Few things can render a family of Italians completely silent. Scrumptious spaghetti is one of them.
This spaghetti con le vongole recipe (more properly called spaghetti alle vongole, or sometimes simply spaghetti vongole) definitely qualifies – because it reduces my Mamma Marisa and her Neapolitan clan to agreeable grunts, every time.
Here’s how that goes…
*Munch, munch, munch…*
The person who cooked: “Com’è? (How is it?)”
Everyone (quickly between mouthfuls): “Huh? Buono!”
*Munch, munch, munch…*
Those would be its cockles. Brits like me know these small protein-rich shell dwellers from scoffing them with mussels ‘at the seaside’. Alternatively, if you're from North America, you more likely to know them as small clams.
The closest type to those we use below - and those you might typically find served in this dish in Italy - are New England clams. So maybe I should've called this dish clam sauce spaghetti. Either way, it's cooked the same way.
(Learn more about cockles here on Wikipedia.)
With spaghetti alle vongole, these salty seafood treats are cooked and mixed through with oily, garlic-tinged spaghetti, adding the subtle hint of white wine, the leafy aroma of parsley, and the friendly kick of either black pepper or chili (you decide).
Did I mention that spaghetti con le vongole is ready in just half an hour? That’s really not much time to spend whipping up a true Mediterranean classic.
I should also add—briefly lest this become the world’s longest recipe introduction—that there are two versions of spaghetti con le vongole: a white version and a red.
The difference is that the red version includes tomatoes in its sauce—otherwise they’re exactly the same. So if you love your toms, be sure to make that one. Otherwise, simply ignore the parts marked Red version below.
Let’s make it…
- 800g/1.75lb fresh cockles/clams (or from a jar)
- 320g/11.2oz spaghetti (or linguine)
- 1 large garlic clove
- One good handful of fresh parsley sprigs
- ½ small glass of white wine
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Half teaspoon of ground black pepper / chilli flakes
- Red version: 400g/14oz can of plum tomatoes (or fresh)
Step 1 - First, a little easy preparation:
- Peel the garlic clove, chop it in half and remove its central spine (this part is difficult to digest).
- Red version: if using fresh plum tomatoes, stand these in a bowl of boiling water for 5 minutes. Then rinse under a cold tap, cut the skin of each once with a sharp knife and peel off the skins with your fingers.
Step 2 – Now we’ll cook the cockles/clams.
- Rinse them under the tap, then drop them into a deep cooking pan.
- Add a couple of sprigs of parsley and half the garlic clove (this will flavour the oily sauce).
- Add the lid and heat on a low/medium hob for 5-7 minutes, until all the cockles/clams open—you don’t need to add any water, as plenty will leak out
of the shells as they cook.
Tip: if there are one or two stubborn creatures whose shells refuse to open, throw these in the trash.
Step 3 – Take the pan from the hob and let it cool for a minute.
- Then, use some sharp tongs or a teaspoon (or your fingers) to scoop 80% of the cockles/clams out of their shells, dumping the shells and popping the little critters back into the pan of clam water.
(We’ll use the remaining 20% that are still in their shells to make the final dish look great.)
Step 4 - Now we’ll cook up the rest of our spaghetti vongole sauce.
- Spoon around 100ml / 6.5 tablespoons of olive oil into a large frying pan.
- Slice the rest of the garlic thinly into this pan.
- Pop the hob on a low/medium heat and cook until the garlic turns golden.
Tip: be very careful not to crank up the temperate too high and burn the oil. If you see smoke, you’ve burnt it, in which case start again.
Step 5 - With the pan still on the heat, use a sieve lined with kitchen paper to drain the cockle/clam water into the pan. This removes any sand, so you don’t end up grinding it between your teeth as you eat.
- Now drop in the cockles themselves.
- Red version: roughly chop the plum tomatoes and add these too.
- Chop or tear half the remaining parsley into the pan.
- Pop on a medium heat hob, to a good simmer, and heat through for 2-3 minutes (5-6 mins for the red version).
Step 6 - Now finally, we’ll boil up a large pan of well-salted water for the pasta.
- When it is boiling, drop in the spaghetti and set your timer to its packet’s timings.
- While the spaghetti cooks, pop the sauce back on a medium heat and when bubbling, pour in the white wine.
- Let this sauce simmer away for 2-3 minutes, until most of the wine has evaporated – leaving just its taste.
- When the pasta timer beeps, don’t worry about draining it. Just use a spaghetti spoon or equivalent to spoon the pasta directly into the frying pan.
- Give it all a good stir through and you’re ready to serve!
To serve: spoon the pasta and cockles/clams into your bowls, then pour over the rest of the saucepan’s scrumptious juice.
Garnish with the remaining sprigs of parsley (torn) and don’t forget to add our remaining 20% of cooked clams, complete with their shells.
And make sure your black pepper and chili flakes are on the table, so your guests can season their dishes as they like.