My clam linguine rule goes like this: If it’s on the menu, I order it. The same goes for its Neapolitan progenitor, pasta alle vongole — pasta with clams.
The classic way to prepare and serve this dish is with fresh clams in their shells. There are some who will bicker over which species of clam are and are not appropriate for authentic alle vongole.
That debate gets to the question of fresh clams in shells versus canned clams. I would argue that the shells look great, but you can’t eat them. And they kind of get in the way. Assuming one of the elemental joys of this dish is to eat noodles and clams together, you have to remove the clams from their shells before you can stir them in and have that pleasure. And you can only have as many clams as shells.
Do not sleep on clam linguine made from canned clams. They bring a distinct set of advantages to the alle vongole, for a lot less money, with less environmental impact, and there are culinary advantages as well.
Canned-clam linguine is the high-water mark for cuisine that can be made from canned seafood. I’m sure your tuna salad and salmon patties are great, but canned-clam linguine is legit fine dining, even when served in a takeout clamshell.
If those canned clams are farmed, rather than wild-caught, they are among the most environmentally friendly forms of animal protein that now exist, sharing the distinction with mussels and oysters. Bivalve mollusks feed on ambient ocean nutrients, cleansing the ocean, and they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to build their shells.
One of the reasons alle vongole is better with canned clams is that you can add more clams. And without the shells to keep the noodles apart from the meat, the clams and noodles can freely embrace and cook together. And perhaps most importantly, canned clams come with clam juice, which adds dank fishy umami to the dish, like an Italian version of oyster sauce. I would argue that clam juice is more important to the overall dish than the clams themselves. And if you do find yourself making clam linguine with fresh clams, you should still add clam juice.
Thanks to that bottled savory wharf-whiff, I cook the noodles to less than al dente, and let them finish cooking in the sauce, essentially by absorbing said clam juice. The noodles aren’t just cooked with clams as much as rehydrated with clam juice.
On a sweltering day in San Diego recently, I found myself rehydrating with clam juice at a shaded table outside Mona Lisa Italian Foods. When I glanced at the menu of the attached restaurant, the clam linguine rule was activated.
Anywhere clam linguine is sold, we are given a choice between red or white, which boils down to with or without tomatoes. Cream is sometimes added to white sauce, making it whiter still, but on that day mine did not, which was just fine. Also just fine: It was made with canned clams. Tons.
Knowing what I now know, having cooked it many times since the Mona Lisa, I would never order it without tomatoes again. The hint of acid the tomato provides gives just the right brightness to this rich dish, along with umami notes of its own.
Here is a basic recipe for a red bucatini alle vongole. Canned clams and noodles may be in season all year, but now is the time to enjoy the tomatoes, garlic and parsley at their finest. Other summer vegetables, like zucchini, can be slipped in as well.
Bucatini Alle Vongole
• 1 pound bucatini, linguine or pasta of your choice, cooked al dente
• 1 10-oz can whole clams in broth
• 1 stick butter
• Fresh garlic to taste: chopped, grated or pressed
• 1 cup cherry tomatoes, poked so they collapse quicker
• Oregano or thyme
• Olive oil
• Red or white wine
• Red pepper flakes, to taste
• Chopped parsley, a few sprigs or more, up to a 1/2 cup
• Some basil leaves
• Romano or Parmesan cheese, grated
• 1 bottle clam juice, just in case
Melt half the butter in the pan on medium heat with garlic and 2 tablespoons oil. When it starts to smell nice, add the tomatoes, oregano, pepper flakes, wine and contents of the clam can. Add the noodles and let them finish cooking in the sauce, adding parsley and basil along the way. If it starts to dry out, add more wine or clam juice as necessary. Turn off the heat, stir in grated cheese and remaining butter, and serve.