In a house with a kitchen dominated by two women, one Sicilian (my mother), the other Neapolitan (my aunt), it was rare that my father took to the stove. Born around Naples and coming to the States when he was around 10 years old, he only cooked twice that I remember. And only once did he share a recipe with me. (I can’t remember why but no one else was at home.) It was a recipe so simple that he must have leaned it as a child back in his home town, Cappacio, in the province of Salerno.
The recipe, for spaghetti marinara, called for just a few ingredients: a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, a clove of garlic, several canned Italian plum tomatoes, a pinch of oregano, salt (a pinch for the sauce, a handful for the spaghetti water), and of course the spaghetti. The speed with which he pulled this dish together was, for me as a kid, amazing. My aunt’s regular sauce typically took close to an hour.
Just a few minutes after putting up the pasta, my father heated up the oil and garlic in a skillet; as soon as the smashed garlic clove took on some color, he added a few cups of whole plum tomatoes, which sizzled when they hit the hot oil. Keeping the flame on medium, he added the salt and oregano, stirring occasionally. In the ten minutes it took for the spaghetti to be done, the sauce was ready. He quickly drained the pasta, transferred it to a serving bowl, and then tossed it with the sauce.
As we sat down to dinner, I asked for cheese. He said firmly: “No; this is the way the sailors, i marinai, ate it.” He sprinkled his portion with a generous pinch of crushed red pepper flakes and mine with just a few. I still remember the expression of contentment on his face as he twirled the spaghetti with his fork and took his first taste. In fact, I think that same expression is on my face as I sit here typing this account of my first taste of spaghetti marinara.
Today, of course, the term “marinara,” at least here in the U.S., seems to be used for almost any non-meat tomato sauce. Many of them use onion, and sometimes even carrot and celery, along with more herbs like basil or thyme, and are cooked considerably longer, anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or more.
But a little research revealed that my dad’s version is indeed an authentic rendition of a Neapolitan marinara. Indeed, it comes very close to that described by the “dean of Neapolitan cooking” Jeanne Caròla Francesconi in La Cucina Napoletana, her authoritative 698-page tome on the subject, as well as the one described by Elizabeth David in her engaging, albeit more diminutive, volume Italian Food. As for the authenticity of my father’s alluded-to sailors, I can only say as they do in Italy, “Se non é vero, é ben trovato.” If it’s not true, it should be.
So below is my recreation of my father’s recipe with only a few modifications, based on my researching Neapolitan marinara. In addition to the above mentioned books by Francesconi and David, Arthur Schwartz’s cookbook Naples at Table and Julia Moskin’s New York Times feature “Marinara Worth Mastering” proved invaluable resources.
My Father’s Spaghetti Marinara
6 ounces of spaghetti
2 cups drained, seeded, canned Italian peeled plum tomatoes (the equivalent of one 28-ounce can of tomatoes, drained) If your tomatoes have an added basil leaves, use them and remover before serving.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large clove garlic, slightly smashed
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1. In a large skillet, over a medium high flame, heat the oil and garlic clove.
2. Meanwhile cook the spaghetti in well salted water, following package directions for al dente.
3. As soon as the garlic takes on some color, add the tomatoes, salt, and oregano (My canned tomatoes had basil leaves, which I let cook with the sauce and removed later.)
4. Keeping the flame between medium high to medium, simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon and lightly pressing the tomatoes. Remove the garlic and basil.
5. About 1 minute before the spaghetti reaches al dente, using tongs, transfer it to the skillet with the sauce. Toss the spaghetti in the sauce and let it finish cooking.
6. Serve in warmed pasta bowls, sprinkled with the hot pepper flakes.
Wine Pairing: Salice Salentino, Aglianico