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Spaghetti al pomodoro

June 17, 2011

Spaghetti with tomato sauce: the simplest and most beloved of all of Italy’s dishes, a symbol of her cuisine, a staple in every region. Every mamma makes it, everyone slurps it up with masterful twirls of the fork on the side of the bowl. Probably no garlic, usually no cheese, and definitely no spoons. Nothing but tomatoes, a basil leaf or two and spaghetti cooked until al dente. You would think that that’s about as easy as it gets.

Until you talk to an Italian. Say that you, pasty Anglophone that you are, can whip up spaghetti al pomodoro no problem and you’ll get a long-winded, gesticulation-filled, possibly parolacce-riddled reply. Spaghetti al pomodoro is the most difficult recipe, they might insist, precisely because it is so hard to perfect. And this isn’t just my husband, who claims that, if forced to eat one meal for the rest of his life, spaghetti al pomodoro would be it. There have been articles written extolling the virtues and difficulties of the ideal spaghetti al pomodoro. Italian professional food blogs Anice&Cannella and Papero Giallo both claim that while the recipe appears easy, if all the ingredients aren’t just right and the techniques aren’t executed perfectly, the spaghetti won’t be perfect. Italians have high standards. (Trust me, I’m not just learning this now.) Good thing you and me? Our standards are more realistic.

When I told Francesco I was thinking of writing about spaghetti al pomodoro, he said, but you haven’t made a great one yet! At which point I started pulling out all of my favorite parolacce, threatened to abandon the kitchen forever, and reminded him of who exactly is carrying his family’s progeny.

Despite my rage and realism, I still made the spaghetti al pomodoro. And I didn’t resort to bottled passata or throwing in whatever ingredients seemed appropriate (which, to me, would include maybe half of what I have in the fridge). Instead, I followed my mother-in-law’s tried and true classic – nothing but olive oil, fresh tomatoes and, at the very end, a basil leaf or two.

And you know what? Even though I made it with pressed, end-of-season tomatoes, it wasn’t all that tricky or mysterious. (Scratch that…I may get more points if I pretend like it was the rocket science some people make it out to be.)

Maybe it wasn’t perfettissimo, but it was a damn good plate of spaghetti.

p.s. We and our ever-growing tapeworm are off to Italy tomorrow for a long overdue trip to visit the in-laws. We’ll be back in a month, but I hope to be able to update you from there. Though I suspect my hands may be full with bomboloni alla crema and piadina con crudo e rucola. And attempting to squeeze my belly through narrow, medieval streets. Nel frattempo, buon estate a tutti….see you on the other side.


The only real “trick” here is using delicious tomatoes. It may still be too early in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere for the truly delicious summer stock, so hold out until you find the luscious ones. If you own a tomato press (thank you, wedding registry!), use it here. If you don’t, before you begin you can blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for a few seconds and the skin will slide right off. I’d also recommend making a whole bunch of passata because A. it’s really good B. it will last in the fridge for a while or you can hermetically seal it in jars C. you can use it on all sorts of things, from pasta to chicken parm, to English muffin pizza.

8 – 12 plum tomatoes (San Marzano), chopped

extra virgin olive oil


some fresh basil leaves

1 pound spaghetti


In a medium to large pot, gently heat a few generous glugs of olive oil then add the chopped tomatoes. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have completely lost their shape, about 20 minutes.

(If you don’t have a tomato press but still want a smooth passata, before this step, first drop your whole tomatoes into boiling water for 20 seconds or so, then peel the skins off with your fingers once they are cool enough to handle. You may proceed…)

Pass the sauce through a tomato press; discard the skins and seeds. Return the smooth tomato passata to the pot and add a pinch of salt to taste.* Don’t heat it up until the pasta is almost ready.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil. Once boiling, add a goodly amount of salt and the spaghetti. Cook spaghetti until very al dente, then drain and add to the tomato sauce, which should be hot by now. Cook the passata and spaghetti together for a minute or so, stirring often and adding a bit of olive oil if too dry.

Serve in individual bowls with fresh basil sprinkled on top, some freshly grated Parmesan (if you want. And I always want) and a drizzle of (preferrably cold from the fridge) extra virgin olive oil.

* At this point, you can abandon Plan Spaghetti and make whatever you want with your delicious warm weather bounty. You can even keep it in jars until January, when nothing is better than the taste of summer.






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