My poor friends, they have to listen to me rattle on endlessly about the simplicity of Italian food, about not being afraid to strip down Italian recipes until there are only 3 or 4 ingredients left, and how when you have recipes this spare, it only takes swapping in one ingredient for another to transform one into a whole different dish.
It turns out even I was blind to how true this was, as I cooked penne all’arrabbiata exactly how I had learned it from an Italian cookbook for years, even though I thought it tasted different from the dish when I had eaten it in Rome, and frankly, I didn’t care for my own version as much.
I did a little research to figure out why, but to my surprise, there were many, many varying recipes out there, in both English and Italian. One thing they all had in common, which I knew already: it’s spicy. “Arrabbiata” means angry, and the dish is at its best when it renders you with a sort of irate look: red in the face, sweating, desperate for a sip of wine. Beyond that, though, there were those that recommended chopped pancetta, dried mushrooms, fresh basil—all things I had never eaten in a dish of arrabbiata. Lots recommended garlic, which I was intrigued by—my version used onion, and I make garlic-based tomato sauce all the time; wouldn’t I have noticed a resemblance to arrabbiata? Another thing I knew: chopped fresh parsley scattered generously over the top before serving was a must—in this context, it has a refreshing quality that provides relief from all the heat. But several recipes also called for grated cheese, including Mario Batali’s, which weirdly uses neither garlic nor onions, just some cheese at the end. I didn’t ever remember cheese in my arrabbiata, but I was starting to question my own memory, and I am usually quite happy with anything Mr. Batali wants to serve me, so this made me doubt myself even more.
There was nothing left to do but play around in the kitchen. I gave it a go last week with garlic. When the moment of truth arrived, I scattered the chopped parsley over my bowl and tasted it. There it was, the flavor I remembered, and it made perfect sense. Yes, it’s essentially the sauce I always make, only with lots of chile flakes and fresh parsley instead of fresh basil at the end. But what a difference. In the interest of open mindedness, I took a bite sprinkled with some cheese. NO. Wrong. There is no cheese in arrabbiata, I will stake my reputation on it. It could very well be that “arrabbiata” could refer to any spicy sauce, with any variation you want. But I want it the Roman way—spicy, flecked with parsley, and, it turns out, loaded with garlic.
Saute a whole lot of chile flakes and several smashed cloves of garlic in generous olive oil (don’t brown the garlic). Add 1 quart homemade tomato puree or a large can of whole tomatoes in their juice (smash them down with a potato masher and/or a pair of scissors). Simmer gently until it thickens up nicely, about 20 minutes. Taste and add salt as needed. Serve over penne, scattered with chopped fresh parsley.