Monday, 3 September 2012


Arrabbiata and Other Tomato Pasta Sauce Basics

My Spaghetti all'Arrabbiata (but if you're a purist use Penne)

Years ago when I lived in Germany, I used to travel to Italy incessantly. When not heading down to bella Italia, we had Italia head up to us. This was an informative period for me. It was the time I learned how real pasta dishes ought to taste and how to make them. Mostly I learned it from my ex who lived in Italy at one time and who had various Italian friends coming and going, imparting their pasta know-how.  Out of all the things I learned to make in that period of my life, nothing has given me more mileage than the knowledge of how to prepare various pasta dishes.

So when you find yourself, as one often does, with nothing in the refrigerator, when you are tired from a long day of work, when you have impromptu guests coming over, or when you’re just lazy, you can count on penne all’arrabbiata or bucatini all’amatriciana just to name a couple, to save the day.

Arrabbiata means angry (fem.) in Italian because this sugo or sauce is made with hot chillies. I will focus on the arrabbiata sauce here because it is a good example of a basic tomato-based sugo.  This is a very easy dish but it’s the little things that make it magical. So here are a couple of tips to keep in mind if you want your pasta dish to taste like the real thing:

1.      Use only Italian passata, or canned pomodori pelati/peeled tomatoes. Passata di pomodoro refers to tomatoes that have been "passed" through a sieve to remove seeds and lumps. In this form, it is generally sold in bottles. It is uncooked and contains no additives. Do not make the mistake of using tomato paste or prepared tomato sauce. I know local is better, and then there’s the carbon footprint dilemma, and so on, but trust me and make an exception with the tomatoes. It really tastes infinitely better so look for the Made in Italy seal.

Pomodori pelati, passata, and peperoncini

2.      The best chillies to use are these little hot dried bird's eye chillies. If using chilli flakes, it would take quite a lot of them to bring in the heat. You can also use fresh bird eye chillies. The important thing to remember is that the chillies have to be red and very hot so it takes only a few to render a spicy sauce without altering the taste.
Fresh bird's eye chillies
Dried hot peperoncini

3.      Whatever the cooking time instructions are on the pasta box, take it out half a minute earlier because you will need to transfer the pasta to the sauce pan where the pasta will continue cooking.

Ingredients (2 portions):
  • 1 large garlic clove or 2 small cloves, chopped
  • Olive oil, 1tbsp
  • Pepperoncini – dried bird eye chillies (I use 2 or 3 as they pack in a lot of heat)
  • 2/3 of a bottle of tomato Passata or 1 can of pomodori pelati (skinned whole tomatoes)
  • 250 g Penne Rigate or Spaghetti (again, use an Italian brand like Barilla or De Cecco)

Making the Sugo all’Arrabbiata:

·         Heat up the olive oil in a skillet and then sauté the chopped garlic and crushed peperoncini for about half a minute

·         Pour in the tomato passsata or canned peeled tomatoes accompanied by about a half a cup of water. If using the whole peeled tomatoes let them cook for about 15 minutes first before mashing them down with a wooden spoon for a smooth texture.

·         Add salt to taste and let the sauce simmer on low heat for about 35 to 40 minutes so that it has had a chance to reduce and become thicker and more concentrated flavour.

·         Place the pasta in a large pot of boiling and well salted water. Remove the pasta from the pot just short of the recommended cooking time and transfer it to the pan where the sauce is cooking. Be sure not to drain the pasta completely as you need to bring with it some of the starchy water it has been cooking in (about 2-3 tbsp.)

·         Stir the pasta through the sauce making sure it’s covered well, about half and minute. This process will ensure the pasta and sauce are cooking and emulsifying together.
·         Take off the heat and transfer to plates. Garnish with grated Parmigiano Regiano, olive oil, chopped flat parsley, and then tuck into this hot little number.


As mentioned earlier, using this sauce as a base you can make a variety of other pasta dishes (just be sure to cut back on the chillies). For example, add 2 tbsps. of ricotta cheese towards the end of the cooking time of your tomato sauce. Alternatively, you can add some cream at the end for a creamy rose sauce. Or you can easily make one of my favorites, Spaghetti all’ Amatriciana by starting out the dish by frying up a handful of diced pancetta, guanciale (see Real Cheeky Carbonara blog post)  or double smoked bacon, then continuing in the same way as above with the garlic and tomato passata.

Farfalle or bow-tie pasta with tomato ricotta sauce

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