As I’ve pointed out many times over the years, one of the hallmarks of “fake” Italian cookery is its in-your-face use of garlic. Now of course garlic is a common ingredient in Italian cooking. But Italians generally use it with great discretion. A common technique, featured in this blog for many of our recipes, is to very lightly crush and peel a garlic clove, sauté it in olive oil until it has begun to give off its aroma and just begun to brown around the edges, then remove it from the pan. Garlic compliments most Italian dishes with subtle background notes. It isn’t usually playing the melody.
Well, here’s the exception that proves the rule: pici all’aglione, which means Homemade Spaghetti with “Big Garlic” Sauce. Aglione is a huge varietal of garlic that’s been grown in the Valdichiana in Tuscany since Etruscan times. They say the enormous heads of aglione can reach eye-popping sizes of up to 800g, or over a pound and a half.
In this recipe the garlic is front and center. Use at least one clove of (normal) garlic per person, two if you want. You gently sauté the garlic cloves over the gentlest of flames until they get very soft, then rather than discarding them, you smush them into the oil before you add tomatoes and a bit of hot pepper to simmer until you have a sauce of unctuous and supremely garlicky goodness.
Aglione sauce is typically served with a handmade spaghetti typical of Tuscany called pici. You can order pici online or, even better, make them yourself (more on pici in the Notes). But otherwise thick spaghetti, bucatini or even regular spaghetti will do you fine. Truth be told, this versatile sauce will marry with just about any pasta shape.
- 500g (1 lb) pici (or other long pasta, see Notes)
- 4-6 cloves garlic, or 2-3 cloves elephant garlic, slightly crushed
- 1 large can (800g/28 oz) tomatoes, crushed by hand
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- A pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
Crush the garlic cloves lightly with the back of a large knife, then peel them.
In a large sauté pan or braiser, sauté the garlic over the gentlest flame you can manage in a abundant olive oil until the cloves are soft. Take care to avoid browning them as much as possible. Once softened, smush the cloves into the oil.
Add the tomatoes to the pan, crushing them with your hands as you go, along with a good pinch of salt, a good grinding of pepper, and, if using, a small pinch of red pepper flakes.
Let the tomatoes simmer for a good 15 minutes or so, until well reduced to a saucy consistency. Stir every once in a while, smushing any lumps of tomato or remaining large pieces of garlic.
Cook your pasta until al dente and mix with the aglione sauce.
Notes on Pici all’aglione
To elicit the maximum garlicky-ness, be very careful to cook the garlic cloves over very gentle heat, just as low and slow as you can manage, until they have softened, before smushing them into the oil. I like to cover the pot, at least partially, to create a bit of steam, which helps the garlic softening and avoid browning. The cloves will inevitably brown a bit around the edges but try to avoid significant browning. This low and low cooking method mellows the garlic’s sharpness as it softens it up enough to smush the cloves into a paste, which lends the sauce a gentle yet pervasive garlic flavor.
You’ll see recipes for aglione sauce using other techniques as well, including thinly slicing or mincing the garlic. If you opt to go this route, cooking the garlic only briefly or it will risk burning. Personally, I like the low and slow method much better. I found the taste of the sauce with sliced or minced garlic rather sharp and unappealing. And besides, that sharp garlic flavor is actually less true to the original version of the dish. Aglione from the Valdichiana may be huge, but it actually has a sweeter flavor than normal garlic.
One particularly extravagant version of aglione sauce comes from the inimitable Gorgione, the famed Italian food presenter, who adds garlic not only to the oil when starting his sauce, but at the end, tossed with the pasta. He even adds a couple of cloves to the pasta water! That’s for real garlic fiends. A bit too much for me…
Pici are classically made from a soft, eggless dough, just 500g (1 lb) flour, 250ml (1 cup) water, a dizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Once kneaded, the dough ball is flattened with a rolling pin, then cut into strips, which you then roll with both hands to lengthen them into thick spaghetti. (The process is a bit like making gnocchi.) It’s simple, but not easy. Getting an even thickness along the whole length of the pasta is a real challenge, especially if you have large hands like myself.
In any event, you can see it done right in this video from one of my favorite YouTube channels, Pasta Grannies:
If you’re not up for making your own pici, then can be purchased online on amazon.com. And, as I mentioned, though not nearly as charmingly rustic, algione sauce will go perfectly well with spaghettoni (thick spaghetti), bucatini or even with regular spaghetti or just about any pasta you like.
