The true Italian version of red clam sauce differs from its Italian-American counterpart. It contains the same key ingredients of a white clam sauce (garlic, olive oil, and parsley) but also features chunks of fresh tomato. The Italian-American version features more of a slow-cooked red sauce with wine and herbs, and usually canned clams.
Domenica Marchetti’s version in The Glorious Pasta of Italy is a happy medium between the two, utilizing the convenience of canned tomatoes, but maintaining the respect for the clams and avoiding their canned versions.
This pasta dish is especially simple to put together, with just enough foresight to prep and clean the clams. The sauce is very straightforward and packed with flavor, especially from the intense clam broth that results from cooking the clams in white wine. Be sure to remove each clam as it opens, otherwise they will overcook as their neighbors try to catch up. This will ensure the most tender clams.
I used local littleneck clams from Narragansett Bay (one of the perks of living in the Ocean State), but use whatever fresh small clams you can find. I assure you, this will blow any other clam sauce out of the water. It’s slightly briny from the clams and the sauce clings to the spaghetti just beautifully, a lovely alternative for your latest carb craving.
Spaghetti with Red Clam Sauce
- 4 dozen littleneck, manila, or other small clams
- Kosher salt
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 3 large cloves garlic lightly crushed
- 1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes, with their juice
- 1 (14.5 oz) can stewed tomatoes
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 lb dried spaghetti
- Check all of the clams to make sure they are tightly closed and that no shells are broken or cracked. Use a stiff brush to scrub the clams and then rinse them. Place the clams in a large bowl of cold water and add about 1 tbsp salt. Let the clams soak for about 30 minutes, then drain them in a colander set in the sink. Rinse out the bowl and return the clams to it. Strew a few ice cubes over the clams and put them in the refrigerator until 15 to 30 minutes before cooking time.
- Pour 2 T. of the olive oil into a large, deep frying pan and place the pan over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the clams and stir to coat them with the oil. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Cover and cook at a lively simmer for 5 to 8 minutes, or just until the clams open (they will not all open at the same time, but be patient and just remove each one as it opens, allowing the remaining clams to continue cooking until they are done; this ensure that none of the clams are overcooked while waiting for the others).
- Using tongs, remove the clams to a large bowl, discarding any that failed to open. Leave the liquid in the pan. Let the clams cool slightly, then set aside 12 clams in their shells (the prettiest ones are a good choice). Remove the remaining clam meats from their shells and discard the shells, leaving the meats in the bowl. Return the 12 clams to the bowl and cover the bowl. Set aside.
- Line a fine-mesh sieve with a damp paper towel/absorbent paper and place the sieve over a bowl or measuring cup. Pour the liquid that remains in the frying pan through the sieve into the bowl or cup and set aside.
- Wash and dry the frying pan. Pour the remaining 4 T. oil into the frying pan, place over medium heat, and add the garlic. When the garlic begins to sizzle and release its aroma, after about 2 minutes, add the diced and stewed tomatoes (beware, adding these directly to hot oil may cause some splatter, so have a lid handy just in case), red pepper flakes, and salt. Bring the sauce to a simmer and add the reserved clam liquid. Cook the sauce uncovered at a gentle simmer, reducing the heat if necessary, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it has thickened. Stir in the parsley and turn off the heat. Cover and keep warm.
- While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt generously. Add the pasta, stir to separate the noodles, and cook according to the manufacturer’s instructions until not quite al dente; it should be slightly underdone. During the last few minutes of cooking, reheat the sauce to a very gentle simmer and add the clams, stirring to mix well.
- Drain the pasta in a colander placed in the sink, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water. Transfer the pasta to the frying pan and toss gently with the sauce to combine. Continue to toss the pasta over low heat; the pasta with absorb the liquid as it finishes cooking. Add a splash or two of the cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Transfer the dressed pasta to a warmed serving bowl and arrange the clams in their shells on top. Or, divide the dressed pasta among warmed shallow individual bowls, and top each serving with 3 clams in the shell. Serve immediately with additional red pepper flakes on the side for anyone who likes the pasta extra spicy.