Many of the most loved traditional dishes come from the simplest of backgrounds. This dish, Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino is one of those dishes.
It is as simple a pasta dish as you can get, while still calling it cooking (tossing pasta in butter just doesn’t quite count). However, don’t think that means it is short on flavor or satisfaction!
The Origins of This Pasta Dish
Telling an origin story for a sauce this simple feels a little silly, but it does in fact have a recognized birthplace, Napoli (or Naples). Napoli is a Southern Italian city with a great deal of pride about their food and is the source of many of our favorite dishes (for example, pizza).
What does aglio e olio mean?
“Aglio e olio” simply translates to garlic and oil. Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino, which translates to spaghetti with garlic, oil, and chili pepper, is one of most popular pasta dish in Italy, and around the world.
By taking very simple ingredients and combining them in a straightforward way the Neapolitans created a dish that doesn’t require much cost but delivers a ton of flavor.
This is important because Napoli has struggled economically at various points throughout its history. However, good and simple foods are some of the things that they have always had in abundance, and this has made it a city that you should not miss if you love Italian food. Their ability to make something delicious out of very little is hard to compare.
When the Sum is Greater Than the Parts
So, three ingredients shouldn’t be all that is needed for a delicious sauce, right? In this case, wrong. The combination of good olive oil, garlic, and dried peperoncini (red chili) is all you need, though there are a few things to keep in mind.
How long should you cook the garlic in Alio e Olio sauce?
If you end up overcooking the garlic you will end up with a lot of bitter flavors, and in a sauce this simple that’s a problem. As soon as the garlic starts to turn golden brown you need to be paying close attention. Once it’s dark brown it is usually too late.
Some people like the bitter burnt garlic flavor, just like some people like heavily hopped IPA beers, but most do not. Also, the amount of garlic is up to you, though traditionally only a few cloves are used, and they are removed once they start browning.
This lends the oil a light garlicky flavor that stands as a counterpoint to the heat of the chilis.
What Chilis to use in Aglio e Olio?
The peperoncini are the other main ingredient and can be found in most households as dried red pepper flakes. These can work, though ideally you’ll find whole dried chilis to work with.
The extra flavor that comes from the skin of the chili adds a nice bit of complexity to this dish.
In Napoli, you can often find chilis dried and woven into wreaths, much like garlic can be, and you snap off the ones you need as you cook throughout the year.
Variations on a Theme
- No chili: The simplest variation of this dish comes from just omitting one of the ingredients, the peperoncini, to make Spaghetti Aglio e Olio. This leaves you with a very simple garlic scented oil to toss with your spaghetti.
- When you do this, you may find that parsley or cheese is necessary to add a bit of complexity to what becomes an almost too simple dish. If you are not a fan of spicy flavors however it can still be a quick and satisfying option.
- Breadcrumbs: Another variation which is not traditional at all but is in line with the concept of this being a simple dish to make using ingredients from your pantry, is the addition of breadcrumbs when you toss the pasta and oil. In this case breadcrumbs are toasted and then tossed with the dish to give a bit of nutty flavor and more texture.
- Other variations: Other additions are possible (cherry tomatoes, anchovy filets, etc) but once you go down that path you aren’t making Aglio Olio e Peperoncino.
Instead you are making a dish that is just inspired by it. This is okay but is something to keep in mind if you are aiming for authenticity.
Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino is a dish where the simplicity is a large part of the appeal and there really isn’t a need to try and make it fancy, just save the effort and enjoy it.
This is a very simple dish with a bit of heat so light fruity white wines like Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc are great choices. Falanghina is a Campanian white wine varietal that is a perfect match if you can find it, as many of the simple Neapolitan dishes tend to go best with their local wines.
Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino
It is a dish where the simplicity is a large part of the appeal and there really isn’t a need to try and make it fancy, just save the effort and enjoy it.
- 8 tablespoons olive oil (extra virgin)
- 3 garlic cloves (slightly crushed, or minced if you are going to leave in the sauce for extra flavor)
- ½-1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes (to your preference; or ½-1 fresh chili, seeded and chopped. <a href=”https://www.nonnabox.com/calabrian-chili/”>Calabrian chili</a> is best.)
- 500 g spaghetti (dry is the norm, can be done with <a href=”https://www.nonnabox.com/homemade-fresh-pasta-recipe/”>fresh pasta</a> but adjust timelines accordingly)
- 1 tablespoon parsley (chopped)
- 1 pinch Salt
- Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat and add the garlic and chili once it is glistening slightly.
- Start a pot of salted boiling water for the pasta.
- Start the pasta and cook until al dente.
- Remove garlic cloves once they begin to brown (or leave in if you like the extra punch of flavor).
- Stir in chopped parsley and remove from heat.
- Drain the pasta, add to frying pan, and toss with the sauce until coated evenly.
- Transfer to a serving dish and serve immediately.
- Sprinkle with additional parsley (if desired) and enjoy!
Traditional recipes do not call for adding any cheese, though many people today add grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano as a finishing touch.