Growing up as a first-generation Italian, I regarded food not only as nourishment but also as a link to the flavors and traditions of my forebears. In fact, that strong ethnic bond has motivated much of my cooking over the last 50 years. And while the cuisines of other countries have always intrigued me, none has inspired me more than Italian. Whenever I’m in the kitchen, memories of my Sicilian mother or Neapolitan aunt at the stove or of my family around the dinner table come to mind.
Recently, I had one such recollection while I was preparing the pasta dish that is the subject of this post, Christmas Eve Sicilian Anchovy Pasta. As a child, I hated anchovies. The way they looked—dark, shriveled, when packed in salt or rusty and slimy when tinned in oil— totally turned me off even before tasting them. “Yuck,” I would say out of earshot. But I was forced to eat or, at least, try them every time they appeared in one of the dishes on the table. When I would resist, my father would say: “They’re an acquired taste; you’ll eventually grow to like them.” It may have taken some time before the acquisition, but, as usual, my father was correct.
Watching news coverage of my family’s homeland suffering from this viral nightmare has been difficult for me. Recently, however, I came upon a video depicting residents of an apartment complex in Naples one evening joining in song to express solidarity in the fight against this virus and longing for a hug. The song, Abbraciame (Hug Me), begins:
Finally tonight I’m here with you and no one can hear. I’m a bit shy and you know I’m not good at this. Who doesn’t have courage in life, They can only lose their dream. Therefore, if you’re here you got it that my dream is you. I’ve fallen in love with you I’m crazy for you, I’m crazy for you!
One voice, which eerily reminded me of my long deceased aunt’s, is heard above the others singing the subsequent lyrics in local dialect:
And then yes, hug me stronger because then who gives a f…k? If all the time that passed is wasted time, or if tomorrow nothing will exist, hug me tonight. . .
Even though our San Diego winters are nothing like those we experienced while living in New York City, they are nonetheless chillier and darker than our only other season “spring-summer-fall” and we find ourselves gravitating to hibernal fare like braises and stews. So with the arrival of daylight-saving time this weekend, I thought we’d have our last hurrah for winter cooking: a long braise of beef with loads of onions, anchovies, and green olives along with tomatoes and a full bottle of red wine.
Another trip down memory lane. As a child asking “What’s for dinner?”, I used to dread hearing the words “pasta acciughe,” Italian for “anchovy pasta.” But unlike many kids today, my brother and I had to eat, or at least try, whatever was put in front of us. “It’s an acquired taste,” my dad would say.
Well, I must admit it took me a few years to acquire that taste, but now I’m happy I did. Pasta acciughe was frequently served in our home as a first course on Friday nights, as well as during Lent, when we weren’t allowed to have meat. For the longest time, I thought having to eat it was a kind of penance for misbehaving.
Anchovy sauce is both simple to prepare and cooks in about the same time it takes to make the pasta. There are many variations of this dish, but mine is among the most straightforward. It has 4 ingredients: olive oil, garlic, anchovies, and fresh parsley. What I like most about it is that nothing interferes with the pungent, slaty, savory flavor of the anchovies. And although this dish is sometimes served sprinkled with toasted breadcrumbs, I prefer to enjoy mine plain. For me, the breadcrumbs detract from the unctuous texture and briny flavor of the sauce.
For this recipe, I like to use canned salt-cured fillets packed in oil. My favorite brand is Agostino Recca.
Spaghetti with Anchovy Sauce
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced fine
10 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained
8 oz spaghetti
2 tablespoons of chopped flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
In a 10” heavy bottomed skillet, poach the garlic in the olive oil over low heat for approximately 10 to 15 minutes. The garlic should take on only a minimum of color.
Mid-way through the poaching, start cooking the pasta in well salted water. Try to time the cooking of the pasta so that it will be al dente when the sauce if finished.
When the garlic is finished poaching, place the anchovies in the pan and continue to cook mashing them with the back of a wooden spoon until they dissolve into the oil. (About 2 minutes.) When they have dissolved, add the parsley and continue to cook still over low heat for about 2 minutes.
Using tongs or a spaghetti fork, transfer the cooked pasta to the skillet. Take off the heat and toss the pasta with the sauce until nicely coated. If the sauce is too thick, add a tablespoon of the pasta water to loosen it up.
Sprinkle, if desired, with some freshly ground black pepper and serve.
It was a hectic day and I couldn’t go shopping for dinner. Luckily, I had some oil-packed anchovies and fresh, well almost fresh, parsley in the fridge. The pantry yielded a half box of spaghetti, garlic, and olive oil.
What to make was obvious: another dish from my childhood that I actually hated then but love now: pasta acciughe, or spaghetti with anchovies.
Spaghetti with Anchovies (Serves 2)
4 Tbs olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced fine
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
5 or 6 oil-packed anchovies
2 Tbs fresh Italian parsley
8 oz spaghetti
Fresh black pepper
While the water starts to boil for the pasta, put the olive oil, garlic, and pepper flakes in a pan and poach over low heat for about 5 minutes, stirring and making sure the garlic takes on no color.
Start cooking the pasta, according to package directions for al dente.
Add the anchovies to the pan, smashing them with the back of a wooden spoon until they dissolve into the oil. Add 1 Tbs of the the parsley and cook for just a couple of minutes. Remove from the heat.
When the pasta is done, transfer it with tongs to the pan with the sauce. Add another tablespoon of parsley, a few grinds of fresh black pepper, and toss to coat the pasta. If too dry, add a tablespoon or so of the pasta water.
Serve on warmed plates.
This dish is sometimes served with toasted breadcrumbs, which is fine if you want a heavier dish.