There are two secrets to making the best spaghetti alle vongole. The first is colatura, the second is to finish cooking the pasta in the clam juice so that it absorbs all the extra flavor.
Colatura is the secret flavor weapon that makes us salivate. Essentially a fish sauce made in the town of Cetara along the Amalfi coast. Anchovies are stacked in a barrel and then gently pressed—the first liquid released at the bottom of the barrel is the colatura. Just a splash of it in any savory dish imparts the umami flavor that makes you want more and more.
While spaghetti alle vongole can be found throughout coastal Italy, the version found along the Amalfi coast is often served in summer with diced baby zucchini. Along the Cilento coast, spaghetti alle vongole will sometimes include tiny bits of potatoes.
It's easy to find tiny vongole clams in Italy, but less so in the United States. Look for Manilla clams which are usually the smallest clams widely found. The west coast has tiny clams while seafood suppliers on the east coast will sometimes get vongole from the Mediterranean. Vongole clams are easiest to find around the holidays as this dish is often the star of the Italian-American Feast Of the Seven Fishes.
Spaghetti alle vongole (Spaghetti with clams)
4 tbs extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed with the back of a knife
1 tsp colatura (optional)
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tbs chopped parsley
4 lbs manila clams (the smaller the clams are, the better)
In a large sauté pan, add the olive oil, garlic and hot pepper and heat over a low flame until the garlic begins to soften. Add the clams and cover. Shake the pan a few times to distribute the clams across the surface and raise the heat to medium-high.
Wait about two minutes and peek inside to see that the clams are opening. (Leave covered if they require more time.)
Once the clams have all opened add the colatura sauce to the liquid. If the clams didn’t release much water, add a splash of white wine.
While the pasta is still very al dente, remove with tongs and place it in the pan with the clam juices. A bit of the pasta water will be transferred as you do which helps the sauce better adhere. Toss and cook over medium heat until l the pasta is done (to taste). It will absorb most of the liquid from the clams and take on its delicious flavor.
Plate the pasta with the clams on top, lemon juice and parsley. Serve immediately.