My brother recently sent me a link to a recipe in the New York Times for “drunken spaghetti,” or spaghetti all’ubriaco and suggested that I do a blog post about it. I’ve seen the dish prepared several times on television by celebrity cooks like Rachael Ray and, over the years, have read about it in the press. Recipes for it also abound on the internet, some posted by travelers who first encountered it in Tuscany, others by food writers like Mark Bittman, who wrote a column about it in 1998, after having enjoyed the dish at Osteria del Circo in New York City.
I must admit that the dish, as well as its preparation, has a lot of wow factor, which makes for good television, especially when a celebrity chef dumps, with a flourish, an entire bottle of wine into a pot for cooking the spaghetti. As you might expect, some cooks go overboard and call for using status wines like Barolo or Rosso di Montalcino and the audience soaks it up with oohs and aahs. Indeed, all the razzle-dazzle associated with this dish may be the reason I’ve avoided making it until now.
In fact, the Times’s understated presentation of the dish as “a hearty, impromptu meal” made it more appealing. So last night, I uncorked a couple of bottles of inexpensive Chianti (one for the recipe; the other for dinner), proceeded to make it and, just like the television audiences, my husband and I were both wowed by the result.
This is truly a delicious, albeit rich, pasta; the required amount of pancetta, butter, oil, and cheese probably means we won’t be having it too often. But the pasta’s silky texture and savory flavors make it worth every calorie.
I pretty much followed the Times recipe, but couldn’t understand why it called for a quick blanching of the pancetta. If it was intended to reduce the amount of salt, I’d prefer to do that by decreasing the amount of cheese. I also wasn’t sure about the recipe’s direction to cut the onion into “half moons.” I simply used a mandolin to cut it into 1/8-inch slices. Finally, the next time I prepare the dish, I may transfer the pasta to the sauce a few minutes sooner, so that it can cook longer in the sauce.
One final note. I believe that “drunken spaghetti” is a mistranslation of “spaghetti all’ubriaco.” Just as “spaghetti alla putannesca” is often translated as “whore’s spaghetti,” our dish might be more appropriately called “drunkard’s spaghetti.”
Red Wine Spaghetti With Pancetta (from the New York Times recipe by David Tanis)
Salt and pepper
1 (750-milliliter) bottle medium-bodied, dry red wine, such as merlot, pinot noir or Chianti (Don’t use an expensive wine; it would be a waste. Even a Chianti Classico might be excessive.)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 ounces pancetta or bacon, thickly sliced and cut into 1/4-inch lardons, blanched for 1 minute in boiling water and drained (I don’t think it’s necessary to blanch the pancetta.)
1 red onion, cut into 1/8-inch-thick half-moons (I’m not sure what the author means by half-moons.)
4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Pinch of red-pepper flakes (If you like heat, use a generous pinch.)
1 tablespoon tomato paste (I recommend the imported Italian double-concentrated paste in tubes.)
1 bay leaf
1 pound spaghetti
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces finely grated pecorino or Parmesan
Basil leaves, for garnish
1. Put a large pot of well-salted water over high heat and bring to a boil. Add 1 cup wine and turn heat to low.
2. Heat olive oil in a wide skillet over medium. Add pancetta to pan and let sizzle for 2 or 3 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. (I recommend placing the browned pancetta on a paper towel to drain off some of the fat.)
3. Raise heat slightly and add onion. Season with salt and pepper and stir to coat. Continue to cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 to 7 minutes.
4. Add garlic, red-pepper flakes and tomato paste, and stir to distribute. Add bay leaf and all the remaining red wine and turn flame to high. Let wine reduce rapidly by half, about 10 minutes. Turn off heat. (I recommend toasting the tomato paste for a minute or two to develop its flavor.)
5. Bring pasta water back to a boil, add pasta and cook for about 2 minutes less than the package directions advise — that is, keep the pasta somewhat underdone. It will finish cooking in the sauce. (Because my brand recommended 10 minutes for al dente, I transferred it to the sauce after 8 minutes of cooking. The next time, I might shorten the cooking time to 6 minutes.)
6.) Reserve 1 cup pasta cooking water, and drain the pasta. Add pasta to the red wine mixture in the skillet and turn heat to medium-high. Let pasta wilt into the sauce and continue cooking, stirring, as pasta absorbs the sauce. The spaghetti should be correctly al dente within 5 minutes and the sauce should coat the pasta. Add a little pasta cooking water if sauce gets too thick. (Rather than draining the spaghetti, I recommend it transferring it to the sauce with tongs, which adds a little of the pasta water to the sauce. I also use the tongs to toss the pasta in the sauce.)
Stir in the reserved pancetta, the butter and half the grated cheese and toss well. Taste a noodle, and add a sprinkling of salt to the pan if necessary. Toss once more and transfer to a warm serving dish. Garnish with basil leaves and pass remaining cheese at the table. (Be sure to remove the bay leaf before serving.)
Wine Pairing: Sangiovese