Many of the most loved traditional dishes come from the simplest of backgrounds. This dish, Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino is one of those dishes.
It is as simple a pasta dish as you can get, while still calling it cooking (tossing pasta in butter just doesn’t quite count). However, don’t think that means it is short on flavor or satisfaction!
Telling an origin story for a sauce this simple feels a little silly, but it does in fact have a recognized birthplace, Napoli (or Naples). Napoli is a Southern Italian city with a great deal of pride about their food and is the source of many of our favorite dishes (for example, pizza).
“Aglio e olio” simply translates to garlic and oil. Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino, which translates to spaghetti with garlic, oil, and chili pepper, is one of most popular pasta dish in Italy, and around the world.
By taking very simple ingredients and combining them in a straightforward way the Neapolitans created a dish that doesn’t require much cost but delivers a ton of flavor.
This is important because Napoli has struggled economically at various points throughout its history. However, good and simple foods are some of the things that they have always had in abundance, and this has made it a city that you should not miss if you love Italian food. Their ability to make something delicious out of very little is hard to compare.
So, three ingredients shouldn’t be all that is needed for a delicious sauce, right? In this case, wrong. The combination of good olive oil, garlic, and dried peperoncini (red chili) is all you need, though there are a few things to keep in mind.
If you end up overcooking the garlic you will end up with a lot of bitter flavors, and in a sauce this simple that’s a problem. As soon as the garlic starts to turn golden brown you need to be paying close attention. Once it’s dark brown it is usually too late.
Some people like the bitter burnt garlic flavor, just like some people like heavily hopped IPA beers, but most do not. Also, the amount of garlic is up to you, though traditionally only a few cloves are used, and they are removed once they start browning.
This lends the oil a light garlicky flavor that stands as a counterpoint to the heat of the chilis.
The peperoncini are the other main ingredient and can be found in most households as dried red pepper flakes. These can work, though ideally you’ll find whole dried chilis to work with.
The extra flavor that comes from the skin of the chili adds a nice bit of complexity to this dish.
In Napoli, you can often find chilis dried and woven into wreaths, much like garlic can be, and you snap off the ones you need as you cook throughout the year.
Instead you are making a dish that is just inspired by it. This is okay but is something to keep in mind if you are aiming for authenticity.
Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino is a dish where the simplicity is a large part of the appeal and there really isn’t a need to try and make it fancy, just save the effort and enjoy it.
This is a very simple dish with a bit of heat so light fruity white wines like Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc are great choices. Falanghina is a Campanian white wine varietal that is a perfect match if you can find it, as many of the simple Neapolitan dishes tend to go best with their local wines.