- 500g 1 lb 500g (1 lb) pici or other long pasta
- 4-6 cloves 4-6 cloves garlic, or 2-3 cloves elephant garlic slightly crushed
- 1 large can large can (800g/28 oz) tomatoes crushed by hand
- Salt and pepper
- olive oil
- red pepper flakes optional
- Crush the garlic cloves lightly with the back of a large knife, then peel them.
- In a large sauté pan or braiser, sauté the garlic over the gentlest flame you can manage in a abundant olive oil until the cloves are soft. Take care to avoid browning them as much as possible. Once softened, smush the cloves into the oil.
- Add the tomatoes to the pan, crushing them with your hands as you go, along with a good pinch of salt, a good grinding of pepper, and, if using, a small pinch of red pepper flakes.
- Let the tomatoes simmer for a good 15 minutes or so, until well reduced to a saucy consistency. Stir every once in a while, smushing any lumps of tomato or remaining large pieces of garlic.
- Cook your pasta until al dente and mix with the aglione sauce.
- Serve immediately.
FINALLY! Frank has described EXACTLY how Authentic Italian dishes use garlic…subtly (with the exception of this dish). I was taught to cook Italian by an Italian from Sicily, she always told me “We do not use garlic directly in our dishes…this is an American thing!”. This woman could make a piece of toast taste delicious somehow! Thanks Frank for all of your wonderful insight, I just found your website and I’m devouring it all!
Thank you so much for clarifying this for me! I got the word ‘pici’ confused with the word ‘picchi’ which is from Sicily. All delicious, no doubt. I’ve only tried one of these sauce recipes, so I’ll use your version next.
Dear Frank, First off: thank you so much for what you do! You have hit the correct balance — an actual recipe for those who want or need a sturdy framework on which to build; but you honor the tradition by showing there are [almost always] many ways to do something…and a few that must never be done!…and all with a handful of practical tips and useful comments, all offered in a very down-to-earth way. This is not an easy thing to accomplish! We are all indebted to you.
And now a question concerning this recipe, which I made for the first time last night: I halved it for my wife and myself and all went as expected until it came time to add the pasta; there was still some visible free oil on the pan (I’ll use a bit less next time) — so I did as I do with most pasta dishes: I turned up the heat and added the pasta with some of its cooking water, and let it emulsify and reduce. The result was delicious…but it did not like like your sauce, which was much grainier: mine, unsurprisingly I suppose, was much looser and coated the pasta. So — did I cross a line which should never be crossed in Aglione sauce….or is this a known/acceptable variation?
Thanks so much for the kind words, Kevin. They really mean a lot to me. What you describe is exactly what I aim for in my posts, nice to hear I hit the target, at least every once in a while!
As for your question. Funny you ask. It has become quite a “thing” right at the moment, judging from the Italian cooking shows I like to watch, to do exactly what you do and finish off the pasta in the sauce with some of the pasta water mixed in. So you’re definitely on to something! In Italian this method is called “risottare” since you are treating the pasta as if it were risotto. As I’ve discussed in this post, you can even cook the pasta that way from start to finish.
More often than not, I finish off my pasta that way, too. It helps the flavor penetrate the pasta and the pasta gets nice and coated. I especially like it for creamy sauces and in general for those “in bianco” aka tomato-less. But sometimes I opt for a quick toss in the sauce. Depends on the sauce and, frankly, on my mood… For this particular pasta and sauce, I prefer it “grainy” as you call it. But that’s just me. It’s absolutely a matter of personal taste.
Dear Frank, It is such a crazy coincidence that I just purchased 2 packages of “Pici” imported from Italy. I have a similar recipe that I learned from a Sicilian cook. After reading your informative summary, I now wonder if “Pici” is a pasta from Tuscany. Sort of a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. So my question to you is: Is “Pici” prepared in this manner, one of Tuscan or Sicilian origin? Either way, this has to be so delicious! Can’t wait to try the Pici that just arrived with your recipe. Grazie, Roz
Pici is very much a Tuscan thing. I’ve never heard of Sicilian pici and a quick Google search didn’t turn anything up. The sauce is basically a very garlic-forward version of a common tomato sauce you can find all over southern Italy, so I’m not surprised that your Sicilian cook made something similar. Either way, though, it’s a wonderful pasta and a delicious sauce!
