Signs are everywhere that summer is on the wane. The weather, though still sunny and warm, is ever so slightly cooler than just a week ago. Every day is a little shorter. Backpacks and i grembiuli, those adorable gingham smocks that all elementary school children wear to school here, are on display in the weekly market. Yet we’re not quite ready to let go of Puglia’s most exuberant season and move into fall, especially since we know that winter’s chill is not far behind.
So we’re madly canning the plethora of ripe, red tomatoes we haul home from the market. At 30 euro cents a kilo (2.2 lbs.), we just can’t seem to resist them. From tomato sauce to sun-dried tomatoes, with healthy infusions of Andalusian gazpacho, Tuscan pappa al pomodoro and Greek horiatiki salad, tomatoes figure heavily in our late summer meal rotation. But today I was gripped by the notion of lemons and couldn’t let go.
While lemons are challenging to grow in the Valle d’Itria because of the wintry frosts that can descend here, they’re plentiful as you move just fifteen miles away towards either Pugliese coast. They’re available in the market year round, but their clean, bright juice and aromatic zest seem particularly summery to me. I’ve learned that lemons offer incredible health benefits, too, which has caused us to look for ways to incorporate them. And since we’re hanging on to every last ounce of summer we possible can, lemons are
on our minds and on the menu.
Years ago at al Pompiere, an iconic Roman restaurant just off Via Arenula in the Jewish Ghetto, I tasted one of their signature first courses, an extraordinary linguine in a creamy lemon sauce. The memory of that pasta stills burns bright, its unctuous creaminess elevated by an acidic, lemony zing. When the lemon mood came over me, I decided to summon its taste imprint, lightening the moment by eliminating the cream in the pasta dish but none of the flavor. Another virtue of this dish is its paucity of ingredients. You’re sure to have some parmigiano and a lemon around, aren’t you?
This dish can be made in a snap and is eminently forgiving. Make sure you use a long, thin pasta, but don’t worry if you don’t have spaghetti on hand. Linguine, fettuccine and bucatini are all just fine. I added chopped Italian parsley because I love its slightly grassy, peppery notes along with a healthy dose of vitamins, minerals and, yes, protein, but you could substitute basil for an entirely different effect. Do make sure you use best quality extra virgin olive oil and parmigiano. When your ingredients are few, their quality is all the more critical to the finished dish.
Spaghetti al Limone—Spaghetti with Lemon
1 pkg. (1 lb.) of long, thin pasta—spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine are all good (use a top quality brand of dried pasta made from hard durum wheat such as Faella, Martelli, Latini or Rustichella d’Abruzzo)
1/3 cup top quality extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice (approx. 2 small or 1 extra large lemon)
Unrefined sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 to 1/2 cup of freshly grated parmigiano
3 Tbsp. finely chopped Italian parsley (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. In the meantime, pour the olive oil into a bowl and with a whisk, add the lemon juice and beat vigorously to create an emulsion. Add enough sea salt to balance the acidity of the lemon, then add freshly ground black pepper to taste.
When the water has started to boil, salt it generously (it should taste like the sea), then add the pasta. Stir the pasta quickly with a wooden spoon until it softens and submerges into the water. Bring the water back to the boil, stirring frequently in the first few minutes to prevent sticking. Continue to cook the pasta, uncovered, until al dente (just slightly firm at the center when you bite into a piece). Before you drain the pasta into a waiting colander, reserve about a cup of pasta cooking water.
Drain the pasta, shake the colander once, then add the pasta back into the pasta pot. Quickly stir the olive oil and lemon juice mixture until it is re-emulsified, then pour over the pasta, tossing quickly with tongs. Add a little of the pasta cooking water if the pasta looks at all dry. Add the parmigiano, continuing to toss, then add the chopped parsley if you’re using it. Your pasta should not have puddles of sauce; instead, the emulsified olive oil and lemon juice should cling gently to each strand of pasta along with the grains of parmigiano. Adjust by adding additional starchy pasta water, which helps to make the sauce creamy. Taste, correct for salt if necessary, and serve immediately.
Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a first course.
Note: If I have some on hand, I often add a minced preserved lemon to this pasta for an even bigger, perhaps even over the top hit of lemon. Use only the preserved lemon rind, which has a deeper, more rounded flavor that freshly grated lemon zest, which I would avoid here. Learn how to make preserved lemons here.