One day, or so the story goes, a group of tourists asked an elderly priest in Naples which churches were really worth visiting. The priest replied, “There are many churches, but have you tried the spaghetti with clams?”
Even a man of God recognizes the sacred bond established between two people sharing a plate of spaghetti with clams in a Neapolitan trattoria.
So we consider it our moral duty to advise you how to order your spaghetti with clams and where to eat it.
Even in Roman times, clams were beloved by southerners. They were cultivated in the bay opposite Castel dell’Ovo, a seaside castle that stands on the ruins of the first-century-B.C. Roman villa of Licinius Lucullus. Allegedly, the clams were small and blackish, but still delicious.
When served with spaghetti, the clams should not be shelled (except maybe one or two of the bivalves). To those who fear getting their fingers dirty or are disgusted by the thought of putting the clamshells into their mouths, we say that you’re missing out on one of life’s great pleasures: that smallest of movements in the mouth that allows you to detach the seafood from its shell and savor the flavor of the sauce in which it is cooked.
Clams are usually drowned in a fresh tomato sauce, which should be seasoned with plenty of oil, garlic, parsley and pepper. We call this spaghetti with red clam sauce.
According to many Neapolitans, however, clams should be eaten without tomatoes, fried only in garlic, oil and parsley, which is called spaghetti with white clam sauce. We would say that, as always, the compromise is the best solution: squash two piennolo cherry tomatoes in the oil and the sauce takes on a pale pink color, which we call spaghetti with pink clam sauce.
Naturally, as the same suggests, this dish is made with spaghetti. But vermicelli, a pasta slightly thicker than spaghetti, or linguine are also used. We prefer the latter because linguine is flat where spaghetti is round, which means that more of the pasta comes in contact with the sauce, which in turn makes the taste more intense.
There are many Neapolitan restaurants that prepare an excellent spaghetti with clams. But when we crave this dish, we head to Pizzeria e Trattoria Vigliena, a restaurant outside of the city center and adjacent to the port. At lunch, the place is packed with workers from the docks and ship owners and workers from the recently built Marina Vigliena.
Only once the dress shirt came off was the spaghetti with clams served.
In the kitchen, mama Concetta prepares a miraculous spaghetti with clams (although her spaghetti with octopus, pasta and potatoes, and pasta and beans are equally famous). The restaurant is owned by Raffaele Esposito, Concetta’s son and the third generation of a family of chefs who founded this restaurant in the middle of the 20th century. We often find him at the pizza counter (even the pizza here is fantastic), while his wife, Susy, can be found behind the cash register. On his recommendation we order a pizza without toppings to use as dipping bread for our spaghetti with clams.
The best part about eating here is that our spaghetti with clams comes with a side of comedy. The dining room is manned by two fantastic waiters we call Laurel (Giosuè) & Hardy (Vincenzo).
Giosuè is playful with all the customers, trading banter in Italian and English – he learned the latter by singing American songs. But there’s a kindness there too: he’s particularly attentive towards children and the elderly. On our most recent visit, he announced to everyone who came into the restaurant that a group of children in one corner were the guests of honor.
Vincenzo is more deadpan. On the same visit, a man sitting at the table next to us exclaimed, “I have a big meeting this afternoon, I can’t risk getting my shirt dirty.” Upon hearing this, Vincenzo disappeared and returned, wordlessly handing the man a big paper bag. “Take it off,” he said after a beat. Only once the dress shirt came off was the spaghetti with clams served.