The food: linguine with clams
Linguine with clams is my favorite pasta dish – the menu item I’m compelled to order whenever I’m in a good Italian restaurant that offers it.
For example, the last time E and I went to Palma in New York, a charming, rustically decorated spot on Cornelia Street in the West Village, we ordered the light, greaseless, and succulent calamari fritti ($13) garnished with fried sage leaves, to split like we always do when we’re there,
and also tried the carciofi croccanti – crispy artichokes with parmigiano and parsley ($13).
Which meant I didn’t really have room for Palma’s linguine vongole ($18) as well. But I ordered it anyway, because I especially like Palma’s version, with its pleasing ratio of clams to linguine, and fruity, fragrant gloss of wine and olive oil.
On another trip to New York, when I was in need of a quick lunch on the Upper (ish) East Side between a morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a matinee at the City Center theater, I stopped in at a modest (and slightly down at its heels: avoid the women’s restroom) Fresh Basil’s Trattoria on Lexington near 56th Street, because New York magazine said it did traditional pastas well, and because linguine with clams was listed on the menu. Or rather, because the menu listed as a house specialty a Linguine Al Frutti Di Mare in a “special marinara sauce” ($15.95) which the waiter quickly agreed to convert into a clams only version.
The platter of pasta that arrived soon after could have fed four, and contained what looked like ½ to ¾ of pound of linguine, not so much coated with that special sauce as drowning in it. (Pasta portions at a nearby table, where 3 out of the 4 patrons had ordered spaghetti Bolognese, were also super-sized.) Pasta purists would probably deem the linguine overcooked, but the clams were meaty and fresh-tasting, and the marinara sauce was special – silky smooth, and sweetly tomato-ey, with a peppery bite. I ate all the clams, with a third of the pasta – okay, maybe ½ – and gave up on the rest.
After a few weeks’ rest and recovery, I ate one more serving of linguine vongole: a serving I’d made at home, with littleneck clams, combining elements of two different recipes that married clams with lemon juice. This was my first time cooking fresh clams, and the process was easier than I expected, since the fishmonger had cleaned the clams for me, and when I steamed them in the wine, lemon juice and olive oil sauce, every shell opened.
The home-cooked version of the dish was tasty, though because I held back on the olive oil, it lacked the fruity glossy goodness of the Palma version. And for colour, I should have added the chopped parsley at the end (like the restaurants do) rather than at the beginning. I’ve amended the recipe below accordingly.
Linguine with Clams (adapted from Martha Stewart Living magazine and Epicurious.com)
1 lb. linguine
¼ c. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped (optional – I omitted these)
3 lbs. fresh littleneck clams, scrubbed
1 c. white wine
¼ c. fresh lemon juice
2 T. lemon zest, finely chopped
¼ c. fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped
1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add linguine and cook according to package directions.
2. Heat oil over medium heat in large stainless steel sauté pan. Add garlic, if using, and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Stir in lemon zest, lemon juice, and wine, and simmer 2 minutes.
3. Add clams, raise heat to medium high. Cover and cook until clams open, about 5-7 minutes (discard any that remain closed).
4. When pasta is cooked, drain and add to sauté pan with parsley, then toss to coat and season with salt and pepper.