Spaghetti alle Vongole (Spaghetti and Clams)
Na’ bella jurnata…a Napule
Three short years ago, when passing through Napoli on my way to the Amalfi Coast, I had a brief but fleeting thought-- one day I will live here. I was in a taxi in front of what I now recognize as the Quattro Palazzi when this implausible thought occurred. At the time I worked for the federal government in Washington DC. I spoke no Italian. I had spent a sum total of about 25 minutes in the city, and not even the good parts. I knew nothing of the town’s august history, only vaguely aware of its cinematic past and perhaps unsavory ties to a certain criminal organization. To this day, I have no idea how and why this ridiculously prophetic gestalt struck me.
I met the man who would later become my husband on that trip to the Amalfi Coast. Shortly thereafter, I returned to Washington only to discover that the fiscal year 2013 United States federal budget had failed to pass and that the federal government had shut down at some point while I was floating over the Atlantic Ocean. I learned of my “furlough” status from a United States customs officer. I was so disgusted by the prospect of nancing around Washington for weeks on end as a down and out federal employee that as soon as I exited customs, I went to the Delta ticket counter at Dulles airport and bought myself a ticket straight back to Italy.
Naturally it would add narrative pizzazz to say that I immediately returned to Napoli, planted my flag here and never left. Now that could have been a vignette in Vittorio de Sica’s L’oro di Napoli—perhaps entitled a' pazzà americanà. Instead I stumbled around Rome on that trip—the Eternal City still summoned me with its anachronistic siren call. I went back to Washington for a while and continued my toils in civil servitude. I later moved to Agerola, in the hinterlands of provincial Napoli. And eventually almost three years to the day after my outlandish vision at Quattro Palazzi, I would return to Napoli. This time, to live.
Many wonder how Naples manages to hold its spell over me. There is the usual skepticism. Napoli is dirty. The people are weird and often unintelligible when speaking the brashly insouciant local dialect. The camorra run around town causing us all to live as if stuck in an endless reel of the film Chinatown. I have heard all of this before. It’s easy to feel protective towards my beloved Napule in the face of such nakedly blatant southern Italian stereotypes. And then there are moments of pure, unadulterated “Neapolitan-ness” that remind me why this town is so raucously, deliciously Neapolitan. Those moments when I sheepishly shake my head and think, “only in Napule…..”
That happened to me early one morning several weeks ago as I arrived in Piazza Garibaldi station. It was rainy, depressing and what many here might caustically disregard as “Milanese weather”. Certainly nothing that would summon thoughts of Caruso’s bright ballad to his treasured sun. And then in a fluttering moment as I emerged into the station’s arrival hall, I heard the familiar Neapolitan tune, Reginella. An old man, simply a member of the travelling/ wandering public, was banging out music on the station’s upright piano. A bevy of travelers surrounded him, swaying and singing- not particularly in chorus- but charismatically nonetheless. One strikingly zealous old woman sang with particular verve as she waved about her hands, fruitless attempting to conduct the crowd.
All of this at 7:00am no less. Listening to this motely chorus and staring at the red neon lights of the old Kimbo coffee billboard floating behind Piazza Garibaldi, I realized I was in fact having one of my Napoli moments. I thought of the pizzaoli, baristi and scugnizzi scurrying and toiling around town as we all woke up to have our morning caffès. Then the old lady conductor belted out the unmistakable Reginella refrain,
“T'aggio vuluto bene a te!
Tu mm'hê vuluto bene a me!”
As she sang, a dapper man dressed with characteristic Neapolitan panache, joined the crowd. Such a collision of Neapolitan-ness: raucous singing; bespoke borsalino cap; the Kimbo coffee sign - is a rare treat. And feeling particularly enraptured by Napoli that morning I almost felt inclined to join in on this impromptu musical. I noticed the sartorial old man had a teacup Chihuahua that was so anthropomorphically adorable I wondered if perhaps I might have dreamed up this wildly over the top mélange of Neapolitan tropes. Just as I was about to vaporize in the face of such a blissful collision of Neapolitan clichés, the Chihuahua squatted in front of the piano and pooped. The dapper man made no effort to pick it up. The old lady, not missing a single singing beat practically screamed the final salvo of Reginella
pienze a me!.......................”
