What in the world is Spaghetti alle Vongole? It turns out, it is a delicious pasta dish made with clams, and it is a part of traditional Neapolitan cuisine.
There are loads of Neapolitan dishes that are based around fresh seafood, but some stand out amongst the others. Spaghetti alle Vongole (Spaghetti with Clams) is one of these and has found international favor for very good reasons.
What type of clams do you use?
In Italy, you usually use fresh “vongole verace” or Mediterranean Wedge shell clams; these are tiny clams about the size of a thumbnail to a quarter. These types of clams aren’t as readily available elsewhere, so any small clam is a good option for substitution.
Small cherrystone clams and littleneck clams are great options that are fairly easily found in much of the United States (and work very well in our experience).
How do you prep the clams?
As shellfish, clams can be a little intimidating to cook with; horror stories of food poisoning from spoiled oysters come to mind. Luckily, it’s not hard to be safe if you follow a few simple rules:
Discard any open or cracked clams before cooking
Don’t eat any clams that don’t open while cooking, discard them
Cook clams within 24 hours of purchasing, preferably from a reliable fishmonger or seafood vendor
Scrub the outsides of the clams gently, but thoroughly, before cooking
Let soak in fresh water for 20 minutes before cooking to allow them to cycle clean water and purge any sand (can add grainy crunch to the cooked dish, though still safe to eat)
If you follow these guidelines, your clams will be fine. If you find that you need to store them overnight, you can, but you need to be a bit more careful.
Put them in the refrigerator in an open container filled with saltwater as putting them in freshwater or airtight containers for an extended period will kill them.
Clams are full of protein and key nutrients and have such a wonderfully briny and sweet flavor that they should be a part of everyone’s culinary experience.
Are there different types of Spaghetti alle Vongole?
There are two main versions of this dish, known simply as bianco and rosso, or white and red. This refers to the presence of tomatoes in the dish. The dish is delicious either way, but the bianco is the most traditional form, as seen in the recipe below (a note for how to change it to rosso will be at the end of the recipe).
There are also regional variations like the Ligurian addition of diced potatoes. There is a lot of experimenting you can do once you master the basics, and it will probably come out alright as long as you don’t overpower that briny sweetness from the clams, they are the centerpiece of the dish.
Predictably, the Neapolitan white wines like Greco di Tufo and Falanghina are great options as they have a crisp acidity and citrus note that play nicely with the briny flavor of the clams. If you’re looking to go a bit further afield, however, you might find a racy Viognier or Sancerre (mineral-focused Sauvignon Blanc) to be a good choice.
Spaghetti alle Vongole
A delicious pasta dish made with clams, and it is a part of traditional Neapolitan cuisine.
Set your pot to boil with 3-4 quarts of well-salted water (however you normally cook 1lb of pasta). Start the pasta and remove it when it’s a few minutes from being fully cooked (likely at the point you’re cooking the clams). Save a bit of pasta water for addition to the sauce at the end if necessary.
Heat most of the olive oil and half of the butter (optional) in a large skillet on medium heat.
Add garlic and cook until golden, then add red pepper flakes.
Pour in the wine (about one quarter to one-third of an inch deep, to steam the clams, not to boil them) and add the clams to the pan–cover and cook for a couple of minutes.
Uncover when most of the clams have opened, remove and discard any that haven’t.
Use tongs and a fork, remove some of the clams from their shells and discard the shells (this is not a required step, but can make it easier to plate and enjoy the dish, you can leave them all in the shell if you prefer).
Add the drained spaghetti to the pan and toss with the sauce and clams. Add a small amount of pasta water if needed to get even coverage, but do not make the sauce too watery. Let sit for a moment.
Stir in the chopped parsley (reserve a small amount for garnishing), lemon zest, and lemon juice.
Drizzle with remaining olive oil, toss one more time, and plate. Garnish with remaining parsley.
Note: To make this a “rosso” version, add cherry tomatoes (cut in half or slightly crushed) or chopped Roma tomatoes during step 4. This will give the tomatoes enough time to break down and add a sweet acidity to the dish but not turn it into an outright tomato sauce, which is not the goal.