Pasta Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino
Prep: 10 min. Cook: 22 min. Total: 32 min.
Before Matt and I moved into our own place, the extent of my cooking abilities hadn’t stretched far beyond boiling water for pasta on the stove top. We are almost a year in now, and while the insurmountable time spent at home has proved that my talents in the kitchen have surpassed my own expectations, there is one simple yet delicious meal I consistently make when I am in need of some quick and easy comfort food. Funny enough, it still starts with boiling water for pasta on the stove top.
I grew up on pasta aglio e olio (pasta with garlic and oil). It was a quick dish my family would whip up when the grocery stockpile got low, and was used as a celebratory dish at midnight when ringing in the New Year. So while I am no stranger to its concept, it wasn’t until a trip to Calabria a few summers ago that I understood the origins of the peperoncino calabrese, and in turn, an addition to a dish I’d always known to be one thing, to be so much more.
Once known as the spezia dei poveri, or spice of the poor (particularly in less affluent neighborhoods in the Italian south), this tiny little pepper really packs a punch and is an inexpensive way to add a world of flavor to an otherwise basic dish. Which brings me to the main reason I love this tossed pasta dish so much: its ingredient list is brief, and you likely have everything in your kitchen already. But even then, the marriage of flavors once tossed into the throws of hot olive oil create a flavor so rich, you’d think you spent a fortune on it.
For me, pasta aglio, olio e peperoncino represents the core of what is meant by la dolce vita; it is often the simplicity of a dish that makes it so beautiful, vibrant, and utterly timeless. Before we get into the recipe though, I’d like to share with you how I best and most fondly remember falling in love with it on a trip that holds such a special place in my memory and my heart.
My afternoon that Thursday was spent like all the rest that week on my Italian holiday: a slow walk past the lungomare and two gelaterias who dueled nightly over who served the best brioche.
Most days, my cousin Valentina and I would pop into the smaller of the storefronts for a gelato to accompany us on the walk back to my aunt’s childhood home. “Due palline di nocciola e stracciatella, per favore,” I’d say back to the woman behind the counter, praying she’d deem my pronunciation satisfactory.
I’d left the beach later than I usually did that afternoon, conducting what had become a routine walk straight past the gelateria and down the winding road running through the center of Marina di Gioiosa Ionica, the bustling seaside town in Calabria, Italy where – so it seems – everyone across the country had flocked to for a month-long summer holiday in August.
My movements were slower here – likely stemming out of the fear that my memory wouldn’t serve me well once I returned home. I’d developed an easy routine in this foreign place in just two short weeks. By now I’d memorized the exact moment I’d walk past the old black lab with the beautiful green eyes, who watched me each day from his side of the fence; or the owner of the fruit stand on the corner who greeted me with a bellowing “buongiorno signorina!” each and every morning and afternoon.
I slowly made my way up the endless staircase, not quite cured from my sun-drenched stupor, a result of several hours of sunbathing on the spiaggia earlier that afternoon. When I rounded the corner into the apartment, I found Rosalia, my aunt’s cousin, and her husband, Santino, prepping a pasta dish so beautifully orchestrated through color, smell and texture, to serve us all later that evening.
If there’s one memory I keep reverting back to on days when I feel such a strong pull of nostalgia, it is the one where I find Santino sitting at the kitchen table peeling garlic cloves with such focus and quiet solitude.
In my mind, he’s still sitting there prepping the ingredients while Rosi walks back in from hanging clothes on the porch line. In an instant, she swiftly wraps her arms tight around his tan, weathered shoulders, and whispers, “ciao, amore” against his ear before kissing him hard on the cheek. Remaining focused on the task at hand, Santino takes just a brief moment to lovingly grab her wrist while his focus remains on the work at hand; a movement so subtle you’d miss it if you weren’t paying close enough attention.
Watching the two of them cook together each night – the way they’d dance around one another to bring the most delicious flavors to the table for their family – quickly became my most favorite past time.
1 lb of dried bucatini pasta (I always prefer De Cecco)
4 garlic cloves, peeled + thinly sliced
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 Calabrian chili pepper (seeds removed) or 1/4 tsp. of chili pepper flakes
1/4 cup of fresh parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 tsp. of kosher salt to taste
1 tsp of freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 block of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the pound of bucatini pasta to boiling pot and cook, stirring occasionally until cooked through but al dente (or firm to the bite), for about 12 minutes. Drain water and transfer back to pot.
2. Add 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil, garlic cloves, Calabrian chili flakes to a cold skillet. Add the rind or end piece of the Parmigiano-Reggiano blcok face down in the skillet to infuse the olive oil with a creamier consistency. Cook over medium heat to slowly toast the garlic and cheese, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low when olive oil begins to simmer. Cook and stir until garlic is a golden brown color, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
3. Stir red pepper flakes, black pepper, and salt into pasta. Drizzle in more olive oil and a bit of water, and sprinkle parsley and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese shavings into skillet; stir until combined.
4. Serve pasta topped with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and garnish with more pepper flakes and freshly chopped parsley.
I usually find myself whipping up this dish when one or both of us are working late during the week, or want to plan a low-maintenance date night in. If you try it, please let me know! Buon appetito a tutti i miei amici.