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The Many Ways to Cook Spaghetti with Garlic and Oil

By on Tuesday, April 9th, 2024 at 5:34 pm | 1,078 views

Pasta with garlic and oil, known as aglio e olio

Spaghetti with garlic and oil — and in this case, black pepper


Spaghetti with garlic and oil, otherwise known in Italian as spaghetti aglio e olio, originated in Naples. It is a simple pasta dish made from inexpensive ingredients, and that affordability has meant variations of the dish have since spread across Italy.

Making Spaghetti aglio e olio is easy enough. Heat the oil in a pan with several cloves of chopped garlic. Cook the pasta al dente, and then toss in the hot oil before serving. Live on the wild side and top with black pepper or parmigiana cheese. It’s a basic pasta recipe, but one that spawned numerous variations.

There is a version of the dish by Ippolito Cavalcanti in his 1837 Cucina Teorico-pratica (Theoretical-Practical Cuisine). This is the same book where we first see a version of spaghetti and tomato sauce. He calls for cooking vermicelli – any long, string-shaped pasta – with garlic, oil, and salted anchovies. The anchovies are cooked until they melt into the sauce.

In Calabria, another variation on the dish includes mixing in roasted breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs are first toasted in oil and then mixed in with the dish before serving, or sprinkled on top of the pasta, adding both texture and calories. In Calabria, poverty truly dominated the cuisine. Turning stale bread into breadcrumbs ensured nothing ever went to waste, which is why many recipes from the region include adding breadcrumbs to sauces and pasta. It’s not unique to Calabria, with dishes like like Sicilian-style pasta con le Sarde, but Calabria the kind of poverty where adults would sometimes skip eating for a day. That’s why simple dishes like pasta with garlic and oil served as a basic starting point with many variations. The breadcrumbs added volume, but also variety.

Perhaps the best known derivative dish is spaghetti alle vongole, or linguine alle vongole in Rome, better known in America as spaghetti with clams. In the most basic version of the dish, the clams are cooked in oil and garlic, before the pasta is tossed in. For more complex variations, recipes include acid from white wine or lemon, but spaghetti aglio e olio has long been considered the poor man’s version of the dish. Another variation of spaghetti alle vongole strays farther from the garlic and oil with the addition of tomatoes, but the recipe is more recent. Tomatoes are often included in a Venetian version that uses local lagoon clams.

In Rome and Lazio, spicy crushed red pepper is added to aglio e olio. Katie Parla notes in Tasting Rome, that the dish is known as pasta dei cornuti, a cuckold’s pasta. The reason for the name is the simplicity. Since cooking it requires little time, it’s easy to whip up without at the last minute – just the sort of dish a wife would make for her husband if she had spent the day with her lover.

The mythology assumes wives otherwise spend their days cooking elaborate dinners. Parla’s recipe adds roasted tomatoes to the dish, but she acknowledges this is not an ordinary component. After all, who would have time for an affair if they spent the day roasting tomatoes?

Neapolitans also make pasta dei cornuti too, but the recipe there is a slightly different dish, and not based on spaghetti aglio e olio. Instead, Neapolitan-style cuckold pasta is actually just a version of the original Alfredo sauce – butter and cheese, perhaps with a little black pepper. Italian pasta Alfredo does not resemble the Americanized version made with cream and milk, but instead is a play on pasta al doppio burro, meaning double butter pasta. (Cavalcanti also includes a version of this in his recipe collection). It’s a simple dish, and for the same reason, is known as the cuckold’s spaghetti. The term in this instance though is more likely meaning that the recipe is boring.

Pellegrino Artusi offers a variation in his La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene, (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) he calls Spaghetti Alla Rustica, although this version includes some tomatoes. The garlic is still the star here, but he warns that overcooking garlic can cause people to dislike it. He also provides a bit of a history lesson. According to Artusi, ancient Romans thought garlic was for the lowest class peasants and that during the reign of Alfonso, King of Castile, showing up to court with garlic on the breath could have the person punished.

Garlic was still seen as a peasant flavor, a poor-person’s food, when the Italian diaspora began in the 19th century. It almost certainly arrived in the United States with those immigrants who primarily were among the poorest Italians, but it was also the kind of dish that people simply cooked at home. Only in the post-war years did it begin to enter into the mainstream American cuisine.

Like many Italian pasta dishes, non-Italian Americans were introduced to spaghetti with oil and garlic in the late 1950s and 1960s. In some instances, the Italian terms, aglio e olio are used, but just as often the dish is simply referred to as spaghetti with garlic and oil. Contextually, the Italian name is used when the writer or the ad – the dish is frequently listed in lists of dishes in restaurant ads – is trying to convey a sense of exoticism or authenticity.

One recipe from 1957 in the Corvallis Gazette-Times includes dried parsley flakes. Another from 1968, in The News, a Maryland paper, suggests the pasta be al dente – common today, but less so in the United States mid century. Primarily these dishes all call for spaghetti, and combine several cloves of garlic, olive oil, black pepper, and parmigiana cheese.

People of northern European ancestry may not have tasted garlic in the early 20th century, and the flavor would have been off putting, especially in a dish designed to highlight it. But by the 1950s, pizzerias were beginning to become popular far beyond the immigrant communities, and with that, the flavor of garlic was introduced to them. As Americans overall became more comfortable with garlic, they also became more open to this exotic southern Italian dish.

Spaghetti with garlic and oil today is still as fast and easy as it ever was, making it an ideal weeknight meal. Adding parmigiana cheese, black pepper, and crushed red pepper can spice things up. While it’s less likely to appear on restaurant menus, the recipe serves as a base for many more popular dishes today, and most restaurants can accommodate requests.