Poor No More – Spaghetti with Clams and Toasted Breadcrumbs

Spaghetti with Clams and Toasted Bread Crumbs takes its inspiration from two dishes–spaghetti alla vongole, a dish of string pasta with clams popular in Naples, Rome, wider Campania and farther north along the Italian coastline; and pasta con il pangrattato, pasta with breadcrumbs, a very basic dish of la cucina povera, the cooking of the poor.  At its most elemental the latter contains no more than pasta, breadcrumbs, oil, salt and a bit of garlic.  Variations include raisins, cauliflower, anchovies and olives, which is to say that a little stale bread, some pasta and oil is all you need for dinner–if you have anything else you can dine in the lap of luxury.

I once read of an Italian winemaker who described an upbringing of such deprivation that the only seasoning in his childhood home was a single dried sardine hanging from a string fixed to the rafter above the kitchen table.  At mealtimes family members, beginning with the father, would each take a turn rubbing his portion of firm polenta against the sardine for flavor.

I’m sure the man was exaggerating, but the story nevertheless makes sense. The stone soup wisdom of all poor cultures is the same–a smidgeon of something with a lot of flavor improves the pants off a lot of something with little flavor.  Breadcrumbs, olive oil and garlic add enough sensual satisfaction to elevate pasta far above a sense of deprivation.  The first time I heard about pasta with toasted bread crumbs I thought my wife was kidding me.  Maybe she meant cheesy breadcrumbs.  Or crumbs from really good bread.  But no.  She meant just what she said: breadcrumbs, olive oil, salt, pasta.  That’s what you eat when life is stripping you down, and if some wild greens or garlic come your way, you’re happy to have them.  With clams and some tomatoes and parsley added to the mix the dish becomes a feast.  And you don’t even have to rub it with a dried sardine.

Ken

Spaghetti with Clams and Toasted Breadcrumbs

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ½ cup breadcrumbs
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2-3 shallots, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1½ cups grape tomatoes, cut in half
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 24 Wellfleet littleneck clams (or your own favorites)
  • Kosher salt
  • ¾ pound dried spaghetti
  • ¼ cup chiffonade (sliced into thin strips) basil leaves
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
Directions:
  1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. When it foams, add the crumbs and cook until toasted and crisp, about 2 minutes.  Season with salt and transfer to a plate
  2. In a large deep-sided pan, warm the extra virgin olive over moderate heat.  Add the shallots and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until tender.  Add the tomatoes, pepper flakes and fennel seeds.  Season with salt, reduce the heat to low and cook 15 minutes or until the tomatoes start to shrivel.  (Right now is a good time to put a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta.)  Add the wine and clams.  Cover and steam until the clams open, 5-8 minutes. Transfer the clams to a large plate as they open. Turn the heat off under the pan with the clam juices.
  3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add salt and then the pasta.  Cook the pasta until al dente, about 5 minutes.  Scoop the pasta out of the water and pour directly into the pan with the clam juices. Cook for 3 minutes or until the pasta is well coated.  Add the clams and herbs and toss until heated through.
  4. Divide the pasta and clams evenly among 4 warmed pasta bowls, top with breadcrumbs and serve immediately.  Serve extra breadcrumbs and chili flakes on the side, if you like.

Jody Notes:  

When we were growing up, spaghetti and clams meant a simple sauce of fresh garlic cooked in olive oil (extra virgin olive oil hadn’t appeared yet), chopped canned clams, some clam juice, and parsley.  It was Italian in spirit, with just enough boldly flavored sauce to coat the pasta.  I loved it, despite the textural resemblance of the clams to pencil erasers.  As a recent graduate from college on a tight budget, I often made this dish for myself and welcomed those little clams. 

Years later, my first meal in Italy was spaghetti with clams in the coastal town of Ventimiglia.  It was a different animal.  The spaghetti was coated with Ligurian olive oil, the clams were tiny little tender things in their shells, there was parsley and garlic and the addition of fresh ripe chopped tomatoes.  It remains one of my favorite dishes in the world.  Of course now I’m using fresh New England clams from our friends Patrick and Barbara in Wellfleet, and that makes it as good as the original.     

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19 thoughts

  1. I’ve never been a huge fan of pasta and clams, though after having enjoyed Pat and Barbara’s Wellfleets the other night at your PMC party at Rialto, I think I may need to give this dish another chance. Both raw and baked their clams were a revelation, and I bet they would be amazing in this classic dish.

  2. Pencil-eraser syndrome? Pat and Barb’s clams are killer, as you already know, and with their juice flavoring the pasta sauce they make an incredible dish. Nice to finally meet you face to face, by the way. How do you stay so skinny? Ken

  3. My husband loves “spaghetti alle vongole” but I haven’t made it since we were in London. Bread crumbs on pasta does admittedly sound funny, just as recipes I’ve seen for pasta and potatoes–starch + starch. But toasted in olive oil sounds tasty. My current rendition of this would have to be cucina povera indeed–I realized last night that I am out of pasta! (But I do still have about 20 cans of sardines).

    • If you’re out of pasta, but living on just the canned sardines, it explains why you’re able to generate all of those fabulous desserts week-in, week-out and still look good. Ken

  4. Simple things are the best, particularly when it comes to pasta, I can imagine how satisfying this dish is.

  5. Just tried this. Delicious! Modified some as I didn’t have all the exact ingredients. Dish came up wonderfully.

  6. This dish is one of my favorites,too and I will make it tomorrow night for some friends…I can even replicate the bowl you serve it in as I have the same dishes from Umbria, and of course, the bowls will make the clams taste even better! BA

    • That’s just too weird! You’re the first person to ever respond to a post to say that not only are you duplicating the dish, but the dinnerware! Same biking trip–watch, the same thing will happen this fall in Puglia. Ken

  7. I always laugh about the fact that, when we met, linguine with clams was one of the two dishes that Steve knew how to make (chicken or veal Marsala being the other). Those were canned clams, of course—the best that could be done here in the upper South in the dreadful ’80s. But he made it with lots of decent olive oil (shipped from Italian relatives in N.J.) and a ton of garlic, so it was pretty darned good for those days! This elevated variation looks wonderful. Can’t wait to try it.

  8. My wife made this last night for a dinner for six – it was a hit! She made homemade pasta, and as we are weekending in Ptown, we found Wellfleet clams at the farmers market. The breadcrumbs did indeed give it that nice texture typically missing in pasta dishes.

  9. I managed to fit this in for a Sunday lunch ((because we didn’t get around to using the clams on Friday or Saturday night) in between dance class and soccer games and a trip to the airport . We dined al fresco, I got to surprise the family with some good news and it was like something out of an Italian movie. Grazie for reminding me about this satisfying dish.

  10. I’ve made spaghetti with fresh clams, parsley and lemon a few times using a recipe from The Bon Appetit Cookbook. I love it (especially all the garlicky juices at the bottom of the bowl) but the next time clams are on the menu I’ll be trying out your recipe. Adding buttery breadcrumbs, tomatoes and basil sounds like it would make an already delicious dish that much better!

    When I started reading the paragraph about the sardine, I thought you might say that they took the little fellow for a swim in their pasta and olive oil, then hung it back up to use again the following night. It’s a great story.

  11. Ha! That would have been great–taking the family sardine out for a swim! The breadcrumbs are a great addition to pasta with clams–introduced to me by my wife. This dish is really in its glory when fresh local tomatoes come into season and you can eat it outdoors, with a cold bottle of Vermintino. We just happened to have the clams, some pretty decent cherry tomatoes and, well… we couldn’t help ourselves. I’m sure you’ll love it. Ken

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