Aglio, olio e peperoncino is a beautifully simple dish that’s as good at home on the couch as it is at a back-street Napoli trattoria.
I have to first admit to having a penchant for all things pasta. A soft spot. A great love. An obsession. A problem. I’m constantly trying to ditch the carbs in favour of the waistline but as soon as I pass the white floury pasta aisle of the supermarket, I’m a goner.
But not all pastas are equal. Many Kiwified Italian restaurants break both Italian culinary laws (and the laws of good food in general). I love Italian food but confess to often giving suburban pasta/pizza joints a wide berth. Pasta done well, though, is a game changer. And the best pasta dish in the world can be cooked at home with not much effort at all. So, let me be straight. First there was God, then there was aglio, olio e peperoncino.
Aglio, olio e peperoncino translates to garlic, oil and hot pepper. But when I was growing up, we gave it the wonderfully poetic title of “white spaghetti”. It’s a super simple dish where the delightful flavours combine to make the sum far greater than its parts. Get ready for some adjectives. It’s delicious, sophisticated, sexy and one of the most satisfying dinners you’ll ever eat. Oily, garlicky, chilli-ish herby carbs. Close your eyes and you’ll be whisked away to a tiny trattoria in Naples.
It was a weekly staple in my family home. With four growing girls to feed and a golden retriever who liked leftovers, cheap family food was always the winner on the night. We also had two parents who were very, very, very into food. They spent most of their lives (and then ours) planning events around what we were going to eat. There were trips to their favourite restaurants, constant conversations around what was for dinner, what was for Saturday lunch, early supper, late Sunday breakfast.
Friends from high school would come to visit and then stare with slight disbelief (and often absolute horror) at the whole artichoke and bowl of dipping butter they were served for lunch. Or the olives and gherkins they got with their lemonade. It sounds frightfully middle class but it was really just two people who had a great love of all things flavourful. Our fridge was full of long-expired jars of this and that and many of my friends I think would have happily brought their own (safer) lunch around. But no one ever turned their nose up at “white spaghetti”.
Given its ease, you’d think it would be more widely known. In Italy, it is. Everyone eats it – at lunches, after school, dinner, as a common midnight snack. When I eventually got to Italy and asked a few locals about it, their faces softened at the memories of aglio, olio e peperoncino, recalling their mamas making it week after week, year after year. It’s like the culinary cosy slipper you reach for after a long day.
When I do go to Italian restaurants in New Zealand, I always scan the menu hoping to glimpse this late-night Roman staple. But alas, it’s a hard find. Scott’s Epicurean in Hamilton of all places does a damn good version. My kitchen on a Friday night does an unbeatable one.
I’ve already passed the white spaghetti baton down a generation to my 5, 6 and 8-year-olds. Minus the chilli, but all in good time. They slurp it down, garlic and parsley ricocheting onto their cheeks, oil dripping down their chin. They ask for it every week without fail. I willingly oblige.
If you want a recipe, here’s a vague one. And vague is all you need. Boil a packet of spaghetti, then while it’s cooking, glug large amounts of good olive oil into a deep pan and fry a whole head of crushed or finely chopped garlic until cooked but not brown. Add in the cooked spaghetti, a truck load of chopped curly parsley, an obscene amount of grated parmesan and then a good shake of dried chilli flakes. Copious amounts of sea salt and cracked black pepper. It’s as precise as that. If it’s not oily enough, add more oil. Some recipes call for a dash of the pasta water to emulsify; I’ve never bothered and opt for more oil instead. The uncooked fruity taste of that oil at the end is a delightful bonus. Make sure the spaghetti is coated with a bit of everything. Put a humongous amount of it into a large bowl. Move to the sofa with that bowl, a fork, a napkin and perhaps a mohair knee rug.
Take a bite and forget there are any problems in your life. Until your last mouthful, at least.