Linguine and Clams, Once and for All


Photo by Mike Nizza

It was a week since we returned from Aruba, and that bad meal in the most gorgeous of places remained a stain on an otherwise glorious vacation. Julie and I had picked shards of clam shell out of our entrees. We strained to chew through dry, dismal bruschetta. I vowed to make things the right way once I got back in my own kitchen.

Even though I had not made anything like linguine and clams before, my plan was set down to the tiniest detail. With only a couple hours to go, I only needed to pick up the clams, a step I foolishly took for granted. Whole Foods, the only good fishmonger in my area, had just a few left, and far less than I needed.

At this point, I could only cling to the fact that my previous disappointment from this store had led to the wonderful discovery of makeshift challah hamburger buns. But bread is not to bacon cheeseburgers as clams are to linguine with clams. Even worse, my chosen recipe from Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook didn't offer many embellishments. It was a celebration of the essence of clam.


Photo by Carol Blymire/French Laundry at Home

Keller turned the classic dish into a canape of freshly-made cappellini spooled in shells. (If you'd like to read an amateur chef's diary of that recipe, see this excellent blog by Carol Blymire). I was going to turn it back into an entree, which was probably a bad idea, with the simple goal of making that poorly executed dish from Aruba the right way, and definitely overkill for our arteries: he adds loads of butter [Curator's note: Aha! One of many such moments, and the source of a good-natured and ongoing philosophical disagreement I've been carrying out with Keller for lo these many years.] This is why revenge doesn't belong in the kitchen.

Julie's train rolled closer and closer, and I ransacked my memory bank for alternatives. The first breakthrough flipped the sensibility of the meal on its head--from fresh pasta to dried, from meticulous plating by one of the finest restaurants in the country to measuring clams by the handful and pasta water by the tong flick. This was how Bill Buford documented the making of the staff meal of linguine with clams at Mario Batali's Babbo in The New Yorker, and later, his book Heat.

nizza tomatoes_may19.jpg

Photo by Mike Nizza

As good as it sounded, that version was a bit too easy for this occasion. And my next idea--to search for the official version from Batali--was quickly shot down by Buford himself. "My advice," he warned before describing the staff meal, "ignore The Babbo Cookbook," at least on this recipe.

And so I did, save for a commitment to use some sort of pork, as that recipe did. A few books later, I hit the jackpot. Andrew Carmellini's Urban Italian, a swagger-filled volume with measurements like "garlic cloves sliced Goodfellas thin," had the dish I was seeking, with a welcome twist: linguini with I was no stranger to that bread-crumby appetizer--I wouldn't dare touch any other fish dish as a child--and the name reminded me of our fear and loathing in Aruba's many slot machine farms. Perfect.

sopranos nizza.jpg

Photo by Mike Nizza and dpstyles™

With the peppers from Carmellini's recipe and the pork from Buford, my linguine and clams finally seemed substantial enough to serve as an entree, despite the meager clam stocks of Whole Foods, and also festive enough for a Friday night supper with Julie. One of my favorite products at the local Safeway--a pack of small, sweet peppers in orange, red and yellow--would save me once more.

nizza peppers_may19.jpg

Photo by Mike Nizza

The only remaining decision was the pasta: should I use fresh pasta, the dough for which I had kneaded for 15 minutes before the clam surprise? The hard part was done at this point--fresh linguine was as close as the switch to the rolling machine--but it just didn't seem right. Fresh pasta isn't necessarily better, just more elegant. And a plate full of shells was by definition too rugged for elegance, as Keller certainly knew.

nizza dough_may19.jpg

Photo by Mike Nizza

With everything ready to cook, I waited for Julie's call from Union Station. The cab would take just 20 minutes, plenty of time to fire the dish like a pro--as Buford described so well in Heat. Nothing like a late deadline to get the blood pumping at the end of the week.

Also waiting was my improvement upon the Aruban trattoria's bruschetta, dry bread topped with pale, flavorless tomatoes. Mine would take the always-dependable cherry tomato for a long, slow roast in the oven with olive oil, garlic and thyme. More like a confit than a raw salad.

julie roll.jpg

Photo by Mike Nizza

The big question of redemption was settled before she arrived. Of course this was better than what they had served us--and it was frankly never much of a challenge to begin with. As we shucked clams, chomped the bruschetta redux, and mocked each other's now-peeling sunburns, we felt something much better than revenge.