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.