When I interned at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Rome, I worked 6 days a week and started every other day with the same task, steaming open the clams and the mussels. I got pretty good at it.
The clams and mussels were used in various dishes including a potato gnocchi, but the clams found their best expression in the simple spaghetti alle vongole, or spaghetti with clams, that one of the chefs would sometimes make for our staff meal before service.
Spaghetti alle vongole is fragrant and surprisingly creamy and found in seaside towns throughout Italy. In Sardinia, they top it with a cured and salted fish roe known as bottarga, and it is made with cherry tomatoes in the region of Campania where Naples is located.
You can also find it in Fiumicino and Fregene and other seaside towns near Rome with telline, a super small clam about the size of your pinky fingernail. While telline are extreme in scale, small, delicate clams work best.
To keep with the Italian tradition of meatless meals on Christmas Eve, I’ve sometimes made this dish for our Christmas Eve dinner in Vermont. It’s a nice change of pace from roasts and meats and while clams can seem complicated, the dish is easy to make.
As restaurants are still closed at night in Italy, we went out for lunch this past weekend at a favorite restaurant in the nearby city of Fiumicino where the Tiber river meets the sea. The restaurant, QuarantunoDodici, is on the river and surrounded by sailboats and we were lucky to get the best seat in the house in the sunlight by the windows looking out towards the water.
They always have spaghetti alle vongole on the menu and I was happy to order it. That’s it in the photo above. I also had an appetizer of bruschetta or toasted bread with puréed broccoli, anchovies, and stracciatella di bufala, a creamy cheese made from buffalo milk, that was phenomenal. The restaurant makes really delicious bread.
Spaghetti alle vongole (with clams)
- 1 pound of small clams, soaked for several hours in lightly salted water
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- ¼ of a cup of white wine
- 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- Olive oil
- Drain and rinse the clams in cold water. Scrub the shells if needed.
- Steam the clams open by heating a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over low heat and adding the clams, a clove of garlic, and the wine and toss. Cover and cook for about two minutes. Open the lid and remove clams that are opened with tongs. Put the lid back on for several seconds and then uncover and remove the opened clams. Continue until all clams are opened. Discard the clams that do not open.
- Strain the clam broth and save both the clams and the broth.
- Cook the other clove of garlic in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat until golden.
- Add the strained clam broth and simmer over low heat for several minutes.
- Remove the skillet from the heat, discard the garlic, and add the steamed clams.
- Meanwhile, cook the pasta.
- Drain the pasta, making sure to save some of the pasta water, and add to the skillet with the steamed clams.
- Add half the parsley and cook over low heat for about a minute while tossing. Add more pasta water if needed.
- Plate and sprinkle the rest of the parsley on top and serve.