le Vongole, it is a quick and easy recipe that packs a lot of flavor. Though it has only two main ingredients, clams and pasta, and a handful of secondary ingredients, the taste can still vary significantly from home to home and restaurant to restaurant. Variations of the clams or the pasta, or the addition or omission of ingredients such as tomatoes, peperoncino (hot red pepper), or pepper can drastically change the flavor of the dish. Although entirely a matter of personal taste, my Neapolitan friends can argue these points for hours.
At the center of the controversy seems to be the tomato, that is, to use or not to use the tomato. The purists prefer the dish without tomatoes, Spaghetti con le Vongole in Bianco, and in fact, it is considered the original version of the dish. On the other side of the table are those who prefer Spaghetti alle Vongole con Pomodorini, a version prepared with crushed tomatoes. There is also a third, but perhaps less common variation that is made with a tomato sauce, Spaghetti alle Vongole con la Salsa di Pomodoro.
Another sticky point is the choice of pasta. Although it is generally agreed that Spaghetti con le Vongole should be made with a long pasta, that can mean anything from vermicelli, to spaghetti, to linguini. The only point of agreement as far as pasta is concerned is that it should be cooked al dente. Finally, there is the great pepper, peperoncino (hot red pepper), or neither debate, and that can vary depending on which version of the dish you are preparing.
As in all things Neapolitan, a recipe is just a guide. Add, omit, or change the type of ingredients until you discover your favorite version. This is the version taught to me by a very dear Neapolitan friend who has been making this dish in her own kitchen for the last 35 years.
The flavors of the ingredients can vary widely from place to place as do personal preferences so experiment with the ingredients and their measures until you get the right blend.
Clams – about 250 grams per person
Live clams make the dish and if you live in Napoli you will want to get vongole veraci. You can easily recognize them by thier retractable siphons. They are small and sweet and are still alive and spitting water when we bring them home. Soak them in cold, salted water for a few hours to get rid of the sand.
Pasta – about 100g per person
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – enough to coat the bottom of the pan
Garlic – 2 to 3 cloves
Cherry tomatoes – 6 to 8
Chopped fresh parsley
The sauce only takes a few minutes to make, but I usually make it ahead of time because I find it is more flavorful. I make it around lunch time and then just turn off the burner and leave it sit on the stove until dinner.
Generously coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil.
Peel the garlic and slice each clove into 3 or 4 pieces.
Sauté the garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil over medium heat.
Add the tomatoes to the pan, either whole or cut in half and cook them until they are very soft.
Drain and rinse the clams making sure that all of the sand has been removed.
Cover and cook the clams in a pot over high heat. I don’t add anything to the clams but you can add a bit of pasta water or some white wine.
Shake or stir occasionally until the clams are open. Discard any that have not opened.
Conserve about half the clams to garnish the plates and shell the remaining clams.
Strain the liquid the clams were cooked in and set it aside.
You can put the unshelled clams back into the pot and cover it to keep them warm until you are ready to serve.
I generally have the pasta water boiling before I start cooking the clams. I throw the pasta in when the clams are cooked which gives me just enough time to shell the clams and bring the sauce together before the pasta is ready because pasta should never sit once its cooked. Cook the pasta al dente in salted water. Drain the pasta but don’t rinse it and put it immediately into the sauce.
Finishing the Dish
Bring the sauce up to temperature over low heat.
You can remove the garlic at this point but I usually just leave it in.
Stir in the liquid the clams were cooked in.
Stir in the shelled clams and cook a few more minutes.
Toss in the pasta and mix well.
Heat over medium heat for two or three more minutes to bring the flavors together.
Put on a serving plate or individual plates and garnish with the unshelled clams and fresh chopped parsley.
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