Marcella’s recipe for white clam sauce is delicious but its ergonomics are punishing: it references not one but two other recipes, and the second reference itself calls out to another recipe. The result is a feeling of rising panic—are the references in fact circular?—as the clams steam and the pan threatens to smoke. Below is the full recipe, with references interpolated and a few editorial liberties taken.
In the recipe introduction, Marcella credits Cesare Benelli and his “Texan wife, Diane” for this version; the innovation is to reserve the juice of the clams and toss it with slightly undercooked pasta, which then “drinks up all the fresh clam juices, achieving a density and richness of flavor no other version of the dish can match.”
For 4 servings
- 1 ½ dozen littleneck clams
- 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 large garlic loves, peeled and sliced paper thin
- 1 ½ tablespoons chopped parsley
- Chopped fresh hot chili pepper, 2 teaspoons, or to taste
- 1 fresh, ripe, firm plum tomato, cut into ½-inch dice with its skin on, but
- drained of juice and all seeds removed
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 pound dry pasta
- 6 fresh basil leaves, torn into 2 or 3 pieces
Recommended pasta. Spaghettini, thin spaghetti, takes to clam sauces more successfully than other shapes. A close enough second is spaghetti.
Note. In Italy, no cookbook or cook will ever advise you to discard any clams that don’t open while cooking. Clams stay clamped shut because they are alive. The most reluctant ones to loosen their hold and unclench their shells are the most vigorously alive of all. When eating them raw on the half shell, how does anyone know which ones would not have opened in the pot? The clams you should discard are those that stay open when you handle them before cooking, because they are dead.
Soak the clams for 5 minutes in a basin or sink filled with cold water. Drain and refill the basin with fresh cold water, leaving in the clams. Vigorously scrub the clams one by one with a very stiff brush. Drain, refill the basin, and repeat the whole scrubbing operation. Do this 2 or 3 more times, always in fresh changes of water, until you see no more sand settling to the bottom of the basin. Discard any that, when handled, don’t clamp shut.
Put the clams in a pan broad enough so they don’t need to be piled up more than three deep, cover the pan, and turn on the heat to high. Check the clams frequently, turning them over, and when all the clams have opened up, take them out of the pan, using a slotted spoon. Try not to stir up the juices in the pan any more than you must. Detach the clam meat from its shell, and gently swish each clam in the pan juices to rinse off any sand. Unless they are exceptionally small, cut them up in two or even three pieces. Put them in a bowl, pour two tablespoons olive oil over them, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and set it aside for later. Do not refrigerate.
Line a strainer with paper towels, and filter the clam juices in the pan through the paper and into another bowl. Set aside for later. (Note: I’ve never done the filtering; I just pour the juice into a small bowl. —JH)
Choose a skillet or sauté pan broad enough to contain the pasta later. Put in three tablespoons olive oil and the sliced garlic, and turn on the heat to medium high. Cook the garlic, stirring it, for just a few seconds, without letting it become colored, then add the parsley and the chili pepper. Stir once or twice, and add the diced tomato. Cook the tomato for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring it from time to time, then add the wine. Simmer the wine for about 20 to 30 seconds, letting it reduce, then turn off the heat.
Cook the pasta in abundant boiling salted water until it is very firm to the bite, barely short of being fully cooked. When you bite a piece off, it should feel slightly stiff and the narrowest of chalk-white cores should be showing in the center of the strand.
Turn the heat on to high under the skillet or sauté pan, drain the pasta and transfer it immediately to the pan. Add all the filtered clam juice, and cook, tossing and turning the pasta, until all the juice has evaporated. If the pasta was not too underdone when you drained it, it should now be perfectly cooked. Taste it and, in the unlikely event it needs more cooking after the clam juices have evaporated and been absorbed, add a small amount of water.
As soon as the pasta is done, before you turn the heat off, add the cut-up clams with all the oil in the bowl and the torn basil leaves, toss in the pan 2 or 3 times, the transfer to a warm platter and serve at once.