Vongole, which are known in the English speaking world as clams, can be used for a variety of dishes ranging from simple appetizers to chowders down to pasta and risotto. For me the best way to eat them is either simply sauteed over bruschetta or with spaghetti, but strictly tomato-less. This is the best way to enjoy their taste, a heady mix of mellow sweet flesh and iodine.
As usual with clams, there are a couple of things to do before cooking them. First of all discard any open clams that do not react when you touch them. Second, given vongole’s natural habitat, they need to be purged to eliminate any sand they might have ingested: to do this, simply cover the telline with 1 quart of cold salted water (about 1 tablespoon of salt will do) and let them rest for 3 hours somewhere dark. After that time, simply lift them from the water leaving any sand behind.
The recipe below is for spaghetti with clams, yet if you leave the pasta out and stop once the clams are open, you have sautée di vongole, a tasty antipasto on its own. Also, I have made the parsley optional in the recipe because some people aren’t particularly fond of this herb, yet traditionally parsley is a must on pasta with any sort of shellfish. Clearly, you can use this recipe with any sort of small clams that are typical of the area where you live. The freshest your clams the better, and what’s fresher than local?
1 kg (2.2 lb) clams, purged as described above
500 g (1.1 lb) spaghetti
3 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons Colatura (anchovy juice)
1 dried peperoncino (or more to taste)
1/2 glass of dry, white wine (optional)
1 tablespoon Italian flat leaf parsley (I prefer fresh basil), chopped
Bring a large pot of very lightly salted water to a boil, in the meantime start heating the oil over a medium flame in a pan wide enough to hold all the clams in one layer.
Once the oil is hot but not smoking, add the garlic and peperoncino, and as soon as the garlic turns golden brown, crank up the heat up to the maximum and add the clams. Shake the pan to distribute the clams as much as possible. Add the wine here, if using, letting it evaporate. Cover the pan and allow the shells to open for 2-3 minutes.
Discard any clams that fail to open, the garlic and the peperoncino. By no means discard the precious clam juice collected at the bottom of the pan! You'll be using it to dress the pasta together with the clams themselves. If you properly purged the vongole, there should be no sand there, but if there still is some, simply strain trough a clean gauze.
The pasta water will probably be boiling by now, so add the spaghetti, pushing them down so they fit into the pot if you don’t have a special high spaghetti pot, stir and check from time to time. Never, under any circumstance, break the spaghetti to make them fit the pot!
You can add the clams to the pasta in their shells, something many of us do in Italy, yet, in regards to your guests, it is courteous to remove the clam meats from most of the shells, keeping only a few to decorate the dishes. The best way to do this is getting messy and using your fingers. (I would recommend you get someone else to help you, so that you speed up things while the pasta cooks.) Once shelled, return the clams to their juice.
As soon as the pasta is cooked slightly short of al dente, drain and add it to the vongole pan, together with the clam meats and juices, and the precious (and all-natural) flavor enhancer Colatura, tossing for a minute over a medium flame to blend the flavors. At this point, the aroma in the kitchen will force you to come to terms with the fact that there will be no leftovers.
Divide the seasoned pasta among four (warm) dishes and garnish with the remaining clams in their shells and, if you like, parsley. Uncork a bottle of chilled white wine and luxuriate.