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.