I started this article with linguine as the type of pasta because that’s what you see most often on menus but it seems that more and more people use spaghetti and at least one top chef in Italy prefers vermicelli and others prefer spaghettoni (ie. thicker spaghetti). Therefore pick any type of long pasta you want and make up your own mind. In fact I prefer spaghetti myself for this dish.
This is a popular dish for many people at seaside restaurants in Italy and it used to be our favorite restaurant primo piatto as well, but Lucca is close enough to the sea for us to be able to buy excellent fresh vongole from the supermarket. It’s such a simple dish that for several years now we’ve preferred to make this ourselves and order something else in restaurants that’s less easy to replicate at home.
In fact you'll find that once you’ve mastered many of the classic Italian pasta dishes like Cacio e pepe, All’amatriciana, Pesto genovese, Linguine alle vongole and others, and can also source the right quality of ingredients, you will become more demanding of these dishes in restaurants and probably find that you can make them all better at home.
In Italy there are a few things to be aware of before you buy or order vongole. By law they are always sold in Italy in sealed netting with a tag identifying the type of clam and the date they were harvested. You will see the description vongole veraci quite often and rather than get bogged down in a discussion of binomial nomenclature, suffice to say that this species of clam was brought to Italy about 40 years ago from the Far East to be extensively farmed in the lagoons around Chioggia just south of Venice.
The sedimentary conditions in those lagoons (left photo) were found to be perfect for large scale cultivation of this particular species of clam. They are easily recognizable by their beautiful varied coloring, are the perfect size for this dish and have excellent flavor. They are also the most expensive at about 16 euros per kilo, but still less than most good fresh fish. These are the clams we buy and we suggest you do the same for this recipe. In the US the equivalent clam I believe is the Manila clam which is sometimes called the Japanese Littleneck clam, probably mistakenly. In England the best clam for this dish is the Palourde though I don’t remember ever eating clams in England.
There are also some very small clams in Italy called lupini which some overly purist chefs here prefer because they cannot be farmed. However the lupini are tiny so there is not much to actually eat. You can certainly use them for this dish and the flavor is very good but it can be a lot of effort to get very little out of the shells. They are about half the price of the vongole veraci and they will certainly give you a great sugo. Lupini prefer very shallow water and are mostly found along the Adriatic coastline, less so in the Tyrrhenian sea.
And just to add the confusion there are clams called arselle or telline, mostly found in the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian seas and also around Sardinia. These will often appear on menus in these regions and though many people would say that these aren’t quite as good as vongole veraci, it’s a long way from the Chioggia lagoons to Sardinia so the local product is always the best choice especially considering the perishability of crustaceans in the middle of summer.
Ingredients for 2 people:
280 grams ( 10 oz ) long pasta
750 grams ( 1.7 lbs) vongole veraci
a good handful of flat-leaf Italian parsley finely chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic ½ glass white wine extra virgin Italian olive oil
hot chili pepper flakes sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Buy the clams the same day or at most one day before cooking. Discard those with broken or empty shells and wash them well in cold water.
Don't be too gentle with them because the healthy living clams are quite hardy and will stay closed; the goal here is to dislodge the sand and grit.
2. Put them in a bowl covered with cold water; sea water is best if you happen to be near the sea, otherwise salt the fresh water well with coarse sea salt. Put them in the fridge for at least two hours so they can purge their sand.
3. Just before cooking wash the clams well so there's no remaining grit. Chop the parsley quite finely and squash (but don't chop up) the garlic cloves still in their papery skins. The skins will stop the garlic burning in the hot oil.
1. Generously oil a large pan with good quality Italian olive oil and add the garlic on medium heat. Discard after a few minutes when it starts to color.
2. Put the pasta into boiling water (a little less water than normal). With this dish you still need to salt the pasta water but you don't need to salt the clams.
3. After removing the garlic, turn the heat up high in the first pan and add all the clams. The secret I was taught for this dish by an Italian chef is to quickly move all the clams around the pan to ensure that they are all well coated with olive oil. The cold clams will instantly cool the pan so bring the temperature back up quickly and then add the white wine.
4. After 30 seconds to let the alcohol burn off, put a tight lid on the pan and after no more than a couple of minutes check that all the clams have opened. It's important not to overcook the clams once they are ready. Turn the heat down low and immediately scoop out all the clams leaving the liquid behind. Add a few hot pepper flakes and some ground black pepper if desired but no salt. Any unopened clams at this point should be discarded.
5. When the pasta is about 3 minutes away from being cooked transfer it to the pan with the oil and hot clam juices, add a little pasta water and half the chopped parsley. There should be enough liquid to finish cooking the pasta and for it to thicken a little because of the starch but not too much liquid because, just as with Cacio e pepe, nothing will be discarded from this point on.
6. When the pasta is still a little al dente turn the heat off, add back all the clams, the rest of the parsley and a good slug of your best Italian olive oil. If you misjudged the amount of pasta water and the dish is too dry simply add a little more at the end.
You will notice a difference if you make this dish following the above steps versus the simpler method of adding the fully cooked pasta to the clams at the end. The starch in the pasta water will give you a much better sauce that clings to the pasta than is possible with the watery clam juice by itself. It's not a complicated process and it makes a difference to the flavor and consistency of the final dish.