questa ricetta mi ha riportato indietro nel tempo, ho visitato diverse volte la Toscana e i pici erano uno dei miei piatti preferiti, grazie per aver condiviso con noi questa ottima ricetta! Un abbraccio da Trieste
Tante grazie, Chiara! Que bello sentirti. 🙂
Just returned from Tuscany and was hoping to recreate the delicious pici all’aglione I ate there. I stayed in an incredibly small town in the hills and the owner of the only restaurant proudly described the enormous, sweet, mild garlic they used in this dish. I wanted to make it again since it was such a simple and delicious dish and your recipe seems to be the perfect combination of straightforward and delicious, but I can’t find aglione anywhere. Is there a specific substitute varietal you recommend? Would elephant garlic work, do you think, or maybe leek bulbs? And are there other sauces you recommend for pici?
So glad I stumbled on your site and am excited to explore more recipes!
Thanks so much, Katie! Lookswise elephant garlic is the closest, and like aglione it has a milder flavor than the smaller kind. So you can definitely use that, although you’ll get very acceptable results with any size garlic so long as you follow the technique carefully.
I just have to make another comment Frank! Besides the absolutely fabulous tomato sauce I’m delighted to see the link to Giorgione! We watch him all the time when we are in Rome! He’s a huge favourite of ours and as we are missing Rome so much these days, being only 2 days away from when we went over last Feb., it’s wonderful to be able to watch him on Youtube. Thank you, thank you for allowing us to pretend we are sitting in Rome watching him!
Giorgione is a bigger than life personality, isn’t he? Love the guy. And yes, we can all pretend we’re in Italy now, thanks to the magic of the internet! 🙂
What a wonderful, rustic dish. I love that you slow cook the garlic so that it’s not nearly as sharp as it is if it’s raw. The pasta video is awesome, I’m definitely going to make this wonderful dish (as well as the one in the video).
I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one, Eva. And Pasta Grannies is one of my favorite food YouTube channels.
A wonderful classic Frank! we make pici in Umbria too but we call them stringozzi – as you know – which are just a but thinner than the pici and as delicious. And you are so right about the use of garlic in Italy, low heat and no browning is definitely the key. I mention this over and over at my cooking classes and people is surprised how much more flavor is extracted at low temperature and how wonderful it smells compared to that ugly fried burned cloves!
I checked out your post on stringozzi and they look marvelous, Letizia.😋 And yes, there’s nothing worse than burnt garlic!
I use this technique of infusing the oil then discarding the garlic quite often, but honestly I rarely do that with pasta. Indeed, we love a distinctive garlic aroma. Well I guess I never claimed my pasta to be authentic, after all 🙂
Anyway, this Pici all’aglione looks and sounds wonderful, and it’s certainly right up my alley!
Thanks, Ben! Hope you try it. If you like garlic, I’m sure you’ll like this sauce.
Outside of Tuscany, I’ve never seen pici — in stores or in restaurants. Guess I’ll have to try making some – or head back to Tuscany, since our trip there last year was cancelled. I’ve never tried this sauce with the garlic. Sounds subtle and delicious.
Sorry to hear about your trip, Linda. I guess it’s a common thing. We hadn’t even made reservations for our summer vacation when this whole pandemic thing began. Anyway, at least we can travel virtually through cooking…
One of my favorite sauces for pici. Pici is a type of pasta not very popular outside Tuscany. Once you try it (especially homemade one), you will always prepare it. Thanks for sharing. Paola
And thank you for stopping by, Paola!
I really enjoy learning about the nuisances of Italian cuisine that you so often include on the blog, Frank. You make an excellent point about garlic. I do really enjoy garlic, but it can be overdone. This sauce is new to me, but you’ve got my attention – it sounds easy and delicious! Oh, and on a side note, did you read about the bucatini shortage of 2020? It’s a fascinating read: https://www.grubstreet.com/2020/12/2020-bucatini-shortage-investigation.html
Wow, that’s quite a story. Reads like something out of a spy thriller! Thankfully, I didn’t have much trouble sourcing bucatini last year, although come to think of it, I vaguely remember not finding De Cecco brand, my favorite of the supermarket brands, now and again… Now I know why!