Brought back to Neapolitan reality, I was both fascinated and horrified. Only in Napule, indeed! After work that day, I went to the nearby Porta Nolana fish market and bought clams. The morning had begun on such a terrifically Neapolitan high note, I was not willing to let to day float by that easily. There are days that I try in vain to love this city and essentially be Neapolitan, and feel so beat down by own hopeful naiveté that I wonder why I ever left a comfortable life in Washington. On other days, Napule is s quick to please- it is just as effortless as singing a Neapolitan tune and making spaghetti alle vongole. Those are the days I treasure most.
Spaghetti alle vongole is a Neapolitan staple and Christmas classic. It is for that reason I set out to make this dish after my recent visit to Porta Nolana. There are two critical decisions once must make when preparing the dish: whether or not to shell half of the clams and whether or not to serve “macchiato” or “stained” with tomatoes. I really happen to like the aesthetic vibrancy of the added tomatoes. It is a matter of personal preference. As with every time I prepare spaghetti alle vongole, I enjoyed this dish with a glass of greco di tufo wine and lots of bread. Perhaps the most delicious ritual in these parts is the performance of the time-honored ritual of scarpetta, mopping up residual sauce with a little shoe of bread. There is no better dish for scarpetta than spaghetti alle vongole. And there is no better way to conclude a bella jurnata a Napule.
Spaghetti alle Vongole (Spaghetti with Clams)
Serves 6 as a primo
Spaghetti alle vongole is a Neapolitan staple and Christmas classic. It is for that reason I set out to make this dish after my recent visit to Porta Nolana. There are two critical decisions once must make when preparing the dish: whether or not to shell half of the clams and whether or not to serve “macchiato” or “stained” with tomatoes. I really happen to like the aesthetic vibrancy of the added tomatoes.
It is a matter of personal preference. As with every time I prepare spaghetti alle vongole, I enjoyed this dish with a glass of greco di tufo wine and lots of bread. Perhaps the most delicious ritual in these parts is the performance of the time-honored ritual of scarpetta, mopping up residual sauce with a little shoe of bread. There is no better dish for scarpetta than spaghetti alle vongole. And there is no better way to conclude a bella jurnata a Napule.
1 dried hot chili pepper
1 whole unpeeled garlic clove, slightly smashed and two minced garlic cloves
1 parsley frond and two tablespoons minced parsley plus additional fresh parsley for final garnish
1lb Spaghetti, preferably de Cecco brand or Grangano pasta (NOT Barilla, never Barilla!)
4oz grape or cherry tomatoes cut into quarters
Crusty peasant bread (what we call in Naples pane cafone)
Soak the clams for one hour and rinse several times to remove residual sand
Place the clams with a parsley frond, dried pepper, garlic clove and 1 tablespoon olive oil in covered sauce pan over high heat
Cook clams for roughly five minutes until they open
In the meantime, bring a large pot of generously salted water to boil
Place a colander over a large bowl and drain clams over bowl to reserve clam liquid
Remove clam meat from half of the shells.
Discard empty shells and set aside reaming whole and shelled clams
Once water reaches a brisk boil, add spaghetti and cook until barely al dente for roughly 7 minutes
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and minced garlic in large sauce pan over medium heat
Add parsley and tomatoes and cook for no more than two minutes, allowing the tomatoes to soften but not peel and garlic to soften but not color
Drain pasta over colander and add to sauce pan
Add peeled and whole clams as well as clam liquid to spaghetti, tossing to coat pasta in clam sauce
Garnish with additional parsley and serve immediately
Use bread to mop up any sauce as this is the best part of any vongole dish!