Updated: Jun 22
For seafood lovers, it’s hard to imagine a better place to eat (recipe link) than Abruzzo’s Adriatic Coast, specifically the largely protected strip of coastline between Ortona and Vasto known as the costa dei trabocchi. This region is named after the wooden, spider-like fishing piers that jut-out from pebbly beaches into the impossibly blue sea. Legend tells that some Abruzzese shepherds and farmers turned to fishing as a more lucrative lifestyle, however they forgot that proficient piloting of a seaworthy vessel is usually a requirement in the commercial fishing trade, and that it can also be pretty dangerous. Their solution was to construct shelters about 50 meters off the beach, with large nets that could be lowered past the longshore bar, and safely raised to collect the daily harvest at their leisure. Many trabocchi functionally exist today, with several operating as fine dining restaurants that showcase hyperlocal, Adriatic delicacies. This isn’t a post about trabocchi, or any of the sublime courses we enjoyed at Trabocco Punta Cavaluccio, though.
No, this is a post about pasta in clam sauce: elevated to preposterous heights, forever ruining the genre until I can successfully recreate it. There are pastas in clam sauce, and then there’s this.
Sam and I rented bikes and rode the protected greenway trail that connects Ortona and Vasto along the coast, stopping periodically for a quick swim. By lunch, we had made it to Fossacesia Marina, a small beach town about halfway along the trail, and camped out at Pasta Piu’ fronting the town’s esplanade. I ordered the bucatini alle vongole e bottarga, noting that: 1) I have never seen bucatini with vongole, 2) nor have I seen bottarga added to it, but that 3) the addition of bottarga has never adversely affected the quality of a dish. I can only describe it as the best pasta in clam sauce I’ve ever had. The merits of bucatini became obvious after the fact; the noodle’s hollow interior delivers more sauce per bite than linguine or other typical alle vongole. As well, my suspicions that bottarga would overwhelm the dish were dashed. On the contrary, the bottarga added a briny depth to the sauce, while allowing the screamingly-fresh, petite Adriatic clams their rightful place as the star of the ensemble. This was a pasta dish in perfect balance.
This ended up being the first pasta recreation I attempted after our trip, and it turned out pretty close to the original. Here are a few notes on the ingredients:
Clams: Obviously, recreating this in Baltimore, I need to use different clams; I wasn’t able to clear Customs with my leaky box labeled “NOT CLAMS” when we flew back home. I used Middleneck clams from Virginia, which I love, but they are about 10x the size of the original clams used in Fossacesia. Littlenecks might be better, but unfortunately on the east coast, we are relegated to different sizes of Quahog. I ended up dicing the middlenecks after steaming, and tossed the clams with the pasta and sauce.
Bottarga: This is cured mullet roe, and is available at DiPasquale’s in Baltimore, or other fine Italian import stores. It’s ubiquitous throughout coastal Italy, but here in the States, it’s absolutely a luxury purchase for which you will pay a luxury price. You do not have to buy it, and this recipe will still be pretty good without it. If you’ve never had it, though, and you enjoy seafood like oysters, tinned small fish, and sea urchin, I highly recommend picking some up, it will enrich your life. As a substitute, melt an anchovy in the olive oil before adding the garlic and red pepper.
Bucatini: I made this using my KitchenAid mixer pasta extruder attachment. Extruded pasta doughs (something KitchenAid neglects to tell you when you buy this expensive accessory) are different than fresh pasta doughs; throw out everything Sam taught you and just use a crumbly mix of semolina flour and water. There are a few recipes posted online from folks who also almost returned their extruder attachments, so if you have one of these and are frustrated, keep at it; it’s not you.
Overall, this is a pretty simple pasta preparation, showcasing just a few ingredients. This is true of most great pastas: no sleight-of-hand, no bizarre alchemy, just a couple fresh ingredients brought together with good timing and technique. I really hope you try this one some time.
YIELD: 2 servings
1 dozen middleneck clams
1 - 1 ½ cup white wine (trebbiano, pinot grigio, etc.)
1 tbsp minced garlic
pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp grated bottarga
3 tbsp evoo
1--- Use a potato or vegetable brush to scrub the sand and grit off of the clam shells under cold, running water, and discard any clams that are open and don’t close when handled (these are dead and will make you very sick; there’s typically one per dozen). Place the clean clams in a colander and leave under cold, running water until you’re ready to steam them. Bring a large pot of water to boil.
2--- Place a high-walled saute or frying pan over medium heat, and add the olive oil. When the oil is fragrant (but not smoking!), add the minced garlic. Toss the garlic in the oil for about 2 minutes, then add the chili flakes. Give a final toss, then pour in the white wine.
3--- Increase the heat under the pan to high, and carefully (i.e., without splashing molten wine/oil on yourself) add the clams and cover the pan. Depending on the size of the clams you’re using, it may take between 4-8 minutes for them to steam open.
4--- When the clams have opened, transfer them to a bowl to cool, careful to reserve any remaining liquor inside the shell (NOTE: you can skip this step if you’re using Adriatic vongole, or a smaller variety of clam; you can just leave those in the shell), discard any clams that haven’t opened long after the rest have. Turn the heat under the pan to medium, and add about a tablespoon of grated bottarga to the liquid. Let the liquid reduce by about a third.
5--- If you’re using middlenecks or larger clams, extract from the shell and give a rough chop on a grooved cutting board to collect any additional liquor. Save a couple of clams in the shell for plating aesthetics.
6--- Add salt to the boiling water in the pot, and cook the bucatini. When the pasta is a few minutes from al dente, return the chopped clams and any reserved liquor to the pan along with lemon, butter, and parsley. Stir to incorporate.
7--- Using a spider strainer or tongs, pull the pasta out of the pot and place directly in the clam sauce. Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce by tossing vigorously over medium high heat. Add some of the starchy pasta water to the sauce if it’s too thick.
8--- Serve into bowls, and garnish with a healthy amount of grated bottarga and any reserved prop clams in their shells. If you have it, keep some crusty bread handy to scoop up the leftover sauce.