Cesar Benelli’s Spaghetti with White Clam Sauce, and How to Cook with Fresh Clams

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Every Christmas eve, my family started the dinner with a big bowl of clams and spaghetti. It was good, but it wasn’t great. I didn’t know that until I made this dish with fresh clams and a perfect recipe that will have you licking the bowl and saying, “we have to make this again right away.”

In my favorite Italian cookbook, Marcella Hazan  shared the recipe for the most delightful and delicious white clam sauce that Cesare Benelli made at Al Covo, a restaurant in Venice.

I can see why Marcella would include this dish in her famous cookbook.  It’s success comes from a layering of flavors and there is not too much garlic, but a superb balance of clams, garlic, wine, heat, and herbs. The technique is a bit different from what you might be used to. The clam juice is held back and used to finish off the spaghetti which is cooked super al dente, as it will be finished in a large frying pan.

This version of spaghetti and clams delivers full flavor, and yet takes 30 minutes from start to stop, even though I used live clams, fresh herbs, fresh tomatoes, fresh garlic, and only one box (spaghetti). It was so good, I am already thinking that tomorrow is really not too soon to make this again.

A word about garlic:

The over use of garlic is the most often committed crime in Italian food, equaled only by the overcooking of garlic, which will simply ruin this dish. If your garlic browns, throw it out and start over with new oil. Marcella says a garlic press is an absolute no no. Take the time to thinly slice and used a medium heat to saute. As soon as you see the garlic has turned from white to bone color, add the rest of your ingredients and move your spoon quickly. Only use fresh garlic, that you peel yourself. Pre-peeled garlic purchased in a big jar gets bitter and nasty tasting quickly. Store garlic in a cool, dry place and buy a little at a time.

A word about chile pepper:
A fresh hot chile pepper is best in this dish. My fresh peppers had dried and were a great second choice.

A word about pasta:
Use a linguini, and don’t be tempted to overcook. You need that “bite” that Italians know about, so do buy the best, highest quality pasta you can. It’s worth it.

White or Red?

Clam sauce can be white or red. I prefer the white clam sauce because it’s a brighter dish to me. And, I think about how good it will be to dip my bread in the bottom of the bowl to sop up all the clam juice and olive oil. How do you like your clams, red or white?

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Cooking Italy: Cesar Benelli’s Spaghetti with White Clam Sauce

Linguini with Clams adapted from Marcella Hazan
Course: Entree
Cuisine: Italian
Servings: 2
Author: Angela Roberts

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 dozen little neck clams
  • 5 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large garlic cloves
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
  • chopped fresh hot chili pepper 2 teaspoons or to taste
  • 1 fresh ripe firm plum tomato diced 1/2” seeded, juice drained
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 pound pasta we used 1/2 pound
  • 6 fresh basil leaves torn

Instructions

  • /2 dozen littleneck clams
  • tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • large garlic cloves
  • /2 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
  • chopped fresh hot chili pepper (2 teaspoons or to taste)
  • fresh ripe, firm plum tomato diced 1/2” seeded, juice drained
  • /2 cup dry white wine
  • pound pasta (we used 1/2 pound)
  • fresh basil leaves torn
  • Soak for 20 minutes in fresh cold water. Change the water every five minutes.
  • During this time, the clams will filter the water and clean the sand.
  • Steam clams: Reserve clam juice. Take clams out of shell. If they are large, dice.
  • I like them to be the same size as the tomatoes.
  • In pan large enough to hold clams and spaghetti, saute garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Do not brown. Add parsley, tomatoes, chile pepper. Cook for one minute.
  • Add white wine. Simmer for 20-30 seconds. Turn off heat.
  • Cook spaghetti in heavily salted water until firm to the bite.
  • Turn heat back on under the large frying pan. Add drained Spaghetti. Add clam juice.
  • (Recipe suggests filtering clam juice through paper towels.
  • I skipped that part, as my clams were pre-cleaned).
  • Pasta should now be cooked. If it is still undone, add a little water to pan.
  • Add the diced clams with the remaining olive oil and torn basil leaves.
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Toss and serve immediately.

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