Traditional linguine vongole uses a simple reduction of white wine and garlic, which creates a delicate sauce so as to not overpower the simplicity of the clams and pasta. Although I do love the classic rendition, I think clams and pasta are both hearty enough to stand up to something a little bolder and saucier. This variation of linguine and clams features the punchiness of a red sauce that has been cooked down in a combination of olive oil and pancetta fat, while still retaining the expected flavours of garlic and white wine. Saucy, bright, and umami-packed, this version stands up as a perfect contrast to the traditional recipe and boasts an equally competitive cooking/prep time.
Linguine w/ Red Clam Sauce
2 tbsp kosher salt + more to serve
¼ cup olive oil + more to serve
6 cloves of garlic, very thinly sliced
150 gr pancetta, diced or cubed
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
½ tsp dried oregano
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
2 lb fresh clams, rinsed and scrubbed (not with soap – OBVIOUSLY)
1 lb linguine
Chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, to serve
Finely grated lemon zest, to serve
Pour 10 cups of water into a large pot and stir in the kosher salt. Bring to a boil while you work on everything else (if it boils before you’re ready to cook the pasta, just keep it on low so it’s ready to crank back up easily). Have a measuring cup beside the water so that you remember to scoop out some of the starchy water later on when the pasta is cooking.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven (or deep, heavy pot) over medium heat. Add the sliced garlic to the hot oil and cook for ~30 seconds, just to get a sizzle going (but do not allow the garlic to take on any colour). Add the pancetta to the pot and cook, stirring constantly. Turn the heat down as needed so that both the pancetta and garlic can brown simultaneously. Once most of the fat has rendered from the pancetta and the garlic is golden-brown (not dark brown, not black), stir in the red pepper flakes and oregano, cooking for another 30-60 seconds. Pour the wine in to deglaze any delicious stuck bits from the bottom of the pot and raise the heat back up so the wine simmers vigourously. Reduce the wine down until only a few spoonfuls remain (~5-7 minutes). Using your hands, crush the canned tomatoes into the wine reduction and pour in the juices from the bottom of the can. Bring back up to a vigourous simmer on medium-high heat to thicken the sauce slightly (~10 minutes should suffice – you want things very saucy but not watery). Carefully transfer the fresh clams to the pot and gently toss to coat with the sauce. Cover the pot and cook until the clams have opened, ~5-7 minutes (any clams that are beginning to open can get a couple extra minutes of cook time to fully open; any that still haven’t opened at all should be thrown away;). Uncover the pot and transfer the clams to a bowl, leaving all the sauce in the pot. Tent the clams loosely with foil and set aside.
Bring the salted water back up to a boil if you turned it down. Keep the tomato sauce at a gentle simmer while you deal with the pasta. Once boiling, add the linguine and cook for 5 minutes (it will be undercooked). Before removing the pasta from the water, scoop out 1 cup of the starchy water from the pot. Use tongs to transfer the noodles to the tomato sauce along with ½ cup reserved pasta water. Turn the heat up to bring everything to a vigouous simmer and cook down until the sauce has thickened and coats each noodle. Add more pasta water as needed if things thicken too quickly. Taste and season with more salt as needed, remembering that the addition of the clams will give the pasta some extra saltiness as well.
To serve, divide the pasta among 4 shallow bowls. Nestle the cooked clams among the noodles and drizzle everything with a bit of olive oil. Scatter with fresh parsley and lemon zest. Ponder the aptness of the idiom “happy as a clam”.