Italian cooking is all about regional cuisine, but there are a few dishes so simple and satisfying that they’re mainstays in many regions. One of these is pasta with clam sauce, or pasta alle vongole. Found up and down Italy’s coastline, this dish is basically fresh clams tossed with long, thin pasta like linguine or spaghetti, but every Italian cook has his or her own spin on it. In some regions, tomatoes are a common addition. I prefer a simple sauce of olive oil, wine, garlic, and maybe a bit of red pepper flake if I’m in the mood for a little heat.
In Italy, the clams are tiny, fresh, sweet, tender vongole, or carpet-shell clams. Cockles are a close substitute, and if you can’t find those, littlenecks or Manilas work well, too. Whichever you use, you’re sure to love the way their briny flavor shines through in this classic dish.
Get the recipe: Classic Linguine with Clam Sauce
Buy clams the day you plan to cook them. Look for ones that are closed and smell like the sea, not fish. Refrigerate them in an uncovered bowl set over an ice-filled bowl until ready to use.
Use high-quality dried pasta. Italian brands like De Cecco and Delverde have a porous surface that absorbs the sauce well.
Cook the pasta in plenty of well-salted water. If it has room to move, it won’t stick together.
Cook the clams in wine you would be happy to drink. Reach for a crisp Italian white, or finish off an open bottle.
Strain the clam-cooking liquid. Even though you’ll clean the clams before cooking, they may still release sediment when they open. Straining keeps grit out of your sauce.
Remove the tough, chewy adductor muscles from littlenecks (as shown below). These firm, smooth, pale pink muscles will usually stick to the shells when you pull the clams out. If they come away with the clam, just poke them out of the meat.
Stop boiling the pasta when it’s slightly firmer than al dente. It’s going to cook more in the sauce, and you don’t want it to get mushy.