Hi Frank, we made this tonight, the pasta wasn’t Pici but was homemade, and it was great to have a simple enjoyable dish. Too many recipes are tricked up with additions, especially meat, that immediately cancel their authenticity and ignore their origins. I think that is the feature that I enjoy most from your site, the simplicity and honest discussion. Regarding garlic overload. The same applies to Greek cuisine where it seems compulsory in recipes yet is largely missing in the country of origin. As in the dish above when it is used it is done in a way to make a statement. Thank you once again for your gentle efforts, recipes and discussions.
And thank you, John, for your kind words!
YUM! Adore this sauce! And I also love Pici! And I make it every once in a while, mostly with this sauce. I can remember having it and like it so much when we were in Tuscany for the first time…with wild boar sauce…doesn’t that just scream Tuscany! We are very fortunate to get wonderful garlic at our farmer’s market…I can hardly wait for the new crop! Ciao, Frank, happy cooking!
It really is a winner, isn’t it? Thanks for stopping by, Phyllis.
I made this for our lunch today, but with spaghetti. It was incredibly tasty! I shall make it again.
Glad you liked it!
Oh my goodness! This dish brings back so many memories of my nonno cooking in his tiny kitchen. As a child I loved to go to their apartment and see what leftovers I could find in the fridge. I could find this at least once a week. I just love your recipes and the stories and explanations that go with them. You must never stop this blog! My friend I lovingly refer to as Crazy Susan turned me on to your recipes and blog! I’m so glad she did!
Thanks so much for the kind words, April! And yes, Susan (if it’s the one I’m thinking of) is one of my biggest promoters!
What a judicious lesson ! As far a pici is concerned the numerous teachings on the very many Australian TV shows made me try my own hand many moons ago tho’ I won’t pretend its making is a common activity in my kitchen. Reading your advice re garlic I suddenly feel somewhat clumsy in oft using it as a distinct ‘frontrunner’ ? Perhaps cooking most of my meals in Asian styles has led to its stronger presence on my stirfry pan ! I absolutely take your point and your dish will be made soonest to have its soft melody drifting gently in . . .
Try and it see if you like that more gentle approach to garlic. But as they say de gustibus and all that… if you like the garlic, I say go for it.
Fascinating! I had no idea about garlic and its use in real Italian cuisine. I probably use garlic daily, but if I’m making an authentic Italian dish, I will respect the ingredients. I just didnt know that it’s not supposed to play the melody!
Well, you’re definitely not alone. It surprises a lot of people.
I will make this dish this week! Agree with you regarding the use of garlic in Italy, Went to culinary school in Parma in the north of Italy, and for 4 months we never used one clove of garlic! Did a stage in Lake Como and likewise, rarely used garlic!
Love your posts, and especially like your Notes regarding dishes you prepare.. always great information!
Thanks so much for the kind words, Peg!
Even though this is a garlic-centric sauce, there’s still WAY less garlic than in many faux-Italian pasta sauce recipes! Just goes to show how Italian food is judiciously made. Your photos look scrumptious and makes me want to make this right now (at 8:34 am)!
So true, Christina… And as for pasta at 8:34am, that’s just your Italian genes talking. 😉
I grew up eating Italian-American rather than Italian, so I’m quite familiar with garlic forward flavor in pasta dishes. Which I do like, so this dish is right up my alley. But your point about garlic usually being a faint background note in actual Italian cooking is well taken. Anyway, this is a delightful dish. Thanks.
Thanks, John! I do like me a garlic-forward dish like this one every now and again.
Looks absolutely delicious and one of my absolute favorites! Now you have me missing Montalcino even more….a wonderful dish of this pasta alongside a hearty Rosso at Grappolo Blu…sigh.
Sounds divine, Michele. Stay close to those memories… ❤️
I practically lived on Pici all’aglione in my early 20s – your recipe brings back happy memories.
So glad I could bring back those memories, Mad Dog!
For me, this will need to be Pici allo Scaglione! Being allergic to garlic, Italy is my haven for garlic-free cooking and for exactly the reasons you state; it is used judiciously but also adhering to tradition. If a dish called for no garlic, no garlic was used. More often than not, your method of flavoring the oil and removing the clove is what I see.
Ah yes, that garlic allergy! But I bet this sauce wouldn’t be half bad made with shallots. You know, Angelina wasn’t allergic as far as I know, but she was not a big fan of garlic and preferred onion, so I didn’t grow up on garlic-laden dishes, either. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying this dish or other garlicky ones like bagna cauda or aglio, olio e peperoncino. On occasion. But I definitely prefer the Italian approach.