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How-To

Linguine with Clam Sauce

Fresh clams and perfectly firm pasta are the keys to this simple Italian dish

Fine Cooking Issue 88
Photos: Scott Phillips
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If you’ve ever ordered a plate of linguine with clam sauce in Naples, Venice, or any Italian town overlooking the Mediterranean, you’re surely a fan of this simple dish, with its intense, clean flavors. But return home and start to look for this classic in local restaurants and, like me, you’re apt to be disappointed.

Linguine with Clam Sauce should be packed with flavor—nicely garlicky and a little spicy—with firm (but not chewy) pasta. Most of all, it should taste of fresh, delicious clams with the unmistakable tang of the sea. This is a simple dish, with familiar ingredients that are easy to find. Yet the simpler the dish, the harder it is to duplicate, because every ingredient has to be perfectly fresh and properly prepared. This is not the place for short cuts. But don’t worry—I’ll help you recreate the best linguine with clam sauce you’ve ever had.

Start with selecting the clams. The ones used in Italy and around the Mediterranean are small, meaty, and juicy, but this variety is not available in the United States. You’re most likely to find Atlantic hardshell clams in your market. The smallest of these, generally less than 2-1/2 inches across, are called littlenecks, and they are the tenderest. Medium ones, up to 3 inches across, are called cherrystones. The largest quahogs, called chowder clams, are too tough for this sauce. When making this dish for two to four people, I use the more expensive littlenecks, but when I plan to serve six or eight, I choose cherrystones because they’re large, and each clam goes a long way.

How to choose and store clams

When shopping for clams, you’ll want to head for a market with rapid turnover. Since clams are such an important part of this dish, it’ll be worth the extra time it takes to get to a good seafood market.

Look for intact, tightly closed (or just slightly gaping) shells, and a sea-like smell. Clams are sold alive, so don’t store them in plastic or they’ll suffocate. As soon as you get home, put them in a bowl, cover with a wet towel, and refrigerate. Just before cooking, look for any shellfish that are open and tap them on the counter. If they don’t close, discard them. Also discard any clams that remain closed after cooking.

If you are not preparing this dish the day you buy the clams, it’s smart to wash and cook them in the wine and herb broth, remove them from their shells, and refrigerate; they will keep for two or three days.

Next, choose a brand of pasta that will remain al dente. I prefer the imported De Cecco, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, and Due Pastori brands. These take longer to cook but will retain a firm texture. The pasta water is very flavorful, so be sure to save some before draining the pasta. If you find yourself with too little clam juice, add about 1/2 cup of this reserved cooking water to the broth.

To ensure heat in every bite, I infuse olive oil with crushed red pepper flakes. Don’t skip this simple, fast step, as it imparts a subtle spiciness throughout the dish.

This is a great classic that should be cooked and enjoyed for what it is. If it can make you feel as if you’re eating at a seaside restaurant in Italy, so much the better.

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