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A simple feast: Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino à la Mode de Robert

    There are moments when the kind of appetite one feels can only be satisfied by minimalist foods. Times when only the simple and delicate will nourish. A quickly rustled-up plate of spags is one such dish — or can be!

Now Spaghetti Aglio e Olio, is a staple dish in Rome (and in most of Central Italy), and it is generally served around midnight, when a group of friends have been up, talking and drinking, and making merry. At a certain point, usually at the witching hour, someone will cry out: "Spaghettata!" or even "Du Spaghi Ajo e Ojo?", lapsing with fondness into the Roman vernacular. That outcry is, of course, encouraged by the languor in your belly after a night of excited debate, and possibly a glass or two of wine more than caution may counsel. Some will have smoked too many cigarettes. Even the virtuous will, however, feel a need for sustenance.

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio is a classic, and no one really knows who invented the dish. Of course, the concoction is of such utter simplicity that to speak of invention is somewhat absurd. It probably just developped spontaneously from a combination of local staples: spaghetti, extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and, in most cases peperoncino, a local variety of dried chilli pepper.

The above facts are well known to anyone who has lived in Rome for any length of time, and you will find any number of recipes, each claiming to be the "authentic" one. None of all this is of any interest to us here. The dish I am describing is about a thousand light years from the Spaghetti Aglio e Olio I have had anywhere else. This version was developped by my father, Robert — it is a synthesis, a distillation — and, like any "distillation", captures the essence, the soul, the intent of the dish. In it's simplicity, I consider it a true Zen masterpiece.

As simple as this dish is, it is also critical — and you may need to make it a few times to achieve perfection. This will not be a chore, since each successive incarnation will be more delectable than the previous. As you get more versed in the subtle art, you will appreciate the delicacy of this dish, and the abyss that separates it from the common and cheerful offering which serves to provide sustenance to tired and distracted stomachs. Robert's version of the dish is more suitable to an intimate springtime lunch under a vine pergola, preferably with a view of the sea, down below in the middle distance.

For authenticity, accompany with a good chilled Frascati or Marino — even an Est! Est!! Est!!! will work. If you want to be iconoclastic about it, try a nice fresh sparkling Lambrusco di Sorbara: you'll find its red fruity sweetness a great palate refresher. Really creative souls, hankering for that elusive perfection, will marry this angelic dish to a Sardinian Vernaccia. Fearless innovators may even hazard to try it with a Moscato Passito di Pantelleria; Carlo Hauner makes the best of this nectar of the gods.

Enough said on a lyrical note: roll up your sleeves and follow me into the kitchen...

Let me first issue a stern warning: this dish is one of those concoctions of such simplicity that it relies absolutely on the quality of the raw ingredients: if in any doubt, cook something else. Don't sully this minimalist creation with approximate surrogates or ersatz procurement. This rule is sacrosanct, so I make it a condition of sharing the secret that you should respect it. You are now honor bound!

A word on the spaghetti: here you will have to use your experience, recommendations from your friendly shopkeeper (probably hopelessly misleading), or follow my suggestions to the letter. Any Italian spaghetti labelled as such, and claiming to be from Gragnano; anywhere near Naples; Molise; or the Abruzzi, are prime contenders — pretty much in that order. Please try to avoid the more banal and prosaic mass manufactured "commodity" products. Well, I know: sometimes you can't. In that case the following are usually acceptable: Barilla No.5, Pezzullo, Garofalo, La Molisana. These I have listed roughly in order of their ubiquity.

An interesting phenomenon has arisen in recent years: it is what I call split-level marketing. A reputable manufacturer will market their product (ok here we're talking pasta, but the phenomenom is probably widespread) under their usual label at a fairly high price. In parallel, they will also market the very same product under a fairly anonymous brand name. In addition, they will also, often, allow their product to be marketed under various supermarket chains' own brands. So beware: price is not a reliable guide. Have fun, become an expert: try them and come to your own conclusions.

I am digressing... let me get back to essentials. The next critical component is the olive oil. You will want a good Extra-virgin Olive Oil, preferably Italian, preferably from Tuscany, and not too green — more of a golden color with a fine pleasant bouquet and not greasy to the palate. Do not make this dish if you haven't got decent oil to hand: it will be a travesty and you will regret it. Having said that, there are plenty of fine oils made all over the world — I recently found an exquisite oil made by Palestinians.

