Long skinny pasta with clams. It’s the best. A beauty of the Southern Italian table. I try not to make it too often, for fear of it losing its specialness. It’s for Christmas Eve, or a childhood birthday, or to make when I need a reason to be grateful. For me clams hit all the right taste buds, and they have a fascinating look. I love the delicate clinks they make when I knock them together in a bowl of cool water. I love the sand settling on the bottom of that bowl. The perfection of pasta with clams makes me feel there’s unity in an oftentimes unaligned world. Yes, I’m serious. Clams with stringy pasta calms me.
The classic “white” version has always been my favorite, with its simple sauce of the clams’ briny juices, white wine, lots of garlic, a squeeze of lemon, flat-leaf parsley, and often red pepper flakes (an American touch; Italians tend to use whole dried peppers, which they crumble). Linguine, the flat spaghetti, is the classic pasta for clams. It’s wonderful, but I prefer bucatini. I like the way the clammy broth works its way up into the pasta’s opening, flavoring it from within and without. I sometimes add pancetta, more Spanish than Italian in spirit, and I play around with the herbs. One thing I never add is any member of the onion family. I can’t say exactly why, but I’ve never tasted an onion presence in any pasta dish with clams. It just seems instinctively wrong, something that wouldn’t mesh. Tomatoes are an option, of course, producing a “red” sauce.
And so it was the other day. When I felt adrift and alone, I thought of clams. What to do? Buy some, my flaky little brain told me. So I did, but just enough for two. Then my sister Liti called, feeling adrift and alone herself. Come over for dinner is of course what I said. But I didn’t quite have enough clams for three (and when I make this, I want everyone to have a lot of clams). It was late, and I was too lazy to go back to Citarella. I initially intended to make a white version, but now I knew I had to stretch the clams with something. I did have a few pints of grape tomatoes, so I knew they would get integrated into the dish.
I have to say, I’m never happy with pasta and clams swimming in a full-on tomato sauce. I prefer little hits of tomato interspersed throughout. I want to taste garlic, olive oil, white wine, lemon, and clams. So I decided to roast the tiny tomatoes and add them at the last minute, so they stayed whole and didn’t mingle too much with everything else. I also added thyme and fresh chili to this one. Pretty damned good. Everyone was happy and I hope relatively calm (almost spells clam; that proves my theory).
Bucatini with Clams, Roasted Tomatoes, and Thyme
(Serves 4 as a main course)
2 pints grape tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 dozen small Little Neck or Manila clams, soaked and cleaned
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh peperoncino, minced
1 pound bucatini
1 branch of thyme, the leaves lightly chopped
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves chopped
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Spread the tomatoes out on a sheet pan. Drizzle them with a little olive oil, and season with salt. Toss well with your fingers to distribute the oil. Roast in the oven until lightly browned and tender, about 15 minutes or so. Take the tomatoes from the oven, and let them sit on the sheet pan while you continue with the recipe.
Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, add salt, and bring it to a boil.
While the pasta is coming to a boil, pour the white wine and chicken broth into a wide pot. Add the butter and a big drizzle of olive oil. Turn the heat to medium high, and bring the pot to a boil. Now add the clams, and cook them until they’ve opened. You’ll want to partially cover the pot in the beginning and then take the cover off and stir the clams around a few times so they cook evenly. When they’ve opened, turn off the heat, and let the clams sit in their liquid.
Drop the bucatini into the water.
Pour about 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a large, wide skillet, and let it get hot over medium heat. Add the garlic and the fresh chili, and sauté until fragrant, about a minute or so. Add the clams, with all their liquid, and the thyme, and stir everything around for a few seconds. Turn off the heat.
When the bucatini is al dente, drain it, leaving some of the cooking water clinging to it. Place it in a large serving bowl, and give it a drizzle of fresh olive oil.
Pour the clams and their liquid over the bucatini. Add the tomatoes and the parsley, and squeeze on a little lemon juice. Add another drizzle of olive oil, and toss well. Serve hot.