We always appreciate the scale of our town in Italy when summer rolls around. Just about everything we really need is a short walk away from our front door. But we are especially grateful for all this proximity when the relentless Pugliese summer sun beats down, sapping every ounce of energy from our limbs. Then we summon ourselves into action early in the morning, making the rounds of the bar for a quick caffè ghiacciato (iced coffee), the pescheria (fish market) or the maccelleria (butcher) and, best of all, the fruttivendolo (fruit and vegetable shop) that is so mercifully close to us that we call down our order from our balcony. Italians call this shopping a kilometro zero, literally sourcing products at zero kilometers of distance. We call it incredibly lucky and we take advantage of the ease every single day.
Our local bar, Super Bar Carriero, is a 50 yard walk up a narrow, stone-paved street to Piazza Roma, Martina Franca’s municipal square and the center of town. Super Bar is one of many such places here, with a regular clientele and a reputation for exquisite, traditional pastries both sweet and savory. Along with flavorsome espresso, the bar is where we head for local news, advice and calendar listings along with the occasional emergency bottle of wine when we fail to plan ahead. The seasons are carefully defined here by Super Bar’s offerings. In August, the gelato season is in full flower, but when the temperature drops and the olive harvest begins in November, house-made gelato disappears until next summer, replaced by chocolates and winter pastries like zeppole and cartellate.
Summer also means caffè ghiacciato, an addictive brew of full strength espresso blended with sugar until the crystals have disappeared, then stored in bottles to be served in tall, frosty digestivo glasses. And then there are the granite, the slushy, intensely flavored gelato-like confections in limone (lemon) and caffè (espresso) flavors, served slathered with freshly whipped cream. Like the gelato, granita’s moment is over when the days shorten and temperatures drop, so we make the most of its presence while we can.
Sizzling summer days require lighter fare, so fresh seafood from the Adriatic becomes an integral part of the meal rotation at our house when August rolls around. From spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) to pepata di cozze (mussels in spicy broth), shellfish is easy, relatively light and deeply satisfying. And if we can bear to turn on the oven, we find that sea bream and perch in umido (oven poached) or all’acqua pazza alla napoletana (in crazy water, Neopolitan style) is just right, too. Pasquale, the former merchant mariner who runs the fish market about 100 yards from our door, sources his fish exclusively from the Adriatic sea just 10 miles or so out of town, so we trust him implicitly to steer us in the right direction. And if we’re making a fish stew, we just tell Pasquale how many people we’re serving and find ourselves taking home a mixed bag of shellfish, tiny white fish and sardines, the odd cuttlefish or two and a red mullet with its head and tail intact.
Best of all, we are hopelessly in love with our local vegetable vendor, whose door is about 10 feet from ours. Run by Graziana, the granddaughter of a well-known local farmer, the tiny shop is only in business in the mornings. We know when the shop is about to open for the day when we hear the whine of Graziana’s grandfather’s two-stroke ape as it rounds the corner with the morning’s harvest from his farm just a kilometer outside of town. Graziana doesn’t have everything that can be found in Martina Franca’s weekly open air market, but what she does offer was pulled out of the ground or plucked off the trees and bushes that morning. And best of all, our produce comes with specific instructions about what we should do with it. Graziana, whom we have watched grow up to her present late teenage years, is convinced that we are pretty clueless about traditional Pugliese foodways, so she has taken us on, imparting everything she knows about Pugliese vegetable preparation. When I stray from the Pugliese culinary path, she invariably asks, “Why would you want to do that?” in Martinese dialect. All of our purchases are supplemented with things she wants me to try, along with carrots, onions, celery and parsley “ . . . so you can make your ragù.” And I have been known to call my order down to Graziana while still in my robe and slippers to avoid the onerous, ten-foot trek to survey her bounty.
Since we want to spend as little time in the kitchen as possible as the temperatures soar above 90 degrees, we’ve become just a little addicted to spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams). This is one of those brilliant dishes comprised of just a few ingredients. It is deceptively simple . . . until you understand that there are some critical steps that will make or break the finished pasta. I’m sharing all of my secrets, most of which were pried out of Pasquale at the fish market, so that you can be sure to master this brilliant, toothsome plate. Let me know how it all works out.
Spaghetti alla Vongole—Spaghetti with Clams
1.5 to 2 lbs. (700-800 grams) of small clams, sometimes called vongole verace
1 lb. (500 grams) best quality spaghetti (Cavalieri, Rustichello d’Abruzzo and Faella are all great brands)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil (I know, it sounds like a lot, but it is essential to the flavor and consistency of the sauce)
1-2 cloves of garlic, lightly smashed with the flat side of a chef’s knife and peeled
1-2 dried peperoncini (hot, dried red peppers), finely minced
1/4 to 1/3 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
Kosher or sea salt (for pasta water)
Place the clams in a bowl with abundant Kosher or sea salt and cold water, adding enough salt so the water tastes like the sea. Refrigerate for a few hours so that they can clean themselves by ridding themselves of sand. Fill a large pasta pot about 3/4 full of water and bring to the boil.
In the meantime, put the clams in a pan on their own with a few tablespoons of water and cover with a lid. Place the pot on medium-high heat and let them cook on until they are opened, no more than five to seven minutes. Turn off the heat and leave them in the pot until they cool slightly. Strain the resulting clam liquid through a strainer and reserve.
In a large skillet, pour all of the olive oil into a skillet large enough to hold all of the finished spaghetti. Heat the oil and the garlic cloves over low heat, infusing the oil with the garlic. Don’t let the garlic become brown during this process. Add the chopped red pepper and increase the heat slightly.
Meanwhile, add an abundant amount of salt to the pasta water when it has started to boil. Add the spaghetti and stir with a wooden spoon during the first few minutes of cooking to ensure that the spaghetti doesn’t clump together.
While the spaghetti is cooking, add the clams in their shells to the skillet with the olive oil, garlic and peperoncini and sauté for a few seconds. Add their strained liquid and cook for 1 minute. Add the white wine and continue to sauté briefly. Add the chopped parsley. Taste the sauce and add salt, if necessary; the clams are salty from the sea, so make sure to taste before adding extra salt.
When the spaghetti is still quite al dente (still resistant at the center of the spaghetti strand when you bite into it), reserve at least a cup of the spaghetti cooking water and drain the spaghetti in a colander. Immediately add the drained spaghetti, still very al dente, to the clams in the skillet. Add a little of the spaghetti’s cooking water and cook the pasta and clams together until it has thickened—just a few minutes should do the trick. Toss the spaghetti with tongs, lifting and dropping it into the little sauce that has formed in the skillet, making sure to coat the strands with the sauce. Pluck out the whole garlic pieces, turn off the heat, add a little more parsley if you like and serve immediately, dividing the clams among the pasta bowls.
Makes 4 generous portions.