Linguini con vongole (Italian for linguini with clams) is a dish that is very popular throughout Italy, especially its central regions including Rome and further south in Campania (where it is part of traditional Neapolitan cuisine).
Italians prepare this dish two ways: in bianco, i.e., with oil, garlic, parsley, and sometimes a splash of white wine; and in rosso, like the former but with tomatoes and fresh basil, the addition of tomatoes being more frequent in the south. My version combines elements of both styles, because that’s just how TFD rolls.
Traditionally, the bivalves are cooked quickly in hot olive oil to which plenty of garlic has been added. The live clams open during cooking, releasing a liquid that serves as the primary flavoring agent. The clams are then added to the firm pasta (spaghetti, linguine, or vermicelli), along with salt, black pepper (or red pepper), and a handful of finely-chopped parsley.
In the Liguria region of Italy, east of Genoa, “Spaghetti alle vongole (veraci)” means spaghetti with tiny baby clams in the shell, no more than the size of a thumbnail, with a white wine/garlic sauce. Linguine also may be used for the pasta in preference to spaghetti. As you can see, my version is basically Ligurian with the use of Manila clams.
You may see Italian-American recipes sometimes use cream in this dish, but this is NEVER done in Italy. In America, cheese is sometimes added to this dish, although Italians believe it overpowers the simple flavors of the clams and of good quality olive oil. I agree with the Italians, but do as you see fit, Citizen! 🙂
My recipe is closely based on the amazing version by Marcella Hazan, but with a few of my individual touches (noted in the recipe). Her technique of finishing the cooking of the pasta in the sauce is genius – it drinks up the clam flavor and makes the dish truly celestial! 🙂
Battle on – The Generalissimo
2 pounds manila clams (or you can use 18 Littlenecks)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and sliced paper thin
1 ½ tablespoons chopped parsley
Minced fresh hot chili pepper, 2 teaspoons, or to taste
1 fresh, ripe, firm plum tomato, cut into ½-inch dice with its skin on, but drained of juice and all seeds removed
½ cup dry white wine
1 bottle top-quality clam juice (I like Bar Harbor brand)
1 pound dry linguine pasta
6 fresh basil leaves, torn into 2 or 3 pieces
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
½ teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
1. Soak the clams for 5 minutes in a basin or sink filled with cold water. Drain and refill the basin with fresh cold water, leaving in the clams. Vigorously scrub the clams one by one with a very stiff brush (only if using Littlenecks). Drain, refill the basin, and repeat the whole scrubbing operation (again, only for Littlenecks). Do this 2 or 3 more times, always in fresh changes of water, until you see no more sand settling to the bottom of the basin. Discard any clams that, when handled, don’t clamp shut. Put them in a pan broad enough so that the clams don’t need to be piled up more than 3 deep, cover the pan, and turn on the heat to high. Check the clams frequently, turning them over, and remove them from the pan as they open their shells.
2. When all the clams have opened up, take them out of the pan, using a slotted spoon. Try not to stir up the juices in the pan any more than you must. Detach the clam meat from its shell and gently swish each clam in the pan juices to rinse off any sand (if using Littlenecks, otherwise leave Manila clams as is in the shell). Unless the Littlenecks are exceptionally small, cut them up in 2 or even 3 pieces. Put the clams in a small bowl, pour 2 tablespoons olive oil over them, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and set it aside for later. Do not refrigerate.
3. Line a strainer with paper towels, and filter the clam juices in the pan through the paper and into another bowl. If needed, add bottled top-quality clam juice to taste (remember this is basically the sauce and final cooking medium for the pasta, eyeball it and use your best judgment). Set aside for later.
4. Choose a skillet or sauté pan broad enough to contain the pasta later. Put in 3 tablespoons olive oil and the sliced garlic, and turn on the heat to medium high. Cook the garlic, stirring it, for just a few seconds, without letting it become colored, then add the parsley and the chili pepper. Stir once or twice, and add the diced tomato. Cook the tomato for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring it from time to time, then add the wine plus the thyme and rosemary. Simmer the wine for about 20 to 30 seconds, letting it reduce, then turn off the heat.
5. Cook the pasta in abundant boiling salted water until it is very firm to the bite, barely short of being fully cooked. When you bite a piece off, it should feel slightly stiff and the narrowest of chalk-white cores should be showing in the center of the strand.
6. Turn the heat on to high under the skillet or sauté pan, drain the pasta and transfer it immediately to the pan. Add all the filtered clam juice, and cook, tossing and turning the pasta, until all the juice has evaporated. If the pasta was not too underdone when you drained it, it should now be perfectly cooked. Taste it and, in the unlikely event it needs more cooking after the clam juices have evaporated and been absorbed, add a small amount of water.
7. As soon as the pasta is done, before you turn the heat off, add the clams with all the oil in the bowl and the torn basil leaves, toss in the pan 2 or 3 times, then transfer to a warm platter and serve at once.