Here’s another signature dish of Roman cooking, penne all’arrabbiata or ‘angry’ penne, perfect for an impromtu meal or snack when you crave something spicy. It is a very simple dish—basically an aglio, olio e peperoncino with tomato and extra peperoncino added for more heat.
Start your penne cooking in well-salted boiling water while you make the sauce. You start by sautéing garlic and peperoncino in abundant olive oil as for an ajo e ojo—but add as much hot pepper as you like. Remember, this dish is not called ‘angry’ penne for nothing! Then, before either the garlic or the peperoncino have a chance to brown too much, add either fresh tomatoes that have been skinned, seeded and chopped (see Notes below) or, if good fresh tomatoes and out of season or otherwise unavailable, canned tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer until the tomatoes have completely ‘melted’ into a sauce and separated from oil. Taste and adjust for seasoning. (You can add red pepper flakes if the sauce is not spicy enough for you.) Add the penne—cooked very al dente—to the sauce, allowing it to insaporire for a few moments, then serve, topped with chopped parsley.
NOTES: Many recipes—including many Italian recipes—call for grated pecorino and/or parmesan cheese either to be mixed into the sauce or to top the finished pasta, in addition to, or instead of, the chopped parsley. The original recipe does not call for any kind of cheese and, being a traditionalist—at least in things culinary—and a lover of ‘clean’ tastes, I always opt for the parsley only. But, it’s hard to say it’s inauthentic to add cheese—in fact, even the authoritative Talismano della Felicità calls for a pecorino topping.
If you want to use fresh tomatoes, you will need very ripe, tasty tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes should be peeled and seeded before using: tomatoes are very difficult to peel raw. You need to loosen their skins one of two ways: First, you can roast them ever so slightly over an open flame. You can simply spear the bottom of the tomato with a fork and rotate it over a stove burner until the skins has blistered all over. (This technique works best with gas stoves; you can also use a barbecue, in which case you can simply lay the tomatoes down on the grate and turn them often with tongs). The other method is to blanch them for only about 30 seconds or so in boiling water. Either way works fine. Then split the tomato in two lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon or simply with your finger (which is what I usually do). Chop the tomato roughly and you’re ready to use it for this or any other tomato sauce. If you don’t have good, ripe tomatoes, then canned tomatoes are actually your better choice. (Canned tomatoes in the US also present a conundrum, but that’s a subject to a separate post.)
The amount of tomato is largely a matter of personal taste, but most recipes call for a 1:1 ratio of tomato to uncooked pasta by weight. But some recipes call for less (say a 3:5 tomato-to-pasta ratio) and some call for more. Depends on how ‘saucy’ you want this sauce to be. Personally, I like my pasta lightly sauced, so I use a bit less than 1:1.
The amount of peperoncino, as mentioned above, is a matter of personal taste, but the whole point of this dish—as opposed, say, to a run-of-the-mill pasta al sugo—is its piquancy, so be generous. Although I should say that the Italian definition of ‘spicy’ (outside, perhaps Calabria) does not really compare with some other cuisines, particularly in South Asia or Mexico. Usually, peperoncino is a better choice than red pepper flakes, because flakes can burn so easily and turn bitter, but this is one dish where they work quite well. Just remember to add them only a few seconds before the tomatoes—the liquid in the tomatoes will prevent them from burning. Otherwise, you can just add them, together with the salt and pepper, after the tomatoes. Red pepper flakes are also very convenient for adjusting the ‘heat’ level upwards if you want a spicier dish. (If you want to lower the heat level, add more oil and tomato.)
The classic pasta for this dish, as indicated, is penne. But this sauce would lend itself quite well to long pasta like spaghetti or linguine. In fact, it’s hard to go wrong in terms of pasta shapes, although you should avoid most egg pastas, which would be overwhelmed by this ‘angry’ sauce.
One last note on one of my pet peeves: There is nothing more inane than calling this pasta shape ‘penne pasta’. The name of this pasta is just plain ‘penne’. You don’t say ‘spaghetti pasta’ or ‘rigatoni pasta’, do you? Ah, now, then, I feel better…