You will need a bunch of flat-leafed parsley. This is not optional: it is the nodal difference upon which this recipe hinges. No proper parsley, no dice. Don't cheat on this one. Remember, you're honor bound.

Garlic: for each person you will need a head of garlic. Yes! You heard me correctly a head per head. Don't sweat it — unless you're a vampire. This dish is not suitable for vampires so fair warning has hereby been given. "Let your garlicke be goode", fresh, without green sprouts: fer crissakes! Me, I find that the best is always very sticky when it is cut. Also it is of a gentle ivory color, not bluey-white: the former is subtle and warm, the latter is coarse and vulgar. Here again, "experience maketh the expert". Start aquiring some: you're not going to do that if you just read recipes. You have to cook, make mistakes... figure out where you went wrong. It's like life in other words. Make mistakes and learn from them.

Peperoncino: this is the Italian word for a small (2-6 inches long) spicy red pepper, usually used dried. It is similar to what is referred to as a Chilli Pepper. I say similar, because that is exactly what I mean. No two varieties of capsicum will have the same blend of flavor, aroma and spiciness. This dish is from Central Italy in its inspiration, and if you can you are well advised to use Italian peperocini. Try your local Italian deli or ask them where they get the ones they cook with at home! Be enterprising, ask daring questions. Winkle out the closely guarded secrets. The ideal peperoncino is about 3-4 inches long, nearly an inch wide at the top and tapers smoothly to a fine point. It will be fairly crinkly and have a good gloss on the less crinkled parts. It will be a dark maroon red with maybe the odd hint of purple. If it is brown or orange look at it with disdain: neither will serve, the former being way past it and the latter having been picked when not fully sun ripened. Aah! Life is hard when you seek perfection.

So, let's get started...

First task, and the only one that will require a little skill and some effort: peel the garlic cloves and chop them.
Now, peeling is self explanatory.
Chopping may benefit from some guidance. I don't want you to randomly hack away at a heap of peeled garlic cloves. No! Cease and desist. Come here, sit down and pour yourself a glass of my young Chianti, while I reveal the art of chopping garlic for this recipe...

Get yourself a decent, sharp, pointed kitchen knife; a 4-5 inch blade will be fine. Now, with the point of the knife slit the clove down it length just shy of it's base. Do that several times then turn the clove through ninety degrees and repeat the operation. Now, with your clove suitably slitted/slotted, cut across the slits to yield a neat little heap of rougly cubical pieces, about 1/16 to 1/8 inch to a side (1.5 to 3mm for the stubbornly metric). Repeat this procedure with the entire batch of cloves.

Chopping the garlic into even little cubes is vital, to allow it to cook evenly and uniformly. It is the only operation in the preparation of this dish that requires you to master a little skill. The rest is easy!

Wash the parsley well, shake dry, blot gently with a clean cloth or kitchen towelling and then proceed to strip the leaves off the stems. Keep the stems for stews or sauces, also for roast meats: they have great flavor.

Of course, you will notice that, before I did anything else, I put a large pot of water on to boil. You will want a gallon of water per pound of spaghetti. Don't salt the water until it comes to the boil. There is no good reason I can think of for this... it' seems to be one of those things that was passed down over the generations. I've heard plenty of post-rationalizations. They all sounded pretty much like bovine defecation to me. Hey, if you want to salt the water when it's cold, go right ahead! I assure you you will not taste the difference. There is one absolutely essential thing though. You must use good coarse sea salt — kosher salt will also be acceptable. And you need plenty of salt: two good fistfuls. Quit worrying about sodium intake and all that gratuitous jazz. Most of the salt will remain in the cooking water, but it is necessary to achieve flavor and correct texture of the spaghetti. Just trust me on this — just make an act of faith, ok? You are not going to shrivel and die.

At this stage, let me give you a piece of advice: unless you are an expert (and even then...) don't even think of cooking this dish for more than 4 or 5 people in one batch. One pound or half a kilo of pasta will be your limit. There is a good reason for this. Pasta continues to cook from its internal heat, even after it is drained. This dish is good when the pasta is very much "al dente", which most people nowadays know about. The pasta should be firm to the bite but cooked through. Achieving this compromise is where the quality of the pasta comes into play. Of course you can make mush out of even the finest spaghetti from Gragnano. However, it will be hard to make anything good from lousy pasta. Stick to genuine Italian pasta and select it as I have explained above.

