Here’s another super simple pasta that I call the “mother of all pasta dishes” since its garlic and oil base forms the foundation for countless other pasta sauces. It’s also the quintessential impromptu snack the Italians call una spaghettata. I’m sure all the Italians and Italo-Americans out there have grown up with this pasta, but I have always been surprised at how many non-Italians have never had it, or even heard of it.
The essential recipe is as follows:
For 4-6 servings:
- 400g (14 oz) spaghetti (or linguine)
- 3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and slightly crushed
- 2-3 whole peperoncini (dried hot red peppers)
- Enough olive oil to cover the bottom of your skillet
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Salt to taste
Put water on to boil for the pasta.
While the water is coming to a boil, sauté the garlic in the olive oil, along with the peperoncino, on low heat until the garlic is lightly golden brown, then turn off the heat. (Do not let the garlic burn, or it will turn bitter.) Add some chopped parsley at end (some people omit the parsley but I like the subtle flavor and color it adds).
When the water comes to a vigorous boil, salt very well and add your pasta—either spaghetti or linguine—and cook till al dente.
Drain and pour into a warmed bowl, then pour the oil and garlic mixture on top. Mix thorough, taste for seasoning and add more salt if needed, then serve and eat immediately. (You can add a few bits of chopped parsley on top for color.) In the alternative, you can add the pasta directly into the skillet where you’ve sautéed the garlic and hot pepper.
As simple as it is, there are some tricks to making this dish. First off, because there is nowhere to ‘hide’ bad ingredients or bad technique when you make “ajo e ojo” (the dialect name for this dish), you need best quality, fruity olive oil and fresh garlic and, of course, imported durum wheat pasta, or the dish will disappoint. The use of whole, dried red peppers is also an important point–I don’t really care for pepper flakes in this dish, as it is too easy for them to overwhelm the other flavors. And they tend to burn very easily which, like garlic, turn them bitter. If you only have the flakes around, add them at the very end, just before you turn off the heat.
The key trick to a good aglio e olio, in my book, is to saute the garlic and hot pepper over low heat, then let the oil cool a bit before you add it to the pasta. Turn off the heat as soon as the garlic becomes a light brown (see photo). This technique allows the garlic flavor to permeate the oil more thoroughly and produces an agreeably ‘sweet’ garlic taste due to the gentle cooking. (This actually runs contrary to some recipes, which tell you to pour hot oil over the pasta—something I find produces gummy pasta.) Some people, including Jeanna Carola Francesconi in La cucina napoletana, advise that you should add a bit of the pasta water to the oil and garlic, which is supposed to eliminate any greasiness. Personally, I rather enjoy the ‘slippery’ quality of the pasta when made as directed above. But try it both ways and see how you like it best.
There are other special techniques that are sometimes recommended for making this dish–indeed, everyone seems to have their personal ‘secret’: One calls for frying the garlic is a minimal amount of oil, and then add raw oil to the pasta and mixing. This technique brings out the olive oil flavor more forcefully, as cooking tends to ‘dull’ the flavor of olive oil. Another version would have you remove the cooked garlic and red pepper and grind them in a mortar and pestle–seems a bit ‘fussy’ to me, but perhaps worth a try. Many, perhaps most, people actually remove the garlic and peperoncino before serving the dish but I usually don’t bother. To tell you the truth, I like eating the garlic!
A common variant of this dish is to add bread crumbs to the oil. Another variant calls for both bread crumbs and rosemary. Others add anchovies, although this would then, in my book at least, make this a pasta e alici. I have even had some friends from Campania heartily recommend making this dish with grated parmigiano–something I had previously considered near blasphemy.
As mentioned at the beginning, lots and lots of other sauces, in southern Italian cooking especially, begin with this simple oil and garlic base. Drop the hot pepper and add tomatoes and a basil leaf you have the most basic of tomato sauces. Keep the pepper and add tomatoes and you have penne all’arrabbiata. Add pancetta or guanciale and pecorino cheese and you have bucatini all’amatriciana. Add tuna and you’ll get pasta al tonno and add capers and anchovies and you have sugo alla puttanesca, add clams (with or without tomatoes) and you have spaghetti alle vongole. And ajo e ojo is the base for many pasta and vegetables dishes–you usually parboil the vegetable and then saute it in the oil and garlic–see my post on orecchiette e broccoletti. Etc., etc., etc…
Angelina, by the way, usually didn’t make her ajo e ojo with peperoncino but with copious amounts of ground black pepper. I’m not really sure why, and I never asked her, but I suspect that when she came to the US, dried red peppers where in short supply so, like immigrants everywhere, she looked for substitutes. I’ve never see it made that way except by her, but it was also very nice, and I occasionally make it that way when I’m feeling nostalgic…