As the water comes to a rolling boil, throw in two good fistfuls of your coarse sea salt and then throw in the spaghetti. Spread them out into a spiral with a flourish of the wrist. You missed that? Never mind, it will come with experience. Now, using a two-pronged barbecue fork or any long-tined fork, induce every strand to submerge as fast as possible into the boiling water. Keep your flame quite high. While the pasta is cooking move it about every now and then with your fork to ensure the strands stay separate and do not clump.

Ok: your pasta is cooking and your clock is ticking. Place a large skillet (tinned copper is ideal, failing that cast iron, or use your imagination)on a medium flame and allow it to heat up well, then pour in a goodly quantity of your oil (at least a quarter of a cup, you will add more later so don't torture yourself about it). The oil will warm up pretty instantly in the hot skillet and you can throw in the garlic and the two peperoncini or chili peppers broken into several pieces. Stir it all about and reduce the heat. It needs to fry not to cremate! At this stage those who like to (and I often do), add in a couple of salted anchovies which will rapidly melt in the oil. Watch the garlic cubelets with an eagle eye and just as soon as they are the color of a not too well roasted peanut — possibly a shade or two lighter still — cast in the fresh parsley leaves. An almighty furore will take place in your skillet, with much spattering of hot oil: do I need to warn you not to wear your best attire while cooking? Stir the parsley around and, as soon as the parsley is crisp add another good dollop of your oil and turn off the heat.

You've been stirring the spaghetti during the above, haven't you? Good. About six or seven minutes into the spaghetti's cooking time you will have to start fishing out single strands and testing them for readiness. How you do that is strictly up to you but you better get it right! As soon as the pasta is a minute or so shy of being al dente you must turn off the heat. Deftly and rapidly transfer the spaghetti from the pot to the skillet, under which you will have turned on the heat again. Do this with your fork and a spoon, draining each "catch" over the pot. Please try not to use a colander: it is a barbaric method and it "bruises" the spaghetti. In Naples this is considered a capital offence.

Give your spaghetti a good upwards stir, flamboyantly but effectively transferring the garlic and parsley to the surface. Some people insist that the pasta should be placed into a warmed serving bowl (the pasta water can be used to warm it) and that the oil, garlic and parsley should be poured over the top. This method preserves the parsley's crispyness, and I personally favor it.

This dish is best prepared for two people using a half pound (250 grams) of spaghetti and two heads of garlic.
The smaller quantities will help in achieving the correct final result. Don't ask me why: how would I know. It just does, trust me.

It is permissible to lightly dust your dish of spaghetti with grated pecorino cheese, although the purist will frown at it. I do so myself from time to time: nobody's perfect. If you are using cheese you better have the best: either a good Pecorino Romano or, better still, in my opinion, a well aged Tuscan Pecorino... if you can get hold of hard, grateable Pecorino di Pienza, well then: my compliments! Some barbarians will grind black pepper over the dish: don't do it! Leave well alone. However, it is permissible to add a couple of spoonfuls of very good breadcrumbs after the garlic has cooked, and before the parsley is added. I rather like that variant.

So, you may be wondering: "How do I know I've got it right?" Well, I'll tell you how: the little cubes of garlic are an even golden color and totally crunchy, as are the dark green parsley leaves. It is not the easiest thing to achieve and it will take a little practice. I'll give you a hint: in order to get the garlic crunchy it will need to cook slowly so that the water is driven off without burning it.

There is one sure way you can tell if your concoction has been succesfully assembled: silence will fall over the table and the only sounds will be the gentle flicking of spaghetti against forks and the scraping of the forks against china. Soon — for this is a dish that is eaten fast, urgently — your guest will sigh in satisfaction.

That sigh, and the mysterious smile playing on their lips, somewhat reminiscent of a replete Gioconda, will be your accolade: make sure you catch it!

Please feel free to message me for any further advice, in case you think the above exposé was too succinct... Also, do let me know how you make out! But, mainly, quit reading and go cook! You will never improve your culinary skills (or any other, for that matter) by reading about it. So cook, fail (if need be) and learn from your mistakes. Jump, grasshopper!
For two people you will need: 1/2 lb (250 g) spaghetti, 2 heads of garlic, a couple of peperoncini (chilli peppers), small bunch of flat parsley, something shy of 1/3 cup fine olive oil, a couple of salted anchovy fillets (optional) and a little pecorino cheese or good breadcrumbs (optional).

Consult Cooking Conversion Table for all your weights and measures